When your child is behaving in a way that you don’t care to see, it can be hard to figure out what to do – especially when what they are doing gets you feeling upset and frustrated that they’re not doing “the right thing”. As a parent, it is our job to teach our children what the expectations are, what behaviours are appropriate and inappropriate, and how to use self-control in situations where we want to do something other than what’s expected of us. Often in these moments of “AH! Did you seriously do that?! You can’t do that.” we resort to a time-held tradition of sending our wee ones to time out. Unfortunately, this might not be the best solution for teaching our children.
As an Early Childhood Educator, I don’t use time outs as they are more of a method for the parent to calm down in a frustrating situation, rather than to the child’s benefit of learning appropriate behaviour. They can be confusing for a child, since they are not reasonably connected to the behaviour. Often the child has forgotten all about the incident that sent them to time out by the time they are welcomed to join the situation again, and feels more resentment for the parent that sent them there than they feel responsible for their actions.
What works much better and teaches rather than removes is natural and logical consequences. Now, coming up with consequences that are appropriate for the age, development and misguided behaviour of a child can be challenging, but honestly, parenting isn’t supposed to be “easy”. Nothing worth having or doing comes easily, and I for one am happy to invest my time and energy into raising children who are thoughtful (in every sense of the word) and caring human beings.
So what are natural and logical consequences?
Natural consequences are those in which a consequence of a child’s action or decision come about naturally, on it’s own. In this case, the parent can help to gently bring awareness to the fact that the consequence occurred directly because of what the child chose to do (or not do). For instance, if a child doesn’t want to put on their coat, then goes outside on a cold day, they will likely become chilly and remember (possibly with a reminder from an adult) that when they go out without a coat, they will be cold, and opt for a jacket next time. Or if a child doesn’t eat anything at meal time, the natural consequence will come about in the form of being hungry, helping to teach the child that we eat at mealtime so we don’t go hungry.
Sometimes the child will choose no coat or no food, and not become cold or hungry. Does this mean that natural consequences don’t work? No, it means that sometimes what we think children need isn’t the case. Perhaps Johnny is running most of the time he plays outside and is quite warm without a coat. Maybe Sally didn’t eat because her growth spurt has come to a pause and she doesn’t need that much food at this meal. Sometimes the natural consequence we were waiting for becomes more of a lesson to us as adults that we don’t always know best.
Logical consequences are those in which a parent must put in place a consequence that is directly linked to the misbehavior and can be used to “repair” the initial wrongdoing of the child. As I’ve mentioned in this post about what to do when your toddler bites and hits, giving your child a way to “fix” what their actions may have harmed offers the child a way to come back from inappropriate behaviour feeling positive about themselves and that they are capable of making themselves and others feel good through their actions.
As an example of logical consequences, consider a child who was throwing rocks at a window, and the window broke. You could send young Ted to time out, where he isn’t learning anything about respecting property and the power of his actions on others. Or, you could help Ted clean up the broken glass, apologize to the owner of the now-broken window, have him help put up plastic to keep wind and rain coming through, and work to pay for a new window. Or any of these logical and directly related consequences, if not all of them were feasible in your particular situation.
This is what often makes these learning situations challenging, the fact that there is no one blanket solution, but each situation is unique and calls for thoughtful consideration for a uniquely appropriate consequence.
I should also point out that with some children that have certain needs and challenges, time out is a successful strategy as laid out in their specific guidance strategy, developed through their team of professionals. To just say “X is never the right choice” denies the fact that each situation is different and requires an individual assessment, and there are always exceptions to every rule.
I was once asked whether time out would be an appropriate solution for a toddler who was biting. With babies and toddlers it can be a lot more difficult to come up with a logical consequence that is appropriate for this age and developmental stage. Difficult, but not impossible. We try our best, and keep in mind that the very young may need more guidance and redirection, with extra patience and understanding.
The best natural consequence I can think of for a toddler biting a parent would be that “Ouch!” You are hurt and you don’t want to nurse/play anymore. It’s likely the child is looking for a reaction and/or teething, so showing that it hurts and you won’t continuing doing what you were doing if they bite, then redirecting to something they CAN chew might help. If the biting is directed at other children, here is a helpful solution for learning what’s appropriate.
So what is “Time Away”?
Time away IS a successful strategy for children, that is similar to time out, but actually teaches them self control and how to calm down. When a child is getting too emotional or frustrated by a situation, you can help to teach them to self-regulate their emotions and reactions by taking them to a quiet, comfortable “safe” space where they can sit and do something calming (look at books, hold stuffies, squeeze a stress ball, etc). In time away, a child is the one who should have control of when to leave, when he or she feels calmed down enough to deal with the situation again more appropriately. At that point, it’s helpful for them to have an adult join them in returning to the previously overwhelming situation to ensure that the child is set up for success with the right words, tools, understanding or skills to be able to handle the situation.
Self-control and self-regulation are invaluable skills for us busy, stressed out human beings to have a good handle on. Understanding what to do and how to regain emotional control of oneself when a situation becomes too upsetting to think and react appropriately will serve children in so many scenarios as they learn and grow, and will hopefully help them on their journey to becoming the fantastic people we know they can be, and support the wonderful little people that they already are.
I hope this has been helpful to you! May you get through all of parenting’s many challenges relatively unscathed!