First, allow me to preface this post by saying that I do not care how you choose to parent your child. I am a single working mother, and frankly do not have time to judge you for your actions. This post is merely about my thoughts on a popular parenting technique.
The naughty step and other forms of “time out” seem to have become increasingly popular in recent years, with TV shows like Supernanny seeming to increase the popularity of this approach.
I understand why this method is popular – the parent gets a break, the child has to calm down, whatever heightened emotions were there before have a chance to dissipate… but I don’t think it’s the right way to resolve a problem.
Toddlers are going through massive changes within themselves, learning hundreds of new things every day; their brains are expanding at an amazing rate, and this is a lot for them to cope with. Alongside this, they often don’t have the ability to communicate what’s wrong with them. They don’t shout and scream over nothing; they do it because they are having big emotions they’re not capable of containing or dealing with.
In her book ToddlerCalm, parenting author Sarah Ockwell-Smith likens toddlers’ brains to bungalows: a single storey building with enough rooms to function – kitchen, bathroom, bedroom etc – but no spare space. As we grow into adults, we develop a “first floor” above our bungalows, allowing space for things like contemplation, calmness and relaxation. Say you’re cooking something, and you’re about as good a cook as me, so you burn it. The smoke will be stifling in an enclosed space. A toddler’s emotions are like smoke in their bungalow – there’s not much space for them to disperse, so they have to open a metaphorical window and release some of that smoke/emotion. They’re not deliberately being difficult, no matter how inconvenient or irritating the timing of their outburst. I’ve probably not explained that terribly well, and Ockwell-Smith definitely makes things a lot more clear in her explanation. To me, when S is on the floor and wailing about something, that’s not behaviour to be punished but rather behaviour to be understood. If I put her on the naughty step or in time out when she’s crying, what am I saying to her? I believe that by punishing such behaviour I am sending a message along the lines of “your feelings are not important; I don’t care if you’re having a hard time; my love and compassion for you are dependent on your being happy and quiet.”
Furthermore, research tends to show that punishments such as this work only in the short term; parent and child calm down, whatever the problem was is resolved by the removal of the child. Long term though, these punishments do not teach a child right from wrong, or the reason why they shouldn’t do something. A child sent into timeout is not likely to spend their time there thinking about what they’ve done and why they shouldn’t do it again; they’re more likely to spend their time thinking “I feel rubbish and now I’m sitting here alone!” They learn a Pavlovian, behaviourist response: if I do this, I get put in timeout. It’s simple cause and effect, rather than genuinely resolving the reasons for whatever behaviour got them put there.
Parenting author Alfie Kohn has stated that both spanking and time outs are punitive measures, and the only difference between them is whether we punish the child by physical or emotional means. He goes on to say:
If we were forced to choose one over the other, then, sure, time-outs are preferable to spankings. For that matter, spanking kids is preferable to shooting them, but that’s not much of an argument for spanking.
The use of time out (where the child is removed from contact with the parent or carer) with children under three years is inappropriate. The use of time out with children over three years needs to be carefully considered in relation to the individual child’s experience and needs.
The distinction between children above and below the age of three years is important: below the age of three years, a child’s brain is not even capable of understanding consequence. The neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for critical and rational thought, does not begin to develop properly until around 3 or 4. Social development like empathy and self awareness do not develop until a child is around school age. When you sit a toddler on a naughty step, it’s about the same as tapping a puppy on the nose when it tries to bite you. You don’t teach the puppy, “wow, I might hurt my master if I bite him” – you teach him “if I bite, I get a tap on the nose.”
Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and has written a fantastic article entitled The Disadvantages of Time Out. In it, she says:
Beneath the surface, time-out is an authoritarian approach and, as such, can work only among children trained to comply with the power and authority of adults.
To me, the difference between using the naughty step or not, is down to a choice between long term and short term parenting. Short term, yes, you want your child to not do whatever it was they were doing – and the naughty step can work for that. Long term though, parenting isn’t about what the child is doing right now but what we want them to be doing in five, ten, twenty years from now. We want to teach them right from wrong, and we want them to become happy, well-functioning individuals. I do not believe that time out and the naughty step are the right way to achieve those things.
For more on this sort of thing, please read this guest post by Jane Evans, a parenting specialist.