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The Time Out Myth

Updated on September 7, 2011


The origin of the behavior modification technique we know as “Time Out” was created by a psychologist named Arthur Staats. Time out is what psychologists call a behavior modification technique. This widely used technique has replaced spanking in many areas of American culture. The general idea of time out is that a child is removed from a room/location where they were doing something deemed inappropriate (Staats, 1955). The child is then placed in isolation for a designated period of time.

An example of “time out” would be a child pushing another child at a birthday party. The parent then removes the child from the room where the party is happening for set amount of time with the understanding that appropriate behavior is required for the child to reenter the party.

In theory a child who is correctly placed on time out should change his or her behavior. However, few people understood the premise behind “time out” enough to execute it effectively. Children left in time out too long will get use to being in time out at which point the experience no longer holds any behavior modifying properties. Another issue with “time out” is that it can not be use everywhere. If a child is being ignored by people and that child acts out, and subsequently is removed, then the child was not taken from a positive experience to a negative experience but rather the child was moved from one negative experience to the another negative expereince. Time out only works if it removes the child from an activity they want to do.

The overuse of time out has sparked controversy between psychologists. Many psychologists and doctors believe that spanking a child causes violent behavior in children. While other psychologists believe that not spanking a child teaches a child that there are no real consequences for their actions.


It is my firm belief that you will find two types of people in Prisons today;

  1. People whose parents overindulged them to the point of the child not learning personal worth or responsibility.
  2. People who were abused mentally, physically, sexually or just plain neglected by their parents.

Most parents fall into the middle. We have moments were we neglect to notice important signals from our children, moments where we overindulge, and moments where we miss crucial teaching situations. Unlike the parents of the 1950’s who worked from 9 to 5 and mom stayed home, parents of today deal with a tough 24 hour world demanding 24 hour attention.

Children are latch key, raised by single parents, raised by grandparents, and sitting at the boys and girls club until close. Some of these parents are doing the best they can. Others are so focused on their own lives that they do not take the time to properly parent. Children act out when they feel neglected, emotionally hurt, and scared.

Young children are affected by hunger, illness, confinement, and being tired. We all remember road trips either as children or dealing with our own children. Long car rides do not give kids an outlet for their energy. By making a few stops at parks or play lands a car trip can be a lot more enjoyable for children and adults.

Often child behavior is a precursor to illness. When a child has an earache or other mild pain they will get cranky. If a parent misses the signals of illness a child may be punished when they should be taken to the doctor. The first step is knowing your child and the child’s normal behavior.


Small children under the age of two do not have the thought process for a punishment to be effective. Under the age of two children do not have the verbal communication skills needed for you to explain something in detail. It is for this reason that parents often over use the word “NO”. This is absolutely the wrong way to handle a child. ‘NO” is the response to a question. It is not a command. It is interesting to note that most parents use a wider vocabulary with their dogs than they do with their children under two.

Commands are: “Don’t touch”, “Sit Down” and “Please be quiet”. Simply telling a child “No” does not imply a specific infraction and may not teach them not to do something. A “don’t touch” combined with a swat on the hand means something to a child over two. I would add the word “Dangerous”to the vocabulary. As a child develops vocabulary words are important reminders. The word “dangerous” can stop a kid in their tracks if they are taught properly whereas “NO” means too many things for a child to immediately respond.

Any punishment that is overused will cause the child to ignore the punishment, this includes spanking. Punishment should be situation specific. If a child ignores a chore to watch television the obvious punishment is no television. As parents we cannot forget the purpose of a punishment is to discourage the behavior from happening again. If a child hits another child, does spanking discourage the child from hitting again or does it reinforce the behavior? More than likely hitting a child for hitting someone else is not a good punishment.

Constantly spanking a child tends to be a fall back punishment when the parent does not want to think about an appropriate punishment. I remember being spanked for everything growing up. At some point the spanking quit meaning anything to me.


Parents who are impossible to please will diminish a child’s natural desire to please them. In other words if your child seems to do things constantly that are destructive and wrong chances are you have not put in the time as a parent to teach that child good things and praise their efforts. Children should not feel bad all the time. This cycle can be broken by spending time with your child.


The argument over working mothers has rages on for years. Over and Over I have heard mothers say that they only see their children a couple hours a day but, it’s ok because it is “Quality Time”. To this I say, quality time is being there when you child needs you. The idea that you can impact your child’s growth and development in a few short hours a day is ridiculous. Quality time tends to be the time when you are running around the house trying to get dinner, laundry, and other chores done. That is not quality time to your child. I will say that when I was a single parent important disscussions took place while we folded laundry as a group and washed dishes together.

Obviously I had to work and so do many other mothers. For the most part I took jobs that allowed me to be home with my kids as much as possible. I even took a $6000.00 pay cut to have a job where I could be home on the weekends. Every person’s situation is different. I know somewhere right now there is a single mom scraping change to buy milk… and she is doing her best. That is all that can be asked of most parents.


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    • michelleonly3 profile image

      MD Jackson MSIOP 6 years ago from Arizona

      Thank you for your comments. I was not aware we can link hubs, you have given me a project for today! Thank you for the information!!!!

    • Man from Modesto profile image

      Man from Modesto 6 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      Very well written. I think you can break this up into two hubs, each linking to the other at the end. After reading the first part, and liking it, you will get a follow-through view to the next hub.

      You are correct about the uninformed application of time out. People use it expressly for control. Parents often punish their children in fear of how the child's behavior reflects on them personally. A parent without both discipline & patience, and knowledge & a plan, cannot effectively use negative feedback and association of negative consequence with poor behavior to raise up a disciplined and wise child.