Time out is a universally accepted behavioral strategy that is widely used by parents and childcare professionals alike. Unfortunately, most time outs miss the mark. There is a better way to do time outs.
Time outs should not be used as a punishment. Time outs are simply a pause button in your child’s day, where he gets an opportunity to reset and restart. Everyone deserves a fresh start. Furthermore, Christian parents can use time in after the time out as a wonderful opportunity to teach values and 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: Assess the behavior and provide a warning
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. If a child throws a ball in the house after you told him not to, you can simply take the ball away. If your child is immediately sorry and willing to make it right, no matter what was done, a time out is not necessary – his heart is already ready for a fresh start.
However, if your child clearly knows what is expected of him and is choosing to disobey anyway, you can simply say, “Uh oh. That’s not a good choice. Let’s try that again.” This gives the child a moment to reset on their own without the use of a time out. If this warning does not affect any change, he is in need of a re-set and a time out may be in order.
Step 2: Send him to time out
Make eye contact and say calmly but firmly, “It is not okay to ______. Go to time out.” Be sure that he heard you. If your child delays, simply remind him, “Your time out begins when you are seated and quiet.”
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 or you may just use a spot in a nearby hallway.
Do not engage in bargaining or discussion, but stay nearby – your presence is comforting.
Step 3: Sit with him when his time is up
Go and sit next to him when he has been sitting quietly and seems calmer. There is no magic number. Your child may need just a minute or two for the reset to work. Or it could take longer. As the parent, you know when your child is calm.
If you are not feeling calm and compassionate yourself, wait to approach until you are. You want to have a soft heart for the next step.
Your child’s reaction to your presence will reveal the softness of his heart. If he bristles and turns his back to you, quietly say, “You need more time, I’ll be back soon.” At this time, you may decide offer him a stuffed animal to squeeze or another pre-decided calming tool if he is struggling to regulate his emotions. Here are some ideas that can help your child regulate his emotions. You may wish to incorporate a few of them into your time out routine.
Step 4: Encourage ownership
Return again and re-assess the softness of his heart. If he seems ready to talk, you can put an arm around him and ask, “What was it that earned you this time out?” You want him to internalize the fact that while you may have told him to go to time out, it was his behavior that ultimately sent him there. You are not doing this to shame but to educate.
For very young children (ages 3-7), you may want to use our Heart of the Matter Parenting Cards. These cards visually display the 5 common misbehaviors which are at the root of all disobedience. Young children can look through the cards and select the one (or ones) that illustrate what he or she did wrong.
Step 5: 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 he answers the question regarding what he did wrong, you can ask, “Why do you think that is wrong?”
Young children may respond with something like, “It’s not nice.” Encourage him to go beyond this explanation and teach empathy with questions like, “How do you think it made _____ feel when you did ______?” or “How would you feel if that happened to you?”
Using the Heart of the Matter Parenting Cards will provide you with young kid-friendly Bible verses and pictures of what your child can do instead.
For older children, it can be 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).
Have your child select one and see if he can apply it to his situation. He may need your help to make the link between God’s word and his behavior. You can use this opportunity to teach your family’s values and how your rules reinforce those values.
Brainstorm together about how your child can make it right so he can seek forgiveness and receive a fresh start to his day.
Give him a hug, tell him you love him and that the softness of his heart reveals that God is working in him.
Step 6: 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 connect the consequence to the misbehavior, your child will be more likely to retain the connection between what he did and what he needs 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 partner and role-play if necessary.