A New "Time Out"

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When I was a kid, my sisters and I almost set the house on fire. We all quickly knew that we had done a very bad and dangerous thing. Consciences sprouted. There were tears and apologies. Our mother sent her fledgling pyromaniacs to bed without supper, which, she later said, was the worst thing she could think of doing to us. That night, after she sneaked food to us in our rooms, she told us she knew our self-reproach was punishment enough. She had made us miss supper just because she was mad and didn't know what else to do.

Some parents cling to the idea of punishment; they like the simple physics of it. A quick spank or a minute of time-out for every year of a child's age, for instance, seems like a just response to a transgression. But punishments that grow out of a parent's anger don't work because kids learn mainly that they can really make their parents mad. What kids really need to learn is good judgment: they need to behave well, not because they're afraid of being punished but because of how good it feels to do the right thing.

People often confuse discipline with punishment, but punishment can be one consequence of a lack of discipline in a family. A child who lives a disciplined life--with firm routines and loving parents who are in charge--will better learn to control her actions because she will know what is expected of her.

Anthony Wolf, a Boston psychologist and author of The Secret of Parenting, says parents often fall into a trap: their children behave badly, and they resort to punishing out of anger, frustration or the lack of an alternative idea. Wolf recommends that parents be clear about their expectations, quickly deal with their children's mistakes and misdeeds, make the consequence fit the action and disengage. If a child knowingly rides her bike beyond the boundaries, for instance, parents should explain what she did wrong and then take the bike away until they feel she's ready to be responsible. A child can see this as a direct consequence of what she has done. Don't take away an unrelated privilege, like having a friend over.

Disengaging is often the hardest part. "Don't get sucked into your kid's explanations," Wolf says. "Just be calm and silent. Make sure that the final thing your child hears from you is what you want them to hear." Later on, at a neutral time, explain yourself, if necessary, and then move on.

Wolf turns the idea of the time-out around, so it is the parents who take one. Once you have dealt with your kid's actions in a no-nonsense way, it is time to move on, but often children don't realize it. They will sometimes attempt to provoke their parents, just to keep their attention. A parent should not rise to the bait. "My wife and I had this thing we did with our kids when they were trying to provoke us," he says. "We'd just look at them calmly and say, 'Goodbye,' and then go about our business."

When parents take a temporary time-out, a child will do just about anything--including being good--to get them back. And when a child reaps the rewards of being in her parents' good graces, she will work harder to stay there.

For more information, check out "The Secret of Parenting" by Anthony Wolf. You can e-mail Amy at timefamily@aol.com