John Rosemond: Time for a timeout

For several reasons, I am not a fan of parenting magazines. First, they reinforce the impression that child-rearing is a very complicated affair, requiring consulting with “experts” on a regular basis (and yes, I am fully aware of the irony of that statement). Second, with every issue, said publications raise the Good Mommy Bar by giving women (their nearly exclusive consumers) more things to think about and more things to do. Third, they often render conflicting information and advice. Fourth, the advice they dispense is often just downright bad.

Regarding the latter, a case in point: An article in the April 2017, issue of Parents magazine purporting to tell parents how to properly use timeout. To put my remarks in perspective, I was one of the primary popularizers of timeout. During the early years of this syndicated column (1976 - 1990, roughly), I often recommended it and even hold the dubious distinction of coming up with the “one minute of timeout for every year of a child’s age” formula.

Much to my chagrin, however, I eventually concluded that timeout worked only with children who were already well-behaved – obedient, respectful, responsible, and so on. Said children only need occasional and relatively minor “adjustments,” which can include timeout. In and of itself, however, timeout is simply too weak a consequence to have significant impact on a child who does not fit that description – assuming that said child would even cooperate in sitting still for several minutes without being physically restrained (more on that shortly).

Using psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians as its expert sources, Parents makes the same recommendations I was making some 35 years ago – with one exception. Parents cites a study done by researchers at Oklahoma State University that found that the need for timeout is reduced if parents issue warnings, as in, “Billy, if you do that again, I’m going to put you in timeout.” I don’t doubt that, but it’s misleading. The goal of any disciplinary consequence is the elimination of misbehavior. At best, warnings result in nothing more than a temporary abatement (which is what the study measured) and usually make matters worse over time.

For the most part, the “New and Improved TimeOut Technique” that Parents magazine describes echoes my pro-timeout columns from the 1980s, before I concluded that when it came to “difficult” children, timeout was akin to trying to stop a charging elephant with a flyswatter. By adding warnings into the mix, however, “New and Improved” becomes “Even Worse Than Before.”

But by far the article’s most absurd recommendations are highlighted in a sidebar titled “What If My Child Refuses to Go to Timeout?” In that event, parents are advised to negotiate (“If you don’t go to timeout, then you lose television for the rest of the day”), negotiate even harder (“If you go to timeout now and sit quietly, I will reduce your time from three minutes to two”), or put themselves in timeout. Yes, if your child refuses to go to timeout, go to your own room, saying something along the lines of “I’m not going to talk to you for three minutes because you hit your brother.”

Don’t laugh. Some parents who read said article are going to do exactly that and wind up feeling even more wracked with frustration and guilt. Like I said: “Even Worse Than Before.”

Family psychologist John Rosemond: