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When Time-Outs Don't Work

boy sitting on the stairs being punished

Fancy Photography/Veer

In my family, time-outs work so well that my 4-year-old recently told my 6-year-old to take a time-out for hitting -- and he did. I'm lucky, I know. Not everyone finds this discipline tactic so tried-and-true.

"For some children, time-outs are a joke," says Larry Koenig, Ph.D., author of Smart Discipline: Fast, Lasting Solutions for Your Peace of Mind and Your Child's Self-Esteem. "They either won't stay put, or they get into a power struggle with their parents, or they couldn't care less about having to sit in a chair for ten minutes. In cases like that, the time-out doesn't modify misbehavior one bit."

If you're among those who haven't had success with time-outs, you need to find an alternative discipline strategy that will get results. Remember, your ultimate goal is to change the way your child acts -- not to make him miserable. So gauge your child's temperament, then choose a technique that seems most likely to work for him. Here are some parent-tested discipline tools you can try.

Logical consequences. Molly Bardsley, of Tucker, Georgia, will end a playdate if either her daughter Zoe, 6, or the playmate whines or argues. At the park, she'll warn Zoe that they'll have to leave if she strays too far from the playground area. "She follows my rules because she knows that I'm going to enforce them," Bardsley says.

Matching the punishment to the crime helps your child connect actions and results and teaches responsibility. When you use this technique, it's best to explain the consequence ahead of time, giving your child ample warning. But when you haven't foreseen the misbehavior, think of an appropriate consequence connected to the infraction -- and enforce it quickly.

"It can't come too long after the misbehavior," says Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., author of "I Never Get Anything!": How to Keep Kids From Running Your Life. For instance, if your son is racing up and down the aisles at the grocery store, don't tell him that "next time" he'll have to ride in the shopping cart; put him in it right away.

Loss of privileges. Even though 3-year-old Ethan Absler gets read to throughout the day, taking away his storybook at nap- or bedtime is a major punishment, says his mom, Lauren, of Highland Park, Illinois. "I stack the books before our bedtime routine begins and say, 'This is how many books you may have if you put on your pajamas, brush your teeth, and get into bed.' " If he doesn't cooperate, his parents remove a book from the stack.

Determine which privilege your child likes the most -- whether it's watching television, playing with a certain toy, or going to bed at 8 p.m. instead of 7:30 -- and take it away from her if she misbehaves, suggests Ruth Peters, Ph.D., author of Laying Down the Law.

Be careful, however, not to take away too much for too long. For kids under 9, it's best to remove privileges or toys for a day at a time rather than, say, a week. That way, your child must make the choice each day not to nag or fight with her brother. Also, parents usually are too tempted to shorten lengthy punishments a few days later, which jeopardizes their effectiveness.

Warning systems. If the child perceives a large enough consequence ahead -- the loss of a favorite privilege or toy, for instance -- a warning system can work well. Dr. Phelan has long touted his "1-2-3 Magic" system. Instead of lecturing, parents just announce a number each time the child acts up: "We don't hit, Bobby. That's one." The next time he hits, you just say, "That's two!" The third time, "That's three!" -- and then enforce a consequence.

Dr. Peters suggests another kind of warning system that's effective for kids ages 3 to 7: Draw three smiley faces on a sheet of paper, and tape it to the refrigerator. When the child misbehaves, put an X through one face and write the infraction below. If all the faces get crossed off, the child loses a privilege. "It's amazing how powerful a crossed-off smiley face is to children -- they just can't stand it!" she says.

Rewards for good behavior. Helen Dolan, of Ridgewood, New Jersey, has used rewards successfully with her 3-year-old daughter, Mia. Every morning, Dolan reminds Mia about the family's biggest rules: Don't hit the cat, and don't jump on the couch. If Mia follows the rules throughout the day, she gets to pick a reward -- her favorites are helping Mom in the kitchen or getting to watch an extra video. "It's gotten to the point now where just the threat of not getting her reward is enough to stop her from acting out," Dolan says.

Dr. Peters ties the reward method into the smiley-face warning system. She suggests putting some stickers, a small toy, or a few coins into a jar at the beginning of the day. If your child ends up having three smiley faces crossed off her sheet, take away one of the "prizes" in the jar. The goal is to get through the day with all the prizes intact. Whatever system you chose, make sure the reward is appropriate to your child's age and is enticing enough for him to want to behave. And don't forget to praise him for good behavior when you give him his reward.

Monetary fine. If a child is old enough for an allowance -- usually around age 5 -- he may be old enough to pay the price for bad behavior. (This works best if kids are required to use their own money for toys or arcade tokens.) Post a chart showing how much various infractions cost -- a nickel for not putting away his toys, a quarter for fighting with his brother. Some families have a jar in the kitchen, and every time a child uses a bad word or hits or whines, the child must put a coin into the jar.

Additional chores. Having to do tasks they don't like often helps keep kids in line. "Instead of getting into a power struggle, say, 'Come over here -- I have laundry for you to sort or wastebaskets that need emptying,' " Dr. Koenig suggests. Parents can also require extra chores outside the child's usual list to make amends for bad behavior. When my 4- and 6-year-old sons fight, I often send one to their playroom and the other to their bedroom to sort toys into their appropriate containers. Post a list of three or four particularly unappealing chores, like sweeping the floor or weeding the garden, so kids will know ahead of time what's in store if they misbehave.

Redirecting their energy. Sometimes, removing your child from the scene may be enough to help him calm down and recognize the problem. "Just take a walk with your child," Dr. Koenig says. "Don't harp on the problem or lecture, just walk. And at some point during the walk, say, 'Hey, Ben, I really love you, but you cannot hit your brother.'"

Where's the punishment in that, you ask? There isn't one. But since your real goal with any form of discipline is to throw cold water on a heated situation and make your child stop the misbehavior, such low-key techniques sometimes are enough to get the job done.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2003 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.