Friday, 29 August 2014

Why I Don't Use the Naughty Step... or time out, or other punishments.

First, allow me to preface this post by saying that I do not care how you choose to parent your child. I am a single working mother, and frankly do not have time to judge you for your actions. This post is merely about my thoughts on a popular parenting technique.

The naughty step and other forms of "time out" seem to have become increasingly popular in recent years, with TV shows like Supernanny seeming to increase the popularity of this approach.

I understand why this method is popular - the parent gets a break, the child has to calm down, whatever heightened emotions were there before have a chance to dissipate... but I don't think it's the right way to resolve a problem.

Toddlers are going through massive changes within themselves, learning hundreds of new things every day; their brains are expanding at an amazing rate, and this is a lot for them to cope with. Alongside this, they often don't have the ability to communicate what's wrong with them. They don't shout and scream over nothing; they do it because they are having big emotions they're not capable of containing or dealing with.

In her book ToddlerCalm, parenting author Sarah Ockwell-Smith likens toddlers' brains to bungalows: a single storey building with enough rooms to function - kitchen, bathroom, bedroom etc - but no spare space. As we grow into adults, we develop a "first floor" above our bungalows, allowing space for things like contemplation, calmness and relaxation. Say you're cooking something, and you're about as good a cook as me, so you burn it. The smoke will be stifling in an enclosed space. A toddler's emotions are like smoke in their bungalow - there's not much space for them to disperse, so they have to open a metaphorical window and release some of that smoke/emotion. They're not deliberately being difficult, no matter how inconvenient or irritating the timing of their outburst. I've probably not explained that terribly well, and Ockwell-Smith definitely makes things a lot more clear in her explanation. To me, when S is on the floor and wailing about something, that's not behaviour to be punished but rather behaviour to be understood. If I put her on the naughty step or in time out when she's crying, what am I saying to her? I believe that by punishing such behaviour I am sending a message along the lines of "your feelings are not important; I don't care if you're having a hard time; my love and compassion for you are dependent on your being happy and quiet."

Furthermore, research tends to show that punishments such as this work only in the short term; parent and child calm down, whatever the problem was is resolved by the removal of the child. Long term though, these punishments do not teach a child right from wrong, or the reason why they shouldn't do something. A child sent into timeout is not likely to spend their time there thinking about what they've done and why they shouldn't do it again; they're more likely to spend their time thinking "I feel rubbish and now I'm sitting here alone!" They learn a Pavlovian, behaviourist response: if I do this, I get put in timeout. It's simple cause and effect, rather than genuinely resolving the reasons for whatever behaviour got them put there.

Parenting author Alfie Kohn has stated that both spanking and time outs are punitive measures, and the only difference between them is whether we punish the child by physical or emotional means. He goes on to say:
If we were forced to choose one over the other, then, sure, time-outs are preferable to spankings.  For that matter, spanking kids is preferable to shooting them, but that’s not much of an argument for spanking.
The use of time out (where the child is removed from contact with the parent or carer) with children under three years is inappropriate. The use of time out with children over three years needs to be carefully considered in relation to the individual child's experience and needs.
They go  on to say that the use of time out teaches children to use separation as a way to deal with a problem rather than teaching them constructive ways to resolve issues.

The distinction between children above and below the age of three years is important: below the age of three years, a child's brain is not even capable of understanding consequence. The neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for critical and rational thought, does not begin to develop properly until around 3 or 4. Social development like empathy and self awareness do not develop until a child is around school age. When you sit a toddler on a naughty step, it's about the same as tapping a puppy on the nose when it tries to bite you. You don't teach the puppy, "wow, I might hurt my master if I bite him" - you teach him "if I bite, I get a tap on the nose."

Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist and has written a fantastic article entitled The Disadvantages of Time Out. In it, she says:
Beneath the surface, time-out is an authoritarian approach and, as such, can work only among children trained to comply with the power and authority of adults.
To me, the difference between using the naughty step or not, is down to a choice between long term and short term parenting. Short term, yes, you want your child to not do whatever it was they were doing - and the naughty step can work for that. Long term though, parenting isn't about what the child is doing right now but what we want them to be doing in five, ten, twenty years from now. We want to teach them right from wrong, and we want them to become happy, well-functioning individuals. I do not believe that time out and the naughty step are the right way to achieve those things.

For more on this sort of thing, please read this guest post by Jane Evans, a parenting specialist.


  1. I agree with you, however I do use the naughty step. I don't put Harry on the naughty step for tantrums because like you say it's because he is unable to communicate his feelings to me and so is frustrated, I try to calm him. I do use the naughty step for biting, hitting, kicking etc because even if that is because he is frustrated, it's the wrong way to deal with it. I have used this method with all three children and it's worked for me, in that I didn't have to use the step for long as that behaviour stopped after a while.
    P.s not judging you or saying I do a better job, we are both doing a great job at parenting, everyone is different x

  2. There does need to be a consequence for unacceptable behaviour like the comment above pinching, hitting, spitting as guess what happens in real life?
    There's authority. ''you hit someone? Aw you were probably angry-wangry and didn't get your emotions out'' no there needs to be clear right from wrong. Of course this comes with an explanation. Even infants can see ''ow! Pinching hurts'' child is put down.

  3. I do not agree with smacking, but there has to be something to let them know the difference between right and wrong. If they are having a tantrum, you could try to get down to their level and talk to them, if they do not respond, Leave them to get it out of their system. (hard to do, when they are screaming)
    I used to find with my boys, take away something they love, for a period of time, warning them first about the consequences of their behaviour if they continue. Again not easy - as they will continually ask for their punishment to be removed, and will probably say they hate you... LOL, but keep with it, it works. Both my sons have grown into responsible lovely men.

  4. I don't have much personal experience as you know, but your theory about the naughty step seems to make sense. I think it's each to their own with parenting, as long as the children aren't harmed of course x #weekendbloghop

  5. I don't think there is a one size fits all solution to this, I do apply the time out in instances of fighting between my two boys, but didn't before the age of 3 an a half (ish). I agree tantrums etc shouldn't be dealt with in that way. It's counterproductive as they are likely to make a mess, or try breaking their way out which doesn't remove the anger they've built up. We just looked to calm them down before this age, and I guess luckily we never had public shows of laying on supermarket floors kicking an screaming like I have seen.

    Again time out for fighting is only given when one has been hurt, I generally allow them an amount of rough and tumble, knowing full well they will experience this in the outside world at some point through their schooling an from that I don't want them to have been sheltered.

    That happens less an less now, but at this age as they can express themselves better an any punishment is delivered by taking something away from them, a toy or use of an entertainment device, and also after a warning that their actions are not acceptable.

    Going full circle to the first sentence, no one action covers all, and ignoring it is also not an option...

  6. I really like this post. I think it's important to teach children how to appropriately express their feelings. I mean adults get upset about things too. They just know how to deal with their emotions (hopefully). When I was a kindergarten teacher, we didn't have a time out chair you were forced to go if you were bad. Instead, we had a corner of the classroom you could go to if you need space to calm yourself and release the anger in an appropriate manner. I often directed children to the library corner instead if they liked that area better. My son is only just turned one, so we have yet to reach that point. I hope to use other methods besides time outs (like logical consequences) to discipline. My twitter handle is ...

  7. I recently attended a workshop call "Emotional Coaching to Better Understand Your Child". It opened my eyes to SO much regarding my children. My youngest is just over 2.5 and hates time out (which I also use when she deliberately hurts her siblings). Emotional Coaching is where you vocalise what your child may be feeling for them. When she's having a tantrum because I won't give her a biscuit before dinner, all I have to do is say "I understand that you want a biscuit, and I know you are hungry and biscuits are yummy, but mummy is making a yummy dinner and you need space in your tummy." 99% of the time this works. Our job is to teach our children to self regulate (a job for the right hand side of the brain), acknowledging their want, validating and naming their feelings mmeans they are open to the behaviour being regulated. This has changed my life and I wish I'd known about it 9 years ago. It also helps to know that the right hand side of the brain - emotions, creativity, response to touch, emotional health - is almost all developed by the age of 4 (though can be retained), the left hand side of the brain - self regulation, understanding the needs of others (empathy), knowledge, the ability to step back and see the full picture - does not finish developing until our mid twenties (which accounts for some stupid decisions I've made in the past!). The key to good coaching is consistently in whatever method you use for discipline (which is essential too), and a lot of affirmation (key for discipline that isn't fear based), including cuddles, so they known that your choices for them are made from a place of love, which helps a lot when you get it wrong!


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