The idea of "time out" (as described in Time Out: What is it and how can you make it work for you?) goes against everything I believe in as a mother and as a therapist.
In fact, the concept of "time out" exasperates me. It sounds more like a program designed for laboratory mice than one that is healthy for children and parents.
Why am I so offended by Time Out? Because it denies context. The program described in that article doesn't mention that children behave in a context-that of the family-- and that they absorb its atmosphere.
A child doesn't behave in a vacuum. He is a reflection of his environment, and especially of his parents. As a mother, and as a therapist, I know too well that my moods and emotional states of mind are immediately reflected by my children, especially when they are younger. The younger the child, the stronger the reflection of his mother's emotions.
Our children are our barometers and we should thank them for showing us, through their behaviors, what is wrong or going well with us. This does not mean that we should hold parents responsible for every behavior of their child. It does mean that each child in a family may react differently to the same situation. A child with an aggressive or stormy temperament may react to a situation with outbursts of rage, and another child may discuss his problem or will not react in the same situation. It therefore, makes more sense to analyze a particular situation before deciding what the reaction to a a behavior should be.
We Can Learn From A Child's Behavior
Since observing a child's behavior can give us insight into ourselves and our children, we do not need to recoil in horror from behavior such as tantrums. Temper tantrums are well doumented in psychology as a phase in the child's development, and not as a bad behavior which has to be moodified. Of course a child needs limits and rules, but they have to come from a parent's emotional stability and understanding of firmness -- not from a cold, rigid and blind law applied to all children. A child calms down very quickly when the environment allows it.
If a child refuses to go to kindergarten each morning, it may be that the child is having difficulty coping in school. It might also be, however, that the child is expressing his mother's difficulty in parting from him and letting him become more independent.
A child who hits his younger brother, is often expressing feelings of jealousy and competition. Instead of reacting with harsh punishments or methods of discipline such as time out, parents can try to understand the child's jealousy and take more time in talking with the child and looking more at the interaction between him and his sibling. In this way, they may realize that there are aspects of the family relationship that bear more understanding. It may turn out the the sibling who is getting hit, is manipulationg his brother and assuming from experience that the parents will take his side.
The decision not to react immediately with punishment or time out needs much more thinking and effort from parents. It is not easy to respond to a child's difficult behavior by controling our emotional reactions, and being ready to look for one's own possible mistakes. In the long run, however, this method of confronting a problem is more worthwhile.
The book The Drama of Being a Child, by psychoanalyst Alice Miller, shows us why NOT to use the Time Out program. Alice Miller documents the danger we risk in losing our true selves during our childhoods in order to become 'good' children who behave nicely in order not to lose Mommy or Daddy's love. A child should not feel that any one behavior will automatically result in a withdrawal of that love.
Consider Family Context
Instead of using time out, a parent can consider if the child's behavior is a message that shows them something about the child or about what is happening in the family. Instaead of judging a behavior as good or bad, parents can consider what that behavior tells them about their child. Children, like adults, have depth and a desire to grow, and if we just react to their actions without considering the reasons behind them, we hinder their ability to develop as human beings.
While it is natural to be concerned about a child's difficult behaviors, parents should not loose site of their long term goals for their children. In choosing an appropirate method of child discipline, parent need to remember that an important goal of parenting is to raise children that have the qualitites of love, acceptance, consideration, respect, tolerance, self-esteem, and compassion.
Before we expect our children to cool off, we need to be able to cool off ourselves. Perhaps as parents we need a time out - before we inflict punishment on our kids.
The main message to our children should be:
"Do not do to others what you don't want others to do to you."