Time Out

Time Out is an important tool in the discipline toolbox, but it’s an easy one to mis-use or over-use, and it doesn’t work for all families, but let’s examine the best practices for time out.

(* Age note: For a two year old, we don’t really do a prolonged Time Out with this full method. We would instead: remove the child from the situation, hold them calmly for a minute or so, or sit with them till they’re calm, then let them return to play. )

What is Time Out?

First, let’s understand what it is: It’s Time Out from Positive Attention. Children like attention, so will act in the ways that get the most notice from their parents – whether it’s negative or positive attention. So, for mild misbehavior that’s just annoying, we use the “Ignoring” tool. For bigger issues, we use Time Out, which is spending time in a boring place, for a prescribed time, getting no attention. Time Out is a chance for your child to calm down (and for you to calm down), then return to better behavior. Time Out is not jail… it’s not intended to make your child suffer for their crimes.

Time Out will only be effective within the context of a supportive, loving relationship. If your child normally gets lots of positive attention from you, then Time Out is a big change from that. If your child is often ignored, Time Out isn’t much different, or the process of misbehaving and being sent to Time Out may be the way the child actually gets themselves some attention from the parent.

Developing Your Time Out Plan

Make your plan in advance for how you’ll use time out. (Springing the idea on an unsuspecting child in the middle of a meltdown is not going to work!)

Explain your plan to your child in advance, when everyone is calm. Practice it a few times at a family meeting so everyone knows exactly how it will work, and what the goals are of using it. Make sure your child clearly knows what behavior will lead to a time out.

When: What Behaviors Lead to Time Out

Time Out is best when used sparingly, for aggression – situations when your child is hurting someone or something, or for non-compliance – times when you have tried other discipline tools and your child continues to disobey. (Note: all young children ignore or disobey about 1 out of 3 commands. If a simple reminder gets them to comply, you won’t need Time Out – it is for more intentional or chronic non-compliance.)

Sometimes, you may want to send your child to a Time Out because you need a break. That’s not a fair use of Time Out. If you need a break, be honest about that, and take one. Do this before you explode

Where:

Select a place for Time Out. It should be:

  • Boring: Somewhere with no toys, books or screens to provide pleasant experiences.
  • Out of the way of the flow of traffic, so you don’t have to move past the child, and not in a place that tends to draw the attention of other children. (For example, the back of the classroom is better than the front, or just around the corner from the dining table where you can keep an eye on them but your other children can’t see them, is better than somewhere that will draw the attention of other kids (who then may try to provoke the child who is in Time Out.)
  • Safe: Bathrooms or kitchens can be dangerous places for kids to be without close supervision.
  • Some parents avoid the child’s bedroom as they don’t want the child to think of their room as a punitive place. Other parents, who focus more on the calm-down aspect of Time Out than the punitive aspect, may find that the bedroom works well.
  • You might choose to include a few calm down tools in this place, such as a Calm Down Bottle, a favorite stuffed animal, a stress ball, a weighted vest or blanket, or bubbles to blow.

Call this the Time Out Place or the Calming Place. It’s not “the naughty chair.”

If your child misbehaves in public, consider using another discipline tool. If Time Out makes the most sense, you can go to your car, or to a quiet corner with them while they take a Time Out from your attention.

How Long

For a three year old*, we set a baseline of three minutes, for a four year old four minutes. For older children, we start at 5 but increase up to 9 if needed. (See below.) Longer Time Outs are not effective and may just make the child resentful and resistant to future Time Outs.

When they’ve reached the minimum time requirement and they’ve had a calm voice and body for a couple minutes, then you can declare that Time Out is over. (They don’t decide… you do.)

Note: the first couple times you use Time Out, it may take them longer to calm down. (Even as long as 20 minutes.) In the long term, we want Time Out to be as brief as possible for them to calm down and return. We want to help them realize that if they can calm down right away, then they’ll get out of Time Out as soon as the time requirement is met.

What and How

  1. Describe the problem behavior clearly. State what behavior you would like to see.
  2. Warn that if the problem behavior continues, there will be a time out. (If you’re not willing to do a Time Out right now, then don’t threaten to do one… Empty threats make it less likely the tool will work in the future.)
  3. Give a clear command, including the reason. Keep it short and simple. “You did ___. Go to Time Out now.”
  4. What they should do in Time Out: The goal is that they learn to calm themselves down. They won’t initially know how to do that! Self-calming skills are something we need to be teaching at other times when they’re calm so they may be able to use them in Time Out eventually. At first, expect that they will stomp, kick, yell and whine a lot in Time Out. Over time, they will learn that this behavior doesn’t gain them anything, and they’ll give up on it.
  5. What you do when they’re in Time Out: Give them as little attention as possible. Try to move on with your day, not nagging them, responding to their pleas, and so on. If they yell, don’t yell back. If they ask “how many more minutes” you don’t have to respond. (You could choose to announce when a minute has passed.) You might need to use your own self-calming skills and positive self-talk at this time to stay calm.
  6. If there are other children with you, encourage them to “use their Ignoring Muscles” and tune out the person who is in Time Out. You can continue to play nicely with the other child(ren), giving positive attention to their positive behavior.
  7. Once the time requirement has been met, if the child has been calm for two minutes, release them. If not, simply use a When/Then statement. “Please work on calming yourself down. When you have been calm for two minutes, then you can come out of Time Out.”
  8. When time out is done, re-engage with your child, and praise their first positive behavior.

What if they resist?

  1. What if they resist going to Time Out? If they are 3 – 6 years old, you say “You can go to Time Out on your own or I can take you there.” If they don’t go, calmly take them there.  For a 6 – 10 year old, you say “I’m going to add an extra minute in Time Out. That’s 6 minutes.” Wait ten seconds. If they still don’t go, add another minute, up to 9. After that, add a consequence: “That’s 10 minutes now, and if you don’t go to Time Out right now, you will lose screen time privileges for tonight.” If they go to Time Out, after 10 minutes they’re done. If they won’t go to Time Out, we drop the power struggle over Time Out and they receive the consequence instead.
  2. What if they try to escape Time Out? You re-set the Time Out clock, and you say “If you come out again, then you will have this consequence.”

Using Time Out

It is best to develop a specific routine for Time Out, so you can do it the same way every time. Here are two sample scripts, based on the Incredible Years program:

Time Out for Aggression

“You hit. You need to go to Time Out.” Child goes to Time Out. Once time is up, and they have been calm for two minutes: “Your Time Out is Finished. You can play now.” As soon as you see any positive behavior, praise it – you’re returning positive attention to them.

Time Out for Non Compliance

This would be used for an on-going behavior challenge – such as when they’ve been resisting bedtime or doing chores or turning off the screen.

First, give a transition statement that tells them when you’ll be asking for a behavior and what you’ll ask for. “In five minutes, [your screen time will be over and you will need to calmly hand me the tablet].” Then, when the time comes, state a brief command. “Your time is up. Hand me the tablet now.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds for them to process the command. If they comply, praise and move on. If not, give an if/then warning about Time Out: “If you do not hand it to me now, then I’ll take it and you’ll have a time out.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds… if they don’t comply: “You didn’t give it to me. I am taking it. Go to Time Out.” If they refuse to go, or won’t stay in Time Out, warn of a consequence: “If you don’t go/stay in Time Out, then you will lose half your screen time for tomorrow.” After the Time Out is over and/or the consequence is imposed, then, if needed, return to the original command. (If this all started when you asked them to clean up and they refused to clean up, you can’t let that go… they still need to clean up. Otherwise, many kids would choose the 5 minute Time Out to avoid cleaning up!

Initial Resistance

Expect that the first few times you use Time Out there will be a lot of drama – they may resist, they may cry, they may throw things. After things are calm again, have another family meeting talking about what Time Out is, why you’re using it, and how it can be an easy solution if done well. Let them know that you will continue using it, and they can decide whether to make it a miserable experience for themselves, or whether to use it as a brief 5 minute calm down interlude that you can all move on quickly from.

Moving On From Time Out

Once time out is over, move on, don’t rehash. We all make mistakes, and need to come back in and try again. Don’t nag at them, let this be a clean slate moment. Give them positive attention and praise any positive behavior you see.

Important note: If they were using Time Out to get away from doing a chore, make sure they complete that chore after Time Out. Be matter of fact about this, giving positive feedback as they return to the work.

What Else Can You Do?

If you find yourself using Time Out every day, consider using other discipline methods for some of these situations. Choose a very limited set of behaviors that you will use Time Out for.

If you have been using Time Out for the same behavior repeatedly for multiple weeks, you need to form another strategy since it is not effectively changing behavior. (One thing to consider is whether or not your rules and expectation are developmentally appropriate for the child. Are you asking more of them than they’re capable of?) Seek help from a parent educator, teacher, or counselor if you need outside perspective to come up with new ideas.

Continue to teach other skills

Time Out does not teach your child what to do better. It can’t be used as your only discipline tool. Be sure to also be using positive attention, praise, guidance in what TO DO, teaching ways to understand and manage their big emotions, role modeling, and more to help your child learn how to behave better. When they’re mis-behaving, ask yourself whether consequences might be a better response than Time Out. Your long-term goal is self-discipline – raising a child who knows what it means to be a good person and behaves that way most of the time. Using a wide variety of these tools will help to teach them how to do this.

Learn More about Time Out

For lots more information and tips for effective time outs, check out the CDC’s guide to Using Timeout, read The Incredible Years or participate in an Incredible Years program. And if you like to know the research behind recommendations, check out: Weighing in on the Time Out Controversy and “The Role of Time-Out in a Comprehensive Approach for Addressing Challenging Behaviors of Preschool Children” (here or here)

 

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Consequences

Two tools in your discipline toolbox are natural consequences, and logical consequences.

Natural Consequences

A natural consequence is what will happen if the child keeps doing what they are doing, and an adult does not intervene. Some examples:

  • If the child pulls the cat’s tail, the cat is likely to scratch the child’s hand.
  • If the child plays with a toy too roughly, the toy may break.
  • If they leave their cookie unattended on the picnic table while they play, the crows may steal it.
  • If the child doesn’t eat at a meal, they will be hungry later.
  • If they don’t bring their comic book inside, it may get ruined by rain.

We, as adults, might be able to foresee all of these natural consequences. But a child may not realize that these things could happen. So, it’s only fair that the parent advises the child of the possible problem: “If you [do this], then [that] will/might happen.” Sometimes, the parent might give a command to the child to stop the behavior and prevent the consequence. Or, sometimes the parent might inform the child of the possible result, then let the child make their own decision about what to do, and perhaps live with the consequences of their actions. Many parents think it’s important to do this at times – if we always protect and rescue our kids from all possible mistakes, they may not learn important lessons about the impact of their choices.

Natural consequences are best used when the results of the mistake will be a little painful so a lesson is learned, but not too painful. For example, if the child might break a $5 toy, you might not intervene, but if they’re about to break your laptop, you should stop them! If they might get a bump or a bruise, you might let that play through, but if they’re risking a broken bone, you will stop them.

Natural consequences are not administered by the parent. They’re the responsibility of the child – they took the action that caused the consequence.

Logical consequences

Logical consequences are imposed by the parent for misbehavior.

When entering a new situation, it’s the parent’s job to make sure the child knows what to expect, and what’s expected of them. We teach them how to be good. If they start a mild misbehavior, we might start correcting that by telling them what TO DO instead. But, if the misbehavior is getting worse, a consequence may be appropriate.

Generally*, you will give an “if / then” warning to let them know what’s coming so they have a chance to change behavior and avoid the consequence. Some examples, sorted into categories:

  • Removing the child from a situation where there’s an issue:
    • “If you run near the parking lot, then we’ll have to leave the playground.”
    • “If you knock the books off the library shelf, we’ll go home instead of going to story time.”
    • “If you are loud in the restaurant, then we won’t be able to stay to have dessert.”
  • Removing the problem item from them:
    • “If you don’t put away your toys, I will put them away and you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.”
    • “If you two can’t share that toy nicely, then I will put it away for the rest of the play date.”
    • “If you knock your plate on the ground, then lunch is over and I won’t get you more food till afternoon snack time.”
  • Removing a privilege
    • “If you don’t finish your homework tonight, then no screen time tomorrow.”
    • “Since you hurt your friend, I can’t let you play tag anymore.”
    • “If you don’t put all your laundry in the basket, then no candy today.”
  • Requiring the child to do something to repair a situation.
    • “If you spill the water, you will have to clean it up.”
    • “If you break that, you’ll have to use your allowance to buy a new one.”

Make sure:

  • the consequence is developmentally appropriate
    • For a toddler, it has to be immediate and short term – if they start throwing blocks, you immediately pick them up and take them away from the blocks. Then you help them find a new activity to do. A few minutes later, they might wander back to the blocks and play with them appropriately.
    • For a preschooler, the consequence should still follow closely after the behavior but can last a little longer. If they are playing in a way that could break a toy, you take it away right away, and say “I’ll keep this safe till tomorrow, then we can try again.”
    • For an older child, the consequence can be more delayed and last longer. For a teenager, it could even be something like: “if you don’t do well on fall semester grades, then I won’t let you try out for the spring musical.”
  • the consequence is in proportion to how bad the behavior was
    • If a child spilled juice, you wouldn’t say “no drinks at the next five meals.” But you could say “no more juice today. If you are thirsty, you can have water.”
    • If a child failed to put away toys one time, you wouldn’t throw away all the toys. But the toys could “take a break” for a day or two.
  • you choose a consequence you can and will follow through on enforcing
    • Kids need to know they can trust their parents to keep their promises. That includes being consistent when applying consequences. Don’t go easy on the consequences and back down… if you do this once, they’ll try to beg you down on the next several times.
    • No empty threats. When you tell your child “if you don’t come right now, I’m leaving you here at the store and not coming back.” They know that’s not true. (And if they thought it was true, that would be very scary for them.)
  • you carry it out calmly, not with anger and shaming – consequences are not about punishing your child or making them “really regret” their choices – they’re about learning that their choices have impact and helping them learn the importance of better choices in the future.
  • as I said above*, generally you want to warn before imposing a consequence, so they have a chance to make a better choice. However, if they are hurting someone or something, there’s not a warning – it’s an immediate consequence. “You bit your friend. We are leaving the park now.” At a family meeting, when all is calmed down, you can discuss your rules with your child and establish in advance what behavior you consider unacceptable that will always warrant an immediate consequence.

For lots more on discipline, read The Discipline Toolbox, and follow the links in that post to find lots more tips.

 

When/Then and If/Then

Two useful discipline tools for parents are the “when / then” and the “if / then” statements.

When / Then

This statement basically says “when you do [this positive behavior], then you will get [this positive social reward].”

The statement first tells your child what you want them to do, then it implies that you are totally expecting your child to do this positive thing, now that you’ve explained to them what’s expected. And in return for doing it, they can expect to continue to have your loving, positive attention.

Some examples:

  • “When you’ve brushed your teeth and gone potty, then we get to read a bedtime story.”
  • “When you finish cleaning up your Legos, then we can play a game.”
  • “When you’re ready for school on time, then you can work on a drawing.”
  • “When you’re sitting down in your chair, then I will give you your dessert.”
  • “When you’re sitting in your car seat, then I will tell you a joke.”

If / Then

“If you do [this negative behavior], then you will get [this consequence.]”

This statement assumes they are likely to do something wrong, and tells them that if they do, they will experience a negative consequence.

You don’t want to start here: First, assume the best of your child! Giving a “when / then” first gives them the best chance at making a positive choice and being rewarded for that.

If the when / then didn’t work, that’s when we turn to if / then.

  • “If you can’t finish getting ready for bed in the next five minutes, then you’ll have to go straight to bed without a bedtime story.”
  • “If you don’t put your Legos away in the next five minutes, then I will have to put them away, and you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.”
  • “If you’re not ready for school on time, then you won’t be able to draw today.”
  • “If you don’t sit down now, then you won’t be able to have dessert tonight.”
  • “If you don’t sit in your car seat by yourself, then I will have to put you there and buckle you in. Then I can’t tell you the joke I have saved up for today.”

Think about your tone when presenting these statements. These don’t need to come off as angry threats that sound like “If you don’t cut that out, you’re going to be in big trouble with me!!” They can just be matter of fact statements about the natural or logical consequences of their actions. You may even let your tone know that you’re a little disappointed that you won’t be able to read the bedtime story or tell them the joke – that encourages them to try harder to win back that positive social reward from you.

Learn about lots of other tools for your Discipline Toolbox here.

Your Discipline Toolbox

There are lots of different discipline techniques you can use to guide your children toward good behavior. Learning about them is like stocking your toolbox for home maintenance. If your house has a good solid foundation, and you perform regular, routine maintenance, then you may not need to pull out your toolbox very often. But we all have those little repair jobs to do from time to time that require a basic, all-purpose tool, and some days we have really big issues that we need to pull out specialized power tools to address, and sometimes we even need to call in a professional to help. This post will orient you to all the tools in your toolbox, and help you figure out how to use the right tool for the right job, in the right way.

[Note: This post is intended as an overview… there are LOTS of links in this post that will take you to other articles I’ve written with more details on these techniques.]

What is Discipline?

Discipline means guidance. It means good modeling, setting clear expectations for how we would like our children to behave, not assuming that they know how, and setting clear limits about things they cannot do. And, it means that when they misbehave, we let them know that the behavior was not OK, but we do still love them, and we will tell them how to be better in the future. This style of discipline not only guides behavior, it also builds trust and respect between parent and child.

Building a Strong Foundation

All discipline is grounded in a positive relationship. Here’s some ways to build that foundation:

  • Play together—often!
  • Have snuggle time and special time and let them know that you love them.
  • Talk and listen to them—build a “Love Map” of what’s important to them.
  • Validate their emotions—their feelings are always OK. (Some behaviors are not.)
  • Be consistent and trustworthy.
  • Ask for respect from them and treat them with respect.
  • Teach how to be good: talk about values; model, coach, and praise good behavior.

Do Routine Maintenance

  • Take care of yourself. Get the support you need in order to have enough energy to be a calm, thoughtful parent.
  • Whenever possible, ensure your child is well fed and well rested.
  • Avoid overstimulation (it leads to meltdowns).
  • Spend time in kid-friendly environments where it’s easy for them to succeed.
  • Set expectations: warn of transitions, and explain what the plans are.
  • Create predictable routines & clear rules so they know what’s expected of them. Set appropriate limits on behavior. (Be sure that your expectations are developmentally appropriate. Don’t ask more of them than they are capable of.)

To Improve Behavior

When there’s not really bad behavior, but there are places where if your child was behaving better, your family life would be smoother and happier, here’s how  to move things in a positive direction:

  • Use the Attention Principle: pay attention to positive behavior you want to see more of.
  • Use When / Then. “When you do [positive behavior], then you get [something positive.]”
  • Create a Reward System. (Read more about praise and reward here.)
  • Create a Routine to address any chronic challenge in daily family life.
  • Clarify rules—your child may do something that they didn’t realize was wrong. You can explain what the problem is and how to avoid it in the future.

For example, if you are often running late to school in the morning because your child is reading or playing instead of getting dressed, you could set up a routine by writing down what the steps are that they need to do, saying when you do these steps on time, then you can read your book, and giving them a reward at the end of the week if they’re on time every day.

To Correct Minor Misbehavior

(Note: If your child is hurting someone or something, skip to the next level.)

These tools are meant to correct problematic behavior. As parents, a big part of our job is to help our children learn to be good people, as this helps them succeed in school, work, and in all of life. To do that, we need to set clear limits on what’s OK and what’s not OK. (Learn here about the authoritative parenting style, which balances high expectations for our children with high responsiveness to them as individuals.)

For example, if you’re trying to get dinner ready and your toddler is banging their sippy cup to get your attention, you might just ignore that. Or you substitute by trading the cup for a drum. If their milk spills, then you can let them experience the natural consequences by having them wipe up the milk, then giving them a cup of water to replace it. Or you could say “if you keep banging your milk, then I will take it away, and you’ll get water with dinner later.”

To Correct Major Misbehavior

These are your power tools. You’re not going to pull them out of the toolbox every day, but they’re there when you need them.

You might use them any time your child is hurting someone or something or is at risk of being hurt. You might also use them for non-compliance – if you used the tools in the category above (telling your child what TO DO, given clear commands, etc.) and they continue to disobey, then these tools kick in.

  • Use Time Out from Positive Attention. This gives them (and you) an opportunity to calm down.
    • Note: If your child is in the midst of a meltdown, this is not a time to try to reason with them… they’re in their “downstairs brain”. (Learn more here.)
  • Impose a Logical Consequence—make sure the “punishment fits the crime.”
  • Seek peer advice, parent education, or professional support as needed.

You may notice that I haven’t talked about one discipline tool: Physical Discipline. Many parents have discovered that, in the short term, spanking can be an effective way to get a child to stop doing something bad. But, in the long term, it can damage the relationship, cause fear and anxiety in the child, and teach the child that anger and violence are the ways to get things done. It also doesn’t teach them much about why the behavior is bad – they may avoid doing it when you’re around so they won’t get hit, but there’s no reason for them to avoid it when you’re not there, so they don’t gain self discipline skills. Read more on physical punishment and spanking here.

Sometimes handling our child’s misbehavior can make us really angry. Look here for tips on “What if you’re angry at your child?“.

Move On

When misbehavior stops, or after a time out or a consequence is complete, then re-engage with your child, providing positive attention and praise for good behavior.

It’s especially important to do this if you got angry at your child. Read more about Resolution.

Self Discipline

Our goal for discipline, in the long-run, is to make ourselves obsolete. Our children need to learn to
discipline themselves. We want to raise adults who are capable of controlling their impulsive behavior, capable of working hard for a delayed reward (or even no reward other than their satisfaction with a job well done), and who have such a strong internal sense of right and wrong that it guides their every action, and who do what’s right simply because they can’t imagine behaving differently. Read more on self-discipline and how to begin to teach it.

Handout

If you’d like a free, printable handout that summarizes all this information, just click here for the Discipline Toolbox in color or Discipline Toolbox,  Black and White.

Ignoring Annoying Behavior

The second step on my discipline flow chart is to “pick your battles.” Ask yourself: Is their behavior really a big problem that needs serious consequences? Or is it just annoying? If it’s just annoying, just ignore it.

Let’s start with a few examples:

  • If you’re trying to get work done, and your child keeps coming over and whining about a snack, this is certainly annoying. But asking for food isn’t a discipline problem. You could just ignore the child until they ask politely, or you could give the child a hint: “it’s hard for me to understand you when you’re whining. If you used polite words and a nice voice,  I could hear you better.” Ignore them as long as they’re whining. As soon as you hear the polite request, respond to it.
  • If you’ve asked your child to pick up their toys, and they are doing so… but they’re stomping around and making faces while they do it, ignore the bad behavior, and turn your attention to what they’re doing well: “Thanks for getting all the Legos back in the tub.”
  • If your kids are squabbling in the backseat, instead of scolding for that behavior, just say “hey, I downloaded a great science podcast you’ll really like. When you’re ready to listen, I’ll turn it on.” Drive on, ignoring the bickering till they settle down, then turn on the podcast.

Your goal is to ignore the annoying behavior. As soon as you see positive behavior, focus on that. This ignoring method is a corollary to the attention principle. The more attention a child gets for a behavior, the more they will repeat it. So, play plenty of attention to positive behaviors. Ignore the ones you don’t want to reinforce. (Of course, if the bad behavior is significant, you’ll set limits and consequences… Ignoring is mostly for the things that are annoying little things, not the big stuff.)

All discipline is grounded in relationship.This technique does not work in a relationship where the child is often ignored or dismissed. But in a warm relationship where they regularly get attention for positive behavior, ignoring can be effective. It’s important to be clear that this ignoring is not intended as a rejection of your child, just of their current behavior, so it takes place in the context of a loving relationship.

Also, if your child is having strong feelings, don’t dismiss the emotions. Validate the emotions and turn attention toward the positive things they are doing to cope with them, but ignore annoying behaviors that result. For example, my son was begging for more screen time, and I said “I know you’re really sad about not being able to play more.” And “I see you’re looking through your books for something else to do.” But I didn’t acknowledge the repeated begging.

You can also teach your children to use their “ignoring muscles.” If their sibling or classmate is annoying them, they can ignore the other child. If they respond, the annoying behavior continues. If they don’t respond, the other child may give up.

When ignoring, you really want to be bland and poker faced and show no outward sign of noticing or caring about the bad behavior.  Don’t roll your eyes or sigh. Just think: If your daughter puts her fingers in her ears, turns her back and says “I’m ignoring you” and then turns back to make sure your son has noticed he’s being “ignored”, then he’s not really being ignored is he? He’s actually got all of her attention right now. It’s better to walk away and do something else as blandly as possible.

Test this method out, and comment to let me know what you think!

This is one of the many tools taught by the Incredible Years parenting program – check out their book for all the details!

47 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids (or Their Heads Will Explode)

explode

There’s an article by Parents Magazine  that I often see shared on the internet. It’s titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids.” When I see that headline, I think of things like “You’re worthless.” “I hate you.” “I wish you’d never been born.” Those probably should fall in the category of things never to say to your kids. Or to anyone else’s kids, for that matter.

But what are the horrible, soul-wounding phrases that Parents magazine cautions against? “Great job.” “Practice makes perfect.” “Let me help.” “Be careful.” “You’re OK.”

Yeah. Pretty harsh, eh?

Now, when you read their article, it’s actually got lots of good content, with some helpful tips. It’s worth a read. I’m not concerned about the topic so much as the tone that is presented by the headline.

A better title would be “Translating Common Parenting Sayings into More Positive Statements Which Will Help Them Develop Into the Emotionally and Physically Healthy, Upstanding Citizens You Hope They Will Become.”

But, Parenting magazine knows the rules of modern media. When you want people to read a title on Facebook and click through to read the article, it helps to include a number in the title (“5 reasons chocolate is better for you than kale”) and it helps to convince people that if they don’t read the article something terrible will happen to them or their children. (“If you don’t follow these tips on screen time, your child will be brain damaged for life.”) Companies who advertise on a magazine’s website appreciate those “clickable” titles, because it means more people look at the article, and thus at their ads.

And it’s not just Parenting magazine – many other media outlets have used this same headline with success. Here’s just the first page of search results for “things never to say to your kids”

But, when parents read this headline, or countless others like it, how does it make parents feel? It raises anxiety. It creates stress around the sense of “I have to do everything right as a parent, or my child will end up screwed up.” It makes us feel guilty about all the times we’ve “done it wrong.”

For example, check out this anxiety and guilt  inducing intro from Parent Society:

If you’re a halfway decent parent, you do your best to not swear at your children or call them names. But other phrases that roll off the tongue can be every bit as dangerous — especially since you might not even realize you’re saying them. Take a look at six phrases you need to cut out of your conversations…

Then to read through  those six dangerous phrases, you have to click through seven pages that are so loaded with ads, it’s hard to actually find the content…

So, let’s first reality check these messages:

  1. Parents will say mean things to their kids. We do. I do – just yesterday I said some things I’m sure are on lists of “things never to say to your kids.” We have bad days, and we get angry, because we’re human. (Check out my series on parental anger – how to manage it and how to heal from it.)
  2. Luckily, kids are remarkably resilient. (To learn more about resiliency and how to help your kids build it, read this article by Jan Faull on the PEPS website.) If you have a positive, loving relationship with your child overall, a few harmful words will not damage that permanently.
  3. Almost all the things on all these lists of “things never to say” aren’t really that dreadful. I promise you that if you say good job to your child, they won’t be permanently damaged!!  However, there are many more things you might say instead, or in addition to, good job. Having an awareness of alternatives just helps broaden your list of options for how to connect with and guide your child.

So, I read through all those articles on things never to say. And I’ve gathered them all [well, almost all] into the left hand column of this table. But I am NOT saying “Never say these things.” Frankly, for most of these phrases, it would be totally fine if you say them from time to time. But, they don’t want to be the only message your child hears from you.

The middle column is just to help raise awareness of how these phrases could have a negative impact if over-used over time. The right hand column suggests other options you can try out, and gives resources for where you can learn more.

Phrase that “parenting experts” caution parents against using Negative / non-helpful ways the phrase could be heard by a child if this is all you ever said to them Alternative things to say or do (on good days when you have the time and energy) that may be more helpful
Good Job / Great Job / Good girl

 

That’s a beautiful picture
You did that just right
What a perfect building you built!

 

You’re the best _____ in the whole wide world

Empty praise – if it was something that was really easy for them to do, it’s weird to say good job.

Judgement – implies that there’s one right way to do things.

They’re reached their limit – you don’t think they can do any better.

 

They’ll someday realize you’re lying or exaggerating and lose faith in your judgment. Or they’ll feel pressure to really become the best.

Only praise things that took effort.

 

Focus on the process and HOW they did it and what they learned rather than on the product.
Give specific detailed feedback about what’s good, and what could be even better.
Read about questions to ask to extend their learning.

Read more about effective praise.

I’m proud of you

I love it when you….

It would make me happy / mad if you…

I’m ashamed when you….

I’ll never forgive you

Conditional love. Also implies that your emotional well-being as an adult is dependent on your child’s behavior of the moment. Let your children know that you will always love them, no matter what. (This doesn’t mean that their behavior is always OK – it’s not, and you do need to set limits. And it doesn’t mean you don’t have high expectations for them – you do want them to work hard and be good people. But your happiness is not dependent on that.)
Practice makes perfect Well, practice makes much better. But, it doesn’t make perfect because nothing is perfect. And aiming for perfect implies that mistakes are evil. “Practice and you will improve.”
“Making mistakes helps us get better.”
“If you aren’t making any mistakes, this is too easy for you and maybe you’re ready for more challenge.”
Read more about “Willingness to Fail is the Inventor’s Key to Success.”
You’re so [shy, smart, clumsy, pretty]

You’re the [strong, fast, silly, wild] one

You always…

You’ll never… [lose, win, do anything wrong / right]

You’re worthless / a loser

Girls don’t do that / Boys don’t like..

This is all labelling. Labelling your child limits them.

If you label them based on a problem behavior, It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they continue to be that way.

If you label them by a “talent” they have, then that creates a lot of pressure on them to retain that talent. They worry about losing your love / their identity if they don’t succeed in that area.

You do want to understand your child’s temperament, gender influences, and learning style and help support them in using their strengths to build confidence and work around the things that come harder to them. But don’t “label” kids or think they’ll never change.

Praise effort, not talent. Let them know that everyone can get better at anything if they work at it. Learn more about the growth-based mindset.

You’re just like [someone I don’t like]
Why can’t you be more like….Stop acting like a baby.
You’re so [bad adjective]
Big boys don’t…
Good girls don’t….
The first labels them (see above). The second means they’re always being held to someone else’s standard.
These statements are intended to shame a child. “A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves.”
Let your child become the very best them they can become without worrying whether they are just like someone else.

If you disapprove of a child’s behavior, tell them how to change the behavior. Try not to attack their identity or their sense of being worthy of your love.

What’s wrong with you? Implies that the problem is with them, instead of with the situation. “What’s wrong?”
“What happened that upset you?”
Let me help you

Just let me do it for you

You’re doing it wrong, let me do it

You’re too slow, I’ll do it

Implies that they’re not competent.

If you rescue your child from every challenge, how will they ever learn to do anything on their own?

Allow them to be frustrated. When we’re struggling with something, we’re on the verge of learning something new. (If they’re miserable, that’s a different story….)
Ask guiding questions – “what happens if…”
Make gentle suggestions “Try…”
If you’re really in a hurry say “I need to help you so we can get to preschool on time. Tomorrow you can try again when we have more time.”
You’re OK (after child is hurt and is crying)

Don’t cry

What a dumb thing to get upset about

Don’t worry, it will be fine

There’s no reason to be scared, just do it

Dismisses their feelings as unimportant.

 

Tells them not to trust their intuition and just do things even if they seem risky. (This could get them into all sorts of trouble as teenagers.)

Validate emotions and pain first, then reassure. Once you’ve said “I hear that you’re scared / hurt / worried” then you can address logical reasons why you believe that it will be OK in the end. More on emotion coaching.
Don’t talk to strangers. This blanket message can make your child fearful of everyone and also limit their ability to learn the social skills they’ll need as adults who very frequently have to talk to strangers! Model appropriate ways to interact with appropriate strangers.
Talk to them about how to tell the difference.
Read more about how to help your kid judge whether to talk to strangers.
Be careful. If over-used, can create a fearful child who thinks the world is a dangerous place. Also: Teacher Tom says: “An adult who commands, “Don’t slide down that banister!” might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is… robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do.” Demonstrate / model how to be safe.
Encourage them to look before leaping.
Encourage them to tune into how they feel about something – if they’re nervous, there may be a good reason.
When the risk is just a mild bump or bruise, let them test things. Someday they’ll get that bruise, and they’ll learn something important.
Read more about teaching safety skills.
I’ll never let anything bad happen to you

Don’t worry – you’ll always be safe

I promise – I’ll never die. I’ll always be here

Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. You can tell that you’ll try to do all these things. “I’ll do my best to keep you safe. I’ll try to always be there for you, for as long as I live. Sometimes bad things will happen and I’ll try to help give you tools for coping with that.”
You’re in the way.

I can’t get anything done with you around.

Hurry up. You’re making us late.

Shut up.

I have better things to do than…

Would you just leave me alone for 5 minutes?

We all know that children are terribly inconvenient room-mates who just make everything harder. But, we don’t need to tell them that every day!

These sorts of statements create stress and anxiety and make the child wonder if he is loved.

Give positive, concrete suggestions for other positive, concrete things they could be doing in the moment.

When you really need a break or need help, admit it and ask for it. That’s part of modelling self care. “Mama is really sick today. I need your help. Can you sit and play quietly for just a few minutes?”

If …. then…..  If you don’t do [this bad thing], then you’ll get [this punishment]. “I’m expecting bad behavior and am looking forward to punishing you.” When … then….  “When you do [good thing that I’m expecting you to do], then we’ll get to do [this fun thing] together.” Learn more about punishment and reward.
Wait till your father gets home… Makes someone else into a bad guy.

Implies that you don’t have enough power to enforce consequences.

Consequences should be immediate, logical, and enforced by the parent who encountered the misbehavior.
I told you so

That’s what you get for not listening

Yes, you probably told them not to do something, and yes, it’s frustrating when they do it anyway. But rubbing it in serves no purpose. “Well, that’s not what you were hoping would happen is it? What could you do differently in the future so you don’t have this problem again?”
Because I said so Implies that you make arbitrary judgments on a whim and they have no control over that. “I’m your parent, and it’s my job to keep you safe and help you grow up to be a good person and keep things running well around the house. Sometimes I have to enforce rules you don’t like. It feels unfair to you, but I will continue to do what I think is best.”

Discipline is grounded in Relationship

scribble

Last night, in a class discussion about discipline, we were sharing examples of discipline challenges. One mom said sometimes when she puts out paper and markers, she tells her child he needs to keep the markers on the paper, and not draw off the edges of the paper onto the table. Yet, he often draws off the edges, looking up at her to see her reaction.

There are several possible responses to this situation: You could change the environment to make it easier for him to succeed: place a big piece of newspaper under the art paper so if he draws off the edges it doesn’t matter. You could create a game that makes it easier to succeed by telling him what to do: “I drew a big turtle here. Can you color in the turtle’s shell? This is a re-direction: telling him a different activity to focus on with the same objects. And you can “catch him being good” by noticing what a good job he does of staying on the paper most of the time. You could use substitution – giving him different materials to do the same action with. “I see you really love doing big giant scribbles. We can’t do that on the table. Let’s get some chalk and go draw on the sidewalk.” (Or water to paint the fence with, or a giant piece of paper on the floor.) You could model by sitting next to him and drawing yourself. You could think about whether he’s developmentally ready for the task: maybe he’s just not old enough to keep the marker on the paper reliably. If you think it’s purposeful misbehavior (not just that he’s young and goes off the paper by accident) you could set limits and consequences: “It’s not OK to draw on the table. If you do it again, I will need to take away the markers and paper.”

So, which one of these possible actions do you do? What will work best in the short-term and the long-term to move your child toward behaving like you want him to? (This being the goal of discipline.)

The answer: it depends.

Temperament: I often say that the type of parenting your child needs depends on their temperament. For example, for most children, it works well to put on your voice of authority in discipline situations and speak sternly to them so they know you’re serious. But, there are a few children who are easily distressed by a stern voice or strong words (possibly those whose love language is words of affirmation). They will feel ashamed or anxious if you use this tone. They may instead need you to be gentle and say quietly “I love you and I’m concerned about you. How can we help you do better?”

Motivation: I also think that what form of discipline works depends on your motivation and your child’s motivation. For example, if you really want your child to love doing art, you might think about ways to do art that don’t make messes that trouble you, so you might take your child and the chalk and go outside. But, if your motivation was to get your child to sit still for just a minute while you cook, then you may try something other than an art project. If your child loves doing art, then the consequence of “I will take away the markers” would be a big motivator to try to do things differently. But if they’re not that motivated to do art, then they’ll probably just continue drawing on the table so you will take the markers away and maybe give them something they think is more interesting to do.

For more thoughts on motivation, read this post on Motivation, Punishment and Reward.

Relationship: But today, as I thought about temperament and I thought about motivation, I realized that really the key to deciding which discipline tool will work for you and your child in the moment is Relationship.

  • Relationship helps you understand their temperament and know how you need to adapt your message so they hear and respond to it.
  • Relationship helps you understand their motivations. If you know someone well, then you will know whether it would be more effective to say “if you can do this [good behavior], then you can have this [thing you want]” or “if you continue to do that [bad behavior], I’m going to have to enforce this consequence you don’t want.”
  • If you have a loving and trusting relationship, they will believe you when you say things like “I love you. But that behavior was not OK, so I needed it to stop. I know you can do better in the future.” If you have to enforce consequences, they’ll know that they weren’t done out of anger or lack of love for them, but were instead done to help motivate them toward better behavior.
  • If you have a positive relationship and positive expectations for your child, they will want to live up to those expectations and be worthy of your respect.

Effective discipline needs to be based in a consistent, reliable, respectful relationship.

There are some “discipline tools” which don’t honor this. For example, any discipline that involves shaming your child doesn’t come from a positive relationship place. “You are so bad. You know not to do that but you keep on doing it because you’re a bad kid.” Shame might re-direct their behavior in the short run, but it doesn’t lead to them feeling good about themselves or about you. Another example is physical punishment, such as spanking. Physical punishment done in anger is very frightening to a child and very damaging to a relationship. But even well-reasoned, “logical” punishment is not the best discipline tool. It does work to change behavior in the short-term. But, it doesn’t motivate the child to do better in the future, especially when the punishing parent is out of sight. So, in our example from above: if every time a child drew on the table, you slapped their hands, they would probably stop drawing on the table. But, they would have less trust in you, and consider art and drawing to be stressful and unpleasant activities.

Instead, it is best if discipline comes from a place of: “I love you and I want to help you grow up to be a good person. I know that you’re still figuring out what that means, and testing your limits, so you’re going to do bad things sometimes. That’s normal… but it’s not OK. When you do bad things, I will stop you, and I will tell you how to do better in the future. Because I know that you can be a good person.”

Because relationship is so key to discipline, remember this: No matter which discipline tool you use to respond to a situation, the very first thing you need to do is connect to your child: get down to their level, look in their eyes, or touch them gently. Make sure you have their attention. Then you can re-direct, or substitute, or set limits, or whatever. And they will hear you, and remember that your request comes from the relationship: you love them and you want them to be safe and successful. To remember this step, use the mantra: Connect to Correct.

 

photo credit: Sam’s first mastrpiece (recto) via photopin (license)