Disciplining a toddler with timeout: smart or soft?

Almost nothing stays with a kid longer than the feeling of being punished by his parents.  What I remember most is not the particulars of the punishment—a spanking, a bar of soap, not being able to drive for a month—but the feeling of having done wrong in my parents’ eyes.  Even at 30 it would still hit me hard if my dad were to let me know that he thought I’d acted badly.

I had this thought in mind yesterday at lunchtime when James launched his sippy cup into the tray of the open dishwasher.  It clattered among the dirty plates and startled me enough that I dropped/slammed the wooden cutting board I was washing down in the sink.  “That was not funny,” I shouted as I spun his high-chair around to face away from the kitchen. “You’ve got timeout!”

Now, I didn’t receive timeout as a kid but Caroline and I have taken to using it as parents.  I think of it as one of the stereotypical practices of middle class American childrearing.  I’ve read several academic studies about parenting recently and in the compare and contrast between American-style parenting and parenting styles in other parts of the world, “time out” is always listed as a key distinction between the way we raise our children and the way the Kalahari bushmen raise theirs.  If it’s not on Stuff White People Like it should be.

I asked Caroline why she thinks “timeout” is ridiculed.  “Because it’s wussy,” she said.  That sounds right to me.  The most obvious point of comparison is the belt, as in “Dad’s going to get the belt if you don’t shape up,” and in that sense timeout is just another way that late-stage American culture has grown soft.  During the ’08 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton called Barack Obama a Pollyanna after he said he’d be willing to hold diplomatic talks with the world’s worst dictators.  In her view dictators, like toddlers, only respond to force.  (Caroline adds that it’s misguided to think that either dictators or toddlers respond to force or to diplomacy: “They’re both just crazy,” she says.)

So I felt like a bit of a caricature yesterday as I gave James timeout for throwing his cup in the dishwasher.  When his minute was up I turned his seat back around and asked him if he knew why he’d been given timeout.  “No throw cup a dishwasher,” he said.

“That’s right,” I replied, pleased to hear that the time he’d had to contemplate his misdeed had clarified things for him.  “We don’t throw the cup in the dishwasher.”  The grin on his face told me that he was already plotting his next projectile.

One of the central things timeout accomplishes is that it depersonalizes punishment. If James throws his cup into the dishwasher and is given timeout, the implication is that he did wrong by the dishwasher.  If, instead, James throws his cup into the dishwasher and dad flies into apoplexy, the implication is that he did wrong by dad.  The difference between timeout and spanking is like the difference between a police officer giving out a parking ticket—”Nothing personal, I’m just doing my job”—and God raining fire and brimstone on Gomorrah—”You better believe it’s personal.”

So which approach is better?  I’m not a timeout kind of parent by disposition but I’ve warmed to its merits.  I like that with minor events like the dishwasher incident timeout keeps the interaction between me and James simple and more predictable.  As he gets older and the lessons he learns grow more complex I hope I’ll keep in mind how powerful my parents’ judgments were to me as a kid (both when they’d praise me and when they were angry at me), and be conservative in how and when I express my own judgments to James.

At the same time, I know that I’m going to be an integral part of James’ moral world as he grows up, and that my responsibility to him is as more than an umpire who dispassionately calls strikes and balls in his behavior.

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