How to Use an Effective Alternative to Time-Out

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I use Time-Out with my kids: when they do something bad, I put them in their room. When I have a chance, I go and tell them what they did wrong so that they know and then I tell them to knock it off. Then they can come back. Basically, it used to work, and now it doesn’t. I have my 11-year-old in her room practically all the time now. No idea what to change or do differently. -Austin, Lexington, Kentucky

Dear Austin,

The good news is that what you are doing is accidentally reinforcing your kids’ negative behavior, so your kids’ increase in the use of negative behaviors is normal and predictable. Congratulations, your kids are  normal.

The bad news is that you now must either (A) dig your way out of this hole that you made for yourself, or (B) you have to put your kids up for adoption. Let’s go with choice A.

As they say, the first thing you need to do to get out of a hole is to stop digging. In this case, putting the shovel down involves no longer using Time-Out. Here’s why:

First, Time-Out involves the adult rejecting the kids by telling them that they must be imprisoned in their rooms for an arbitrarily determined period of time. This takes undue control away from kids and just makes them more resolved to get it back. How do they get it back? By using worse behaviors!

Second, once the kid has stewed in his own anger juices for a good long while, Time-Out involves the adult giving lots of attention to the kid by counseling the kid to not do the thing he was doing. Giving attention to a negative attention-seeking behavior reinforces that negative behavior.

Instead of using Time-Out, you should simply set a limit about the behaviors that you allow in your home, and allow your kids to be around the family for as many seconds as they can be positive, pleasant people who don’t cause problems. You can still have an area where each kid can go think about how to act when they put themselves back into the home’s general population, but they can come back as soon as they can be positive and pleasant! When they come back, we give no more attention than we would if they walked into the room in any other context. Here’s how I might do this with your family:

Kid: And that is how you properly beat the dog with a stick. He’ll probably be fine.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, geez. There is a spot for you in the laundry room. Come back the second you are able to follow our house rules. We want you to stay and be with us for as many seconds as you can be pleasant.

Kid walks to the laundry room. He immediately comes out.

Kid: I will sue you! I will sue ALL OF YOU!!

Kid Whisperer: Oh geez. There’s a spot for you in the laundry room. Come back when you can be nice. We want to hang out with you.

Kid goes to the laundry room for twenty minutes, then comes back after lots of crying and pouting. Kid Whisperer fights the urge to talk with him or lecture him about his behavior.

Of course, I make sure that whatever room they go to is safe. Later, there will be consequences for the dog abuse and threats of child litigation. They will be serious. But for now, I have calmly set limits that show, not tell, the kids that they are allowed to be with the civilized world as long as they are being pleasant. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone learned that lesson at a young age?