Imagine sailing to a mysterious land, then dancing with fearsome creatures that cower when you stare into their enormous yellow eyes. Sounds like a boyish fantasy, not a punishment, right?
Maybe. But the chance to escape on a quixotic adventure is just what an unruly kid needs, according to Anthony Rao. The Boston-based child psychologist uses Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are as an analogy for how parents should discipline their kids. Traditional "time outs" using a timer and a "naughty mat" don't work, he argues. Many children, especially feisty ones, won't sit on a mat for even a minute, let alone four or five. Instead, tantrumming preschoolers need a private space to conquer their demons before they are ready to rejoin the fold.
The time out originated in a 1963 experiment involving an autistic child, who was isolated for five minutes to discourage his aggressive behaviour. Since then, parenting gurus ranging from Dr. Phil to Supernanny Jo Frost have insisted that a misbehaving child should sit still and apart, using the formula of one minute for every year of age. Though some psychologists condemn the practice, it remains the go-to strategy for exasperated parents.
Recently, however, critiques of time outs on prominent parenting blogs have reignited the debate over whether the old standby is a gentle alternative to spanking or a crude behaviour-modification technique best left to dog trainers. In the latter camp, Dr. Rao and two other parenting experts with new books - Cary Chugh and Susan Stiffelman - each suggest different ways to put the standard time out on permanent pause.
THE TIME AWAY
NUTSHELL: A variation of the old-fashioned "go to your room and stay there until you're ready to behave."
THEORY: A parent's warnings, reprimands and proximity during a time out overstimulate an already agitated child. During a meltdown, a child needs a private space where he can be angry with his parents, wish he was never born or fantasize about running away, says psychologist Anthony Rao. "He does all this imaginary mental work to get through it," Dr. Rao says, "and when he's ready, in the privacy and safety of his room, he can come back and accept the rules."
PRACTICE: Explain a time away beforehand so the child knows what to expect when she misbehaves. After the offence, stay calm and do not use eye contact, lecture her or give warnings. Ensure the child has enough time in her bedroom to calm down - from five minutes to half an hour or more. Do not go in and check on her. When she comes out, offer a hug and discuss the reason for the time away. Then start fresh.
ADVOCATE: Dr. Rao explores the merits of time aways in his new book, The Way of Boys . Most parents overuse time outs "and have no clue what they're doing," he says, adding that the minute per year of age formula is nonsensical. "Your child is not a turkey in the oven."
THE TIME RELEASE
NUTSHELL: The child can end the penance at any time by doing the right thing.
THEORY: Instead of an immediate punishment, parents should give children the chance to practice the opposite of the bad behaviour. Saying sorry is not enough; the child has to perform a positive action. Otherwise, she has no blueprint for how to behave next time. Many parents have the illusion that if they punish enough bad behaviour, only good behaviour will remain, says child psychologist Cary Chugh. "I call this behavioural whack-a-mole."
PRACTICE: When a child does something wrong ("I want milk now!"), tell her what to do instead ("Say please!") and withhold the desired item until she complies. If a child hits his sister, figure out why he did it (example: she took his toy), then show him the correct behaviour (asking nicely or finding something else to play with). If the child refuses, put his activities on hold until he agrees to rehearse the socially acceptable behaviour. ADVOCATE: Dr. Chugh outlines this behaviour-modification technique in his new guide, Don't Swear with Your Mouth Full! When Conventional Discipline Fails Unconventional Children . Classic time outs don't take advantage of a child's motivation to improve, which may kick in right after the timer starts, Dr. Chugh says. And the focus on being quiet only teaches the child how to avoid an extended time out. "What you get is a better actor, not a better behaved child."
THE TIME IN
NUTSHELL: The parent stays with the child after the misdeed and helps her calm down.
THEORY: Often children misbehave when they're tired or hungry and have less impulse control. In this riled-up state, they need their parents more, not less. Showing children how to take deep breaths and calm down teaches them a lifelong skill and sends a message of unconditional support. "Generally speaking, children want to be connected to us and they want to do what we ask," says Los Angeles family therapist Susan Stiffelman.
PRACTICE: Prevent problems by gauging the child's physical and emotional state; don't stretch him beyond his limits (for example, a long car ride when the child is ill). If a child hits her brother, work on the relationship between them instead of sending her to her room. When a child is out of control, sit with him quietly until he can articulate what he is feeling. Learn how to keep your cool even when your kids lose theirs.
ADVOCATE: Ms. Stiffelman discusses alternatives to traditional punishments in Parenting Without Power Struggles . In a time out, children don't have the cognitive development required to sit alone and ponder their misconduct, she says. Instead, they feel sad, scared, angry and lonely. "Time outs are tantamount to shunning," she says. "They're really barbaric in my opinion and they create anxious and clingy children."