Once upon a time, it was common practice for parents to spank their children for misbehavior.
Sometimes other forms of corporal punishment (shrink-speak for punishment through physical pain) might be used as well:  A piano teacher might, for example, rap a student's fingers with a ruler, or an exasperated mother might pull a protesting child along by his or her earlobe.  Now and again, older books and articles may still be found referring to an adult “boxing” (hitting) a child's ears for some misdeed or other.  However, as our society has become increasingly aware of child abuse and its effects, such means of correcting children have been widely discouraged by most medical and behavioral health professionals.  Today, when people talk about disciplining or correcting children, the “Time Out” technique inevitably enters the conversation.

Few words make parents and other child caregivers wince like “Time Out.”  Actually, a wince is a pretty tame reaction.  Some parents actually turn red at the mere mention of these words, and there are undocumented cases of child caregivers actually frothing at the mouth.   Once everyone calms down a bit the reason becomes clear:   For many people, “Time Out” just doesn't seem to work.  And in the absence of a good (paddle optional) fanning of the offending child's hindquarters, many people are at a loss for what to do.  There's always screaming, of course, but screaming tends to give rise to sore throats and laryngitis on the part of the adults involved, without noticeably impacting most kids' behaviors.

So what's going on?  Have the doctors and university egg-heads finally lost all touch with reality? Although spending more than four or five years in a university environment does, arguably, tend to discourage rational thought in many people, the problem with “Time Out” is probably less a matter of widespread delusion, and more an issue of confused language and poor teaching.  Over the years the term “Time Out” is often used to refer to at least two separate techniques in child discipline.  And a lot of the time, people tend to gloss over some seemingly small yet highly important details when teaching these techniques.

So What IS “Time Out”?

The general idea is simplicity itself: When a young child is misbehaving or becoming upset, the caregiver will remove him or her from the situation.  The child is directed to take a “Time Out” in a quiet area well-away from distractions.  Children are usually expected to spend only a brief period in “Time Out”--the rule of thumb seems to be about one minute per year of the child's age.

Time Out” as Punishment

The first, and, arguably, the least effective “Time Out” technique is its use as punishment.  For
example, consider the case of an exasperated mother whose six year-old son is pestering her for a piece of cake.  Although she has told him “no” several times, he persists, and when her back is
turned gets a knife and plate and moves toward the cake with Intent to Slice.  Mom turns, catches him before he reaches his goal, and declares that he must take a six minute Time Out. 

Most parents are familiar with what happens next:  Typically there will be a brief argument about the Time Out itself, voices will be raised, and finally the kid will stomp to a corner (or up to his room).  Chances are, he will continue to push boundaries throughout the six minutes, which may be re-started several times until what might have been intended as six quiet minutes becomes thirty to forty-five minutes of sulking punctuated by covert (and not-so-covert) acts of defiance.  No criminal mastermind has ever been able to match the creativity of an angry six year-old bent on venting his anger under the cloak of plausible deniability.

There are a few reasons “Time Out” seldom works well as punishment: 

First of all, there exists a mountain of evidence that no punishment is very effective in getting anyone to change his or her behavior.  Most of the time, punishment merely changes the focus from the undesirable behavior itself to conflict between parent and child.  The kid is more likely to remember that “Mom got mad and we had a fight,” than take to heart any lesson about stealing cake.

This doesn't mean that there should not be consequences for misbehavior!  Even the most egg-headed academic or doctor will agree that there should—indeed, must!--be consequences for both good and bad behavior.  But in order to actually have an impact on how someone behaves consequences must be fairly immediate, relatively short-term, and (to the greatest possible extent) logically connected to the behavior you're trying to change.  This is especially true for younger kids or people with ADHD, who might otherwise tend to miss the connection between their behavior and its consequence! 

Time Out” as Opportunity to Cool Off

The second, and more effective, option for using “Time Out” is the equivalent of removing a bubbling pot of pasta from the burner before it boils over.  In this case, you are really using “Time Out” as a way to help the child—and the adult caregiver!--to get his or her emotions under control before escalating into a tantrum or verbal/behavioral explosion.    Used this way, “Time Out” is often presented as a choice:  “You can either take a Time Out and get yourself together, or I'll take the toy away.”  The trick here is to be sure to use “Time Out” before either you (the caregiver) or the child passes the point of no return.

Common Problems

A variety of problems can sabotage the effective use of “Time Out.”  First and foremost, “Time Out” is one technique among many, and can only be effective when used in conjunction with other disciplinary techniques.  At minimum, the caretaker must provide clear, firm directives and expectations, and relatively consistent, immediate consequences for both desirable and undesirable behavior.  Most children respond best to consistent, predictable routines in all things, and discipline is no exception.  “Time Out” as its place as a means of helping kids and caregivers alike get the space they need to cope with difficult situations, but—as noted above—its effectiveness as punishment is quite limited.

Like all directives, the prompt to take a “Time Out” must be delivered in a firm, calm voice.  Yelling, or even raising one's voice, can cause some children to panic, precipitating a meltdown or tantrum out of pure, confused frustration—precisely what the “Time Out” is intended to avoid.  Worse, a pattern of yelling/screaming behavior on the part of a caregiver can easily evolve into an empty ritual wherein the child, having obtained his or her desired-but-forbidden goal, need only wait out the brief, loud storm before returning to regular activity.  Indeed, some older children may make a game of pushing their parents' buttons.

Similarly, many caregivers make the mistake of repeatedly directing their children to take a “Time Out,” or of threatening some consequence, without ever following through with enforcement.  Children are quite observant little buggers, and they quickly learn how far they can push their caregivers.  In general, it's not a good idea to bluff with kids:  Don't write any "consequence" checks you're not willing or able to cash!

“Time Out” is generally most useful with preschool-aged children.  Although versions of the technique can be used with older kids, many will attempt to test limits—for example, by wandering out of the assigned “Time Out” area, kicking walls/furniture, or making any number of noises.  Caregivers must think through the potential consequences for such behavior in advance.  In any event, spaces used for “Time Out” should be relatively out of the way and quiet, with few distractions and—if possible—no breakable items!

Caregivers should make it clear that "Time Out" is meant to help kids get themselves together—not to punish or humiliate them.  To this end, it's often a good idea to make a point of keeping “Time Out” separate from consequences enforced for misbehavior. 

In Summary

“Time Out” is neither a miracle cure for misbehavior, nor an ineffective waste of time.
When used consistently as part of ongoing disciplinary practices, this technique can help young children learn to recognize and better manage their own emotions—and can help frustrated  caregivers take a few moments themselves to find the patience they need to effectively
guide the youngsters in their care.