There are two main reasons why time-outs can be enormously ineffective and why they can make people wonder what, if anything, will work to get their child to start doing the right thing and follow the rules.
Failed time-outs can be a huge source of frustration for parents and teachers. This can make then question their skills and abilities as well as put them on a fast track for believing they need to escalate severity to get consequences to work. This can easily lead to stronger and stronger reprimands, lectures and even yelling, along with attempts to have impact via more and more drastic and punitive consequences. This is typically a recipe for disaster.
There is a much better way. Really understanding why time-outs don’t work is the place to begin.
Why Time-Outs Don’t Work
- The primary reason time-outs fail is that they are mostly issued along with what I consider to be the “reward” of energy, connection and relationship. No one would purposely give a child a hundred dollars for breaking a rule, but we inadvertently do it all the time by way of giving children the “gift of us” as we are doling out the consequence. We are giving them our energy and attention. This is what they really want. As we dispense the time-out we are also dispensing passionate explanation, cajoling mediation, heated lecturing, and other verbal interventions as we give the consequence. We load on the energy.
- The other main reason that a time-out has little or no chance of having the desired impact is if there has yet to be a concerted effort to establish a new and significant level of “ juicy time-in,” time-out has not chance of having an impact. If the child perceives there is nothing worth missing out on then what is the motivation for wanting to stay in the game, so to speak. A time-out in any form is based on a child’s sense that for a period of time he or she is out of the loop, missing out on what life has to offer, unable to avail themselves of life’s options and interest.
The Video Game Formula for Successful Time-Outs
Think of a kid playing a video game. A video game gives time-outs: the screen flashes red for a moment, a buzzer sounds, the next level is momentarily unreachable. A video game can get away with amazingly short time-outs that are hugely inspiring to the child, to not only get back in the game, but in an ever-more determined way, to not break the rules and to go further into success.
The only reason that this video game formula of time-outs works is because the game’s conveyance of appreciation and success in various forms of “energized responses” is so strong. Bells and whistles announce the ushering of more points. The screen flashes with the child’s success. With all of this “energized success,” being out of the game for even a few seconds feels like an eternity. The motivation is to get back in the game, follow the rules, and achieve success. It is a proven formula.
In real life, like in the video game, it is highly desirable for time-outs to be very short. Long time-outs fail because they can often be endurance test of wills for both adult and child. In contrast, short time-outs insure that both the adult and child can move on to new successes sooner rather than later.
All Consequences are a Time-Out
Almost everything we can think of as a consequence is really in effect a time-out. In effect we are married to time-outs. I say this because so many parents of children who are challenging come to feel that time-outs can be almost not worth the effort.
Think of any privilege we withdraw hoping it will have impact. We take away screen time, or phone time or friend time for certain lengths of time or a host of other things we know our children to value for various lengths of time. From the child’s point of view, whether it’s for 10 minutes or 10 days, they feel it as a loss of options and as being out of the loops. Any way you slice it, any of these withdrawals or restrictions on privileges is in essence a time-out. The very same is true for consequences that add on chores or assignments or tasks. The child feels it internally as being out of the loop for however long the tasks take. In essence they are all time-outs.
My point is that if we are truly married to time-outs, as I believe we are, then we might as well have a form of time-out that is inherently powerful and that furthers us in the direction we really are seeking.
In the Nurtured Heart Approach we call these consequences a “reset.” Success comes with a catch, however. It is imperative that time-in is strong enough and established to be consistent and robustly appreciative, then even a very short “reset” can be wonderfully powerful and inspiring, even to the most challenging children.
So you see, the key is two-fold. 1. Short reset 2. Rich time-in.
What Constitutes Rich Time-In?
First of all we must identify “juicy time-in” as anytime when our children are in touch with their greatness - when their actions are connected with their own success (they are practicing the piano beautifully and they feel it). But what about the just plain ordinary moments or even more so, the challenging moments when they aren’t experiencing their success (they are practicing the piano and they outwardly frustrated as they struggle to read the notes)? This is where we can help put into language a growing sense of success. Here is where we, as the adult, get to contribute all that energy we have stored up intertwined with our love and out inner desire to be a good guide. We get to recognize what is going right, rather then lecturing on what is wrong. For example: “Liz, I want you to know how much I appreciated how you are handling your frustration with this difficult piece of music. You could have stormed off but you seem to keep choosing to keep pushing through and working in such a determined way. I want to honor you for your great determination.”
I believe we are seeking to see our children use their intensity and life-force in great ways. Helping them challenge strong emotions into occasions for success awakens them to who they really are – a kid with great life force and great ability to channel their life force into success. Through repeated exposure to their greatness, they begin to build inner wealth. This then becomes a self-regulating guide, which navigates them into a pattern of self-generated successes.
Resets and Inner Wealth
There are moments where behavior calls for a reset. If your child is swearing and kicking, a moment of pause is certainly required. Resets are not the weapon of a punitive model. They actually are an ideal opportunity to create inner wealth. In the moments that follow the bad attitude or the name-calling or the arguing that netted the need for a reset, we can then tell the truth of the next NOW.
Now the rule is no longer being broken. We know how NOT great it is when those rules are being broken, so isn’t it now so much easier to express the gratitude that’s in our heart when the arguing, bad attitude and name-calling ARE NOT HAPPENING? All it takes is putting that appreciation into words.
“Cathy, I know you are still really mad about not being able to see your friends because of all your schoolwork and I so appreciate that you are using your power and wisdom to handle your strong feelings so well. You are not arguing, name-calling or saying bad words, and that shows me great respect and consideration. You are being wonderfully thoughtful too and those are all qualities of your greatness I see in you.”
I know it will feel cumbersome and wordy at first, but watch the impact. The post-reset-moments are chock full of opportunity to break through to new territory. We are the ones who introduce our kids to who they really are as great people and it comes through nurturing their hearts with real live experiences of their success in each moment – via our words of gratitude.
It isn’t Pollyanna. It is building inner wealth, building lasting success. Go get ‘em~!