Time-outs that really work

I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who I've been disciplining with time-outs. What are the guidelines for using this form of discipline correctly?

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If you have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who is able to accept time-outs as discipline, then you have an advanced child. Most children under three do not understand why they have been put on a chair. They simply know that they have been taken away from an activity, but they are not neurologically mature enough to make the connection between the incorrect behavior and the consequence. It appears to them more like an unwelcome surprise than a disciplinary technique.

Time out is generally most useful when a child is between three and four. At that age, there is a real connection between the "punishment" and the "crime." If you say to a child, "I told you not to push your sister down and you did, so now you're sitting over here in this chair while she gets to watch TV in the living room," a child of three will understand. This understanding is extremely difficult for children under three, who have not yet developed a sense of cause and effect.

I find that this disciplinary technique works for a full year, until the child is four, or nearly four. At that time, a child's sense of time has improved greatly. She knows that she will not be on the chair for very long, or that all she has to do is say "sorry" or "I won't do it again" to have the punishment ended.

When your child starts offering to sit on a chair as discipline, or smirks the entire time, then you know it is time to move on. In school, once a child is four, we use conflict resolution as discipline. In other words, the two children get together and talk it out. Now, the perpetrator would much prefer to sit on a chair because it is embarrassing to talk to the "victim." With the help of a teacher, the two children talk about how it felt to get hurt, and discuss appropriate solutions.

In my classroom, saying "sorry" is not enough. The children are encouraged to create longer apologies. In the beginning, the teacher may have to offer suggestions, such as "I really didn't mean to hurt you and I won't do it again." But eventually the children learn to handle their own disagreements. Sometimes the teacher intervenes with a consequence: If a child has grabbed a toy, for example, than she has to give it back. But generally, having to talk about the infraction in front of all the other children is discipline enough.

At home, this technique generally works between two children, but not between a parent and child. Often, swifter discipline is needed. I recommend the taking away of immediate privileges. "You threw your cup on the floor on purpose—you won't get any dessert," is an example of immediate discipline. Or, "If you don't help clean your room, you won't get to watch TV."

The message here is that all actions have consequences. And it is probably the most important thing you can teach your child. Good luck, and remember to match the disciplinary technique to the developmental age of your child.

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