Failed time-outs can be a huge source of frustration for parents and teachers, making them question their skills and abilities, and leading to the belief that they need to escalate severity to get consequences to work. This can easily result in stronger and stronger reprimands, lectures, and even yelling, along with 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.
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There are two main reasons why time-outs can be enormously ineffective and why they can make parents wonder what, if anything, will get their child to start doing the right thing and follow the rules. Knowing this leads the way to a fantastic way to go forward to the impact you have always wanted.
Why Time-Outs Don’t Work
1. Time-outs fail primarily because they are issued along with 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 dispense passionate explanation, cajoling mediation, heated lecturing, and other verbal interventions as we give the consequence. We are giving our energy and relationship. This is what they really want.
2. Time-outs also fail because if there has yet to be a concerted effort to establish a new and significant level of “ juicy time-in,” a time-out has no chance of having an impact. 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 experience life’s options and interest. 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?
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 child is motivated 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 ensure that both the adult and child can move on to new successes sooner rather than later.
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All Consequences Are a Time-Out
Almost everything we can think of as a consequence is really a time-out.