Time out for time outs?

August 21, 2006

Last week I went to my four-year-old’s pre-k orientation.  Her teacher said something I thought was very interesting.

When discussing discipline, she said she didn’t use “time-out” because she didn’t think it worked.  Instead, she used only positive reinforcement.

On a separate but related note, Saturday I gave my son a time-out because he clamped his hand over my daughter’s mouth when she was irritating him.  He was very upset, and cried.  Then last night I gave him another time-out– this one more serious (a time-out from video games)– because he did it again.  From his response you would think there had been a death in the family.  I really thought he had gone into shock.  He didn’t talk to me for about an hour and just stared at the wall.

I’ve been struggling to put these two events together.  I have always believed the traditional notion of development that choices have consequences, and part of healthy child development is to help the child learn the connection between the choice and the consequence based on both positive and negative choices.

Lately, though, I have begun to question that strategy.

As the pre-k teacher indicated, it is far easier and more productive to focus on the connection through positive choices.  I think as humans we have a tendancy to focus on the negative choices; or should I say the negative consequences.  At least most parents I observe focus more on negative feedback than positive feedback, and many religions within Christianity focus at least as much on what we “should not” be doing more than what we “should” be doing or how well we are doing it.

To some degree that is probably a difference between healthy adult development and healthy child development.  But at least in my own children, one in particular (my son) I have noticed that due to his sensitivity about negative feedback, I really can’t use much negative feedback without having an unintended consequence of damaging his self-esteem.

I’m not generalizing here– I’m talking specifically about my son.  I was at another event the other day where another child was spitting water at someone else in the room and the teacher could do nothing to stop him.  It appeared that no amount of negative feedback could stop him from continuing.

We are all different.  My son is very sensitive.  Negative feedback, as it did on me, has consequences that extend far beyond the intended period and choice for which it was intended.  It leaves a mark, so to speak- almost like corporal punishment.  The child spitting water, in my opinion, needs a more structured approach to child discipline- I have my own opinion about what that might be, but we’ll leave it at that.

I think that is one problem with the church.  It cannot be “one size fits all.”  We all have our own needs.  What might be bruising for me may be completely necessary for you.  I know this is repetitive from my last few posts, but I like this particular metaphor– the child development metaphor.  Some kids respond to gentle correction; some kids respond to humor; some kids respond best to direct instruction.  There is no “magic answer.”

I have seen some kids who try to apply their “solution” or style to other children when they know that the child is not behaving properly.  How often do we hear a child knowing tell us what the solution is in their innocent way because it is right for them, not understanding that it may not be right for all?  My daughter, on the way to the grocery store last night, said, “Lunchables (a brand of pre-packed lunches) aren’t good for you and I can’t take them to school anymore.”  I said, “Who told you that?”  She said, “My friend.”  Well, does her friend realize that I have tried sending everything else possible in the lunchbox but it doesn’t get eaten?  Of course not.  She is four.  She is repeating what her parents have told her works for her, and then teaching my daughter that it should work for her too.

Sounds to me just like the church.  We all want everybody else to find the same answers we find.  Apparently it is hard-wired in us, because we start doing it as children.  I think that part of the journey is figuring out how to live in true diversity; how to live together dispite the fact that none of us has the same answers.  It is only when we


2 Responses to “Time out for time outs?”

  1. D Hamilton Says:

    From his response you would think there had been a death in the family. I really thought he had gone into shock. He didn’t talk to me for about an hour and just stared at the wall.

    Careful – sounds like he knows how to play you.
    Sorry the world is a negative feedback biosphere. Poor decisions are punished by being eaten, better decisions are rewarded by survival and thriving. Sort of a Darwinian conundrum.
    Be sure to moderate your positive feedback with some harsher lessons sufficient so that your son knows how not to be eaten by those that look to prey upon him.

    Oh – good luck ….. the Lord knew what he was doing when he blessed me with only daughters.

  2. Jeff Says:

    I hear you, and thanks.

    But my larger point is that sometimes we are our own worst judge.

    As a sensitive child myself, I know that receiving negative feedback was unduly hard on me. That is how I took my son’s reaction. I have much better response from my son with a comment like, “How do you think that made Kacy feel?” than with “You go to time out because you made a choice that wasn’t acceptable.”

    We are all different, and it is hard to generalize the experiences of one to many, which is the mistake I think we are prone to make in the church. My daughter- for example- would she have had a reaction for an hour, would have definitely been playing me for all I was worth!!


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