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Time Out vs. Time In: Which is Better?

Everyone knows about time-outs, but time-ins, which involve loving physical contact, can be just as effective.
A young girl gives her mother a kiss as they sit on a park bench.

Most parenting experts agree that physical punishments are not effective in deterring misbehavior in children. Instead, they encourage a variety of teaching-oriented techniques, such as time-outs to help children learn self-regulation and appropriate behavior. But recently, time-outs have come under attack as some question whether or not it can undermine a child’s self-esteem. Instead, they recommend time-in, an intervention that involves pulling children close for positive interaction.

The Time-Out

Time-out is an effective tool in stopping misconduct and teaching appropriate behavior, if done correctly. Time-out isn’t like the dunce chair or forcing a child to stand in a corner, as was done years ago. Discipline is about teaching, and done correctly, time-out can teach children self-regulation and alternative behavior that doesn’t get them in trouble.

To do time-out correctly, the child needs to sit quietly for one minute for each year of age up to five years. Any longer than five minutes, and you’re asking for more quiet time than a child can give and he’ll likely forget why he’s in time-out. When time-out is done, go to the child, get down eye-to-eye and ask him why was in time-out and what he can do differently next time to avoid getting in trouble. Depending on the age of your child, he may need help with this. End time-out with a hug and an “I love you.”

Although time-out is an effective tool in your discipline arsenal, it shouldn’t be used for all behavior problems or all children. For example, if you’ve told your daughter to pick up her toys and she isn’t doing it, time-out isn’t the appropriate intervention because it continues to allow her to not pick up her toys. Many children would prefer time-out to cleaning up.

Also, there are some children who may experience time-out as rejection, in which case, time-in may be a better alternative.

The Time-In

Time-in is a form of pull-close parenting in which you hold or have physical contact with the child. Some experts describe time-in as catching a child being good and reinforcing the behavior with positive interaction. However, other experts also recommend time-in for children who are experiencing overwhelming emotions that are causing them to act out.

Foster care and adopted children, as well as children who experience separation anxiety or low self-esteem, will likely respond better to time-in, because time-out will feel like rejection of their personhood, and reinforce feelings of unworthiness. Time-in helps these children learn to manage strong feelings while also being comforted and supported, thereby regulating the behavior while boosting self-esteem.

Time-in with young children can involve holding and cuddling. Older children, or children who have difficulty with physical contact, might do better with a single arm hug, holding a hand, or just sitting close to you. Another option is to create a time-in corner that is warm and welcoming, with objects that comfort such as a stuffed animal, where the child can go to feel safe and pull himself back together.

Like time-out, for time-in to cause change, it needs to have a teaching component. Once the child is calm, you should ask about what happened and what can be done differently next time to avoid problems. Even though you’re already close, end time-in with an “I love you.”

Time-Out or Time-In -- Which is Better?

When it comes to parenting and discipline, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Even within a single family, one child might respond better to one technique while the other child might do better with an alternative technique. Whatever you choose, for discipline to work it must involve teaching and loving. The teaching part helps children learn what they can do instead of misbehaving or acting out (even if takes several interventions for them to change behavior) and the loving aspect lets them know that despite their misbehavior, they are valued and loved.

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