So, what is the purpose of a time out?
First and foremost, time outs are not punishments in and of themselves. They are intended to be a time of reflection on misbehavior in order to produce a repentant and soft heart. Christian parents can use them as a golden opportunity to develop godly character in their children.
Below are some tips on how to use time outs in a way that make time in for God.
Step 1: The child misbehaves. Assess the type of misbehavior. Don’t automatically assume that a time out is the appropriate response for every offense. If a child accidentally hurts someone or breaks something, a time out may not be required. Look for empathy, remorse and first time obedience once you give the consequence (like: “Tell your sister you are sorry. Once you have done that, you can pick up her toys for her”). However, if your child is truly unrepentant about how they have behaved and is angry with you and your exertion of authority, a time out is in order. Furthermore, if a child is demonstrating poor self-control, a time out is always an appropriate response.
Step 2: Send them to time out. Make eye contact and say calmly but firmly, “Go to time out.” You should already have a spot in your home that your children know is designated for this. The bottom of the stairs is a good location (it is immoveable and, in many homes, is out of the central activity of the family). There should be no discussion or commentary regarding their behavior at this time. However, if you are using this technique with a toddler, you can say, as you carry them to the spot, “No hitting. Time out.” For all age groups, the time out does not start until they are seated and quiet. You can remind them of this expectation at this time.
Step 3: Sit with them when their time is up. When the required amount of time has transpired, go and sit next to them. If you are not feeling calm and compassionate, wait to approach them until you are. You want to model softness. Their reaction to your presence will reveal the softness of their heart. If they bristle and turn their back to you, quietly say, “You need more time” and walk away. You can try again after more time has elapsed. Your goal is a refined and repentant heart. When they are ready to hear what you have to say, ask one of the following questions: “What bad choice did you make that earned you this time out?” or “What did you do wrong?” You want them to internalize the fact that while you may have sent them to the time out seat, it was their behavior that ultimately sent them there.
Step 4: Relate a spiritual truth. This is the point in the process when you have an opportunity to make a real spiritual impact on your child’s godly character. Once they answer the question regarding what they did wrong, you can then ask, “Why is that wrong?” It is helpful to have a ready-made stack of index cards with Bible verses about the most common misbehaviors (you can download a free printable that might help here). You can use verses on self-control (Titus 2:12, Galatians 5:23, Proverbs 25:28), obedience (Leviticus 18:4, Nehemiah 1:9, Proverbs 19:16), wholesome talk (Ephesians 4:29, Proverbs 15:1) and treatment of others (Philippians 2:3, Ephesians 4:32). Carefully select one and have them read it to you (if they can read) and apply it to their situation. Help them make the link between God’s word and their behavior. Adjust your language according to their age and level of comprehension. Ask for an apology (aimed at the person offended) and what they will do instead in the event a similar situation occurs in the future. Tell them you love them and that the softness of their heart reveals that God is working in them.
Step 5: Follow up with a consequence if necessary. Sometimes a natural and logical consequence will still be necessary in addition to the time out. Chores may need to be done to pay for something that was broken, a note may need to be written as an apology or your child may need to make amends in some other fashion. If you try to connect the consequence to the misbehavior, your child will be more likely to retain the relationship between what they did and what they need to do to fix it.
As with any parenting strategy consistency is key. The same is true with time outs. Discuss any new technique with your spouse and role-play if necessary. And don’t forget: a whispered compliment after a well-handled disciplinary action is welcomed by any spouse.