Put Toys, not Kids, in Timeout

This blog is dedicated to positive ways to deal with children. After reading books in the “Positive Discipline” series, I agree to reject its opposite, punitive discipline, where “blame, pain, or shame” are used to try to influence child behavior. This includes spanking and “timeouts,” when used punitively.

But positive discipline doesn’t mean never making decisions on behalf of your children. In fact, one book says (paraphrase) “75% of problems would go away if parents acted instead of lectured.” I think of a family I saw recently where a ~2 year old was trying to explore some nearby shrubbery and both of his parents, both towering, kept yelling and yelling and yelling at him to stop. If they really wanted him to stop, they would have scooped him up, away from the shrubbery, or, better yet, found an activity that he was allowed to do and satisfied his obvious curiosity.

It is perfectly acceptable in positive discipline to take a toy away from a child who is abusing it. I have done it several times–though I cannot say I have done it “often,” because it is quite effective. I can’t even think of a specific toy I have taken away. But a typical example goes like this: If my child is using a toy to hit another child, without any warnings whatsoever, I take the toy away, and tell the child, “It is my job to keep everyone safe. This toy is being used to hurt people. I have to put it away for a while. We can try again later.” The “try again later” line is key: You emphasize that you recognize that this is a temporary error on their part and they have the ability to behave better in the future. My son, 3, never gets upset over this. He understands it fully. I usually give the toy back within a few minutes–about the same time most parents put their child in timeout. And toys, unlike children, actually stay in timeout.

I used this also when my son was hitting his younger sister. I moved her away from him and told him he couldn’t be near her if he was hurting her. In less than one minute, he said, “How about I try playing with her again?” i.e., he used the same language I use with him when I take toys away. And I let them play together and he was respectful towards her!

My (limited) understanding of the history of “timeout,” is it was meant to be just that: A temporary timeout from intense activity so people could cool off and collect their minds. A “positive timeout” is used in Positive Discipline, in fact there is an entire book dedicated to it. Montessori describes this exact thing in one of her books, where a comfortable place is made for misbehaving children to go and collect themselves, while watching the fun that other children are having, which is enough to motivate them to play nicely, so they can join the fun. Yet somehow people took this “timeout” approach as apparently a much welcomed alternative to spanking and use it punitively.

Adults, arguably more so than children, need this type of positive timeout. Of all of the children who got put into timeout after becoming swelled with anger and acting out because of it, how many adults have done something they regret, such as hitting a child, after becoming overwhelmed with frustration and anger? If asked, do you think these adults would want punishment or understanding for their actions? Would they maybe want some tools of how to deal with it so they don’t do it again? If there is one tool that you should have always in your back pocket to apply to any situation that may arise, I would recommend the parent positive timeout. Have a timer ready or just a place you can go to collect your thoughts if you need it. Almost every situation can be handled well–creatively and positively–if adults can collect their emotions.

Less blame, less pain, less shame. I was going to put a picture of a child in timeout in this post, but they simply break my heart. It is more than physical pain: It is public humiliation. Instead: More guidance, more training, more effective discipline.


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