Are Time-Outs Actually Harming Our Children?

Even the best-behaved children break rules or act out from time to time, whether at home or at school. It is a normal part of growing up. Punishment, which can be physical or verbal, is intended to make a child feel ashamed or embarrassed and therefore afraid to make the same infraction in the future.

Discipline, however, focuses on setting good examples using positive reinforcement rather than physical force. According to the Committee for Children (2004), the purpose of discipline is "to encourage moral, physical, and intellectual development and a sense of responsibility in children." It is intended to help children control their own behavior. Its goal is for children to make better choices simply because that is the right thing to do, not because they are afraid of being punished.

Time-Outs: A Good Alternative to Spanking?

Spanking was a common repercussion in past generations, but time-outs have become the discipline of choice among today's parents and teachers. Time-outs are even recommended by many pediatricians and child development experts. Placing a child in his or her bedroom, the back of the classroom, or some other area to "sit and think about" whatever wrongdoing occurred is something that most children have experienced.

A time-out is generally considered a better alternative to physical or verbal punishment, both of which can encourage violence to solve problems. As explained by Valya Telep, a child who has been spanked on the bottom or yelled at may believe that he or she has "paid" for the misbehavior; the child does not feel remorseful. It's believed that the poor behavior will most likely continue in the future because the child didn't really learn right from wrong. The child will also learn that physical punishments are "acceptable" and may attempt to hurt others in the future.

Excluding the child from other members of the family or the rest of the students in the classroom, though, is intended to encourage better conduct in the future—if you make better choices next time, you won't miss out on whatever fun activity is going on without you.

The Ugly Truth About Time-Outs

It sounds good in theory, but time-outs may have the same effect on children as other punishments. If a child misbehaves, the child may assume that once the time-out is over, he or she has paid for his wrongdoing and is free to carry on as if nothing happened.

This is not the only reason that some experts are now questioning this popular discipline technique. Isolating a child from peers or family—the primary goal of the time-out—teaches children that they will be isolated alone when they make mistakes or misbehave. This isolation is seen as rejection in the eyes of a child, especially young children who don't quite understand why they are sitting in the corner or placed in the back of the preschool classroom. This rejection can also imply that parents or teachers only care about the child when they are feeling his or her best and behaving as expected.

Studies have even found that repeated experiences can actually change the physical structure of the brain, reports TIME Magazine. Dr. Dan Siegel's brain imaging research is finding the rejection of using time-out as discipline—constantly making a child sit in his or her room or leave the classroom every time he or she misbehaves—looks similar to the brain activity that is seen when someone is experiencing physical pain.

In addition, the entire goal of time-outs may be a wash. Adults believe that giving a child time to sit in isolation is an opportunity to calm down and mentally go over the behavior that led to the time-out in the first place. Children, however, often spend this time getting angry because their caregiver is being "unfair." They concentrate on this anger rather than reflecting on their own behavior. For other kids, time-outs are simply temporary—they know that once their five or 10 minutes alone is up, they can go right back to whatever it was they were doing beforehand.

Healthier Discipline Alternatives

Rather than automatically sending a child to time-out for misbehaving, try some of the following alternatives.

Reward good behavior.

Offering small goodies, such as stickers, for following directions or behaving appropriately can teach children that doing the right thing comes with rewards. Some parents and teachers prefer to use sticker charts, allowing a child to accumulate several stickers before receiving a small prize or treat.

Loss of privileges.

Taking something away from a child for a set period of time is another time-out alternative. If playing video games after school is a favorite pastime, tell the child that he or she can't do so because of the poor behavior on the ride home from school.

Take a break.

Meditation and deep breathing really can work wonders. Sit down with the child, quietly, and take a mental break together. After a few minutes of calming silence, discuss what happened and why. Talk about alternative behaviors.

Read a book together.

Reading with your child is a positive interaction in itself. Reading a storybook about characters who are making bad choices can help the child see and understand why those choices were a mistake. For example, The Berenstain Bears franchise of books generally deal with moral or safety lessons.

Although it can be tough to remember in times of frustration, adults should try to remain calm when disciplining children. In most cases, behaving calmly and rationally is much more effective than yelling.