Why Time-Out Doesn’t Work...

Katherine Reynolds Lewis spent five years researching why many kids today are unruly, willful, disruptive, frustrated, and reactive. The answers are in her new book The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever—And What to Do About It (PublicAffairs). We asked Katherine what families do to reinforce this bad behavior—and what they should do instead.

Q. In your book, you say that kids’ behavior is worse than ever, and that traditional techniques to change bad behavior aren’t working. What’s going on with kids today—and why aren’t time-outs and sticker charts effective?

A. It’s hard to know if these techniques ever worked. But it’s clear to me from my research that they don’t work now with children growing up today [unlike baby boomers and their offspring, who as children generally did as they were told and behaved as expected]. The problem with past disciplinary methods [from spanking on up to sticker charts] is they impose external control, as opposed to helping a child develop a sense of self-control and self-discipline. I never want to tell parents to stop a method they feel is working. But if, say, your sticker-chart system suddenly stops working, it may be because your child hasn’t developed self-control yet. Be alert to that. In some instances, time-outs are likely to provoke power struggles and revenge behavior—but time-outs can also be helpful. In a peaceful moment you can ask your child, “What helps you when you feel out of control?” Then a time-out is not a punishment; it’s a calming strategy.

Q. You also write that traditional methods of discipline actually move families further from good behavior. What’s the real goal and why are traditional measures to achieve it counterproductive?

A. Ultimately, our goal is to raise self-disciplined children. Anything we do that helps kids understand that actions have consequences is valuable. When we solve their problems for them, or let them off the hook when they misbehave, kids don’t learn those lessons. Instead, they spend their energy thinking about how to get around our rules.

Q. Then what does work? In your book you talk about the apprenticeship model of parenting. What is it—and why is this parenting style more effective at drawing out good behavior in kids?

A. The apprenticeship model of parenting is a technique that encourages parents to connect with their kids, communicate their expectations clearly, and then trust their children’s ability to uphold their part of the agreement and to regulate their behavior. Any agreement has to include the children’s input and needs as well as the parents’.

Q. So how should parents go about putting the apprenticeship model into action—and what else can they do to encourage good behavior in kids and make the connection more effective?

A. The number one most powerful thing parents can do to stop kids’ bad behavior is to connect with them. The challenge is: If we tell kids that they are doing something wrong when they are acting out, we’re missing out on connecting with them just when they need us the most. We can use our physical presence in a powerful, calming way. That can help in a heated moment. But it’s also critical to build that connection at other times, through shared activities such as meals, game times, and even household chores and projects.

The second piece is communication. Here again, we need to remember: Our goal should be to build skills. When a child is having a meltdown, of course we want him to be quiet. But even better is if we can start helping him recognize the emotions he’s experiencing, and learn to manage them. Often, that communication needs to happen after a meltdown or problem. Then, once the child is calm, brainstorm how to respond in the future. You could say, “Sometimes when I’m frustrated, like you were earlier, I like to listen to my favorite song or take a short walk. What helps you feel better when you’re frustrated?”

Capability is the payoff. Capability building is the prize that we parents get for all the work connecting and communicating. When kids feel capable—when they have a sense of their own competence and purpose—they’re less prone to acting out. It’s so helpful to notice when your children make that incremental progress—for example, when they calm down from a meltdown after 10 minutes when previously it was an hour, or when they remember their binder as you drive away from school instead of after dinner. We can be their memory keepers, helping them mark their progress and notice how they’re growing and becoming more capable. It’s encouraging for them and for us.

Chores, or household jobs are a big piece of this. When kids do them, they build that “I can do this” feeling. They see themselves as someone who makes a real contribution to the family. And underlying this is the confidence to know that they can manage their emotions as well as they can manage a spatula or a sponge.

Q. What can parents do when they feel they’ve made a mistake (yelled at a child, or failed to enforce a family agreement)?

A. There’s a lot of advice out there to be calm and respond with love in every moment. But we’re human! So it’s an opportunity to apologize to our kids and set our own intentions to behave differently the next time: You could say, “I’m sorry I yelled. I should have gone for a walk around the block or taken 10 minutes to cool down.”

Q. You write: “Parenting in this way means consciously breaking with the norms in the culture around us.” What do you mean by that?

A. My experience has been, and my research has validated this, that our society expects parents to always be in control of kids. If kids do something wrong, it’s the parents’ fault. So there’s an impulse to micromanage, to direct, to punish kids rather than letting them learn from the consequences of their actions. When kids test boundaries and take risks, there is an unspoken or explicit pressure to intervene. There are so many situations like this: Forgetting their school lunch, not wearing clothes that match, talking out of turn—all those things our kids do that other people judge. Kids are figuring themselves out. We need to give ourselves a pass to not worry about what other parents think. Know you’re doing what’s right for your child and your family.

Catherine Holecko

Catherine Holecko is a parenting writer and mother of two school-aged children.