Time to say Good-Bye to Time-Out. ~ Caitlin Winkley

Via elephant journal
on Jan 11, 2012
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What do children want?  The same thing that you and I want –– to be loved, respected and cared for. Except, unlike adults, children rely on other people to get their needs met.

Babies enter into this world with 100 billion brain cells. That’s roughly as many cells as there are stars in the Milky Way, which is two times the amount of the average adult. Our early childhood environment is largely responsible for how these neurons become wired together.  It is during this time that most synapses, connections in a child’s world, become made and usually set for life (although, we have the ability to change these set patterns). In fact, 90% of all neural connections are made within the first six years of life.

Psychologists who have studied children’s growth from birth to young adulthood maintain that growth can be divided into various and distinct developmental periods. These periods can be referred to as sensitive periods in one’s life. The most important developmental stage is known to be from birth to age six. It is here that the foundation of one’s manifest spirit begins to take place and the intelligence for life becomes formed.

Maria Montessori was a European early childhood educator in the 1900’s who was far ahead of her time. She intensely studied early childhood development and came to the conclusion that the mind of the early child until age six is absorbent. From birth to age three a child’s mind is completely absorbent. At age three the rational mind begins to develop. Absorption still continues to take place until age six, when the rational mind begins to take over. What this means is that children between the ages of birth to six are constantly taking in new information. Since their rational mind hasn’t been fully developed yet, they have no filters or discernment for what they are taking in. Therefore, they take in everything.

They are literally like living a sponge, sucking up all that life brings its way. Not all of the information we take in stays with us forever. Cells we no longer use, we lose. This is a process called synaptic pruning. I tend to think of it like digging a groove for water to flow. The deeper, the more dug the groove, the more water is going to flow in that particular direction. Our brains are much like that. The more reinforced connections become established in children’s brains, the more synapses they will have to match that made connection.

As parents, care takers, educators, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends we want to support our young children in establishing the best possible healthy brain connections. Right? Then do yourself and your children this one favor. Stop putting your children in time-out (at least before the age of six, although I don’t agree with it ever).

As an early childhood educator, a nanny, an aunt and a baby-on-the-street lover, I’ve seen a lot of scary stuff go down in terms of disciplining children. One common tactic widely used amongst caretakers is what’s known as “time-out”. You’ve all seen it, or you’ve done it. You know, your child starts acting in a way in which you deem to be inappropriate; you then instruct your child to go be alone by themselves for a certain amount of allotted time in either, a corner, a specially marked time-out chair, their bedroom, your bedroom or just some isolated part of the house. This is one of the most emotionally damaging things we could do to our children. Before the age of six, the part of the brain which is responsible for logic and reason, the neocortex, has not become fully developed. Around age three we can see examples of children starting to exercise reason. That’s right, just starting to. Therefore, their brains are still very much in the absorbent stage.

What this means in terms of putting children in time-out is that children before the age of six will not understand why they are in time-out. Quite literally, their brains aren’t able to make that logical connection for them.

For example, let’s say a five year old hits his little sister. A parent’s automatic response may be to immediately put that child in time-out. The child is not physically able to make the connection inside of himself between hitting his sister and now being in time-out. Maybe the child just had a lot of excess energy and had no other resource available to him to release it, so he hit his sister.

Since the logical connection of why he is in time-out isn’t able to be made, other absorptions, or impressions become formed in the brain in lieu of something rational. These absorptions usually manifest in children thinking they are bad or not good enough and can stick with children throughout their lives.

Surely, if you were told to go stand in a corner and be all alone from everyone, a part of you would think you were bad or not good enough too, even as an adult, with our rational mind in full function! If neural pathways are created through repetition of connections, what type of synapse do you think would be set up through the constant use of time-out?

We want to bring our children close to us and cloak them in love, not send them off in time-out. Ironically, the closer emotionally our children are to us in early childhood, the more emotionally independent they will be later in life.

If a child elicits a behavior that is undesirable to you as a parent or caretaker I would urge you to be the one to take the time-out. Often it is the parents that get anxious and frustrated and need a break, not the child. The next time your child “acts up,” ask yourself, what need of my child’s isn’t being met right now?

An acted out undesirable behavior from a child only means that there is a need that’s not being met. You can start simply by applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs –– is the child hungry, cold, hot or tired? Does the child need extra gentleness, sensitivity or light touch? Does the child need an avenue to express energy by means of physical activity? Keep going down the list until you are able to uncover the hidden need.

Above all, remember this ­­­­–– next time you want to put your child in time-out, stop. Put yourself in time-out. From there, figure out what your child’s deeper need is and give it with love and kindness.


Caitlin Winkley lives in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. You can usually find her outside having whimsical adventures. She studied early childhood education and the psychology of healing at Naropa University and spiritual healing and spiritual ministry at the University of Spiritual Healing and Sufism. She has just decided to take everything that she’s learned over the last several years and create a spiritual counseling practice. Her passion in life is helping people step into their full potential by removing any limiting beliefs or patterns that stand in the way. Want to know how to do that? Hit me up on facebook or shoot me an email. [email protected]


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22 Responses to “Time to say Good-Bye to Time-Out. ~ Caitlin Winkley”

  1. Lorin says:

    Oh no… is there a part two? I wanted to hear the rest!

    I'm posting to Elephant Family on Facebook and anxiously awaiting the remainder!

    Lorin Arnold
    Blogger at The VeganAsana
    Associate Editor for Elephant Food
    Co-Editor for Elephant Family

  2. Caitlin says:

    Hi Lorin, There is definitely more to come from me on this topic! Please stay tuned! Thank you for reading 🙂 ~Caitlin

  3. Megan says:

    What other techniques for discipline is healthy and productive to curb negative behavior ?

  4. Melissa says:

    Thank you for this. While my son is only 11 months old and I have not yet been tempted to use time out, the notion has always felt wrong to me.

  5. Anna Marie says:

    I’m curious if you have suggestions for teaching toddlers and children which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. I do use time out but always explain why (ie. you’re in your room because ____.) Do you have children and if so how do you respond when they exhibit an undesirable or dangerous behavior that you want to change?

  6. I'm with Anna Marie, above. What is your suggestion instead? What is the alternative parenting that works?

  7. This is a great article. We need to re-think "discipline" that creates shame. In addition, I think being separated from the family is an anxiety producing experience. If a young child was separated from his/her family before modern civilization, it most likely meant death. The primal survival instinct says, "Stay close!"

  8. Caitlin says:

    Hi Megan, thank you for reading. I am going to write a part 2 article within the next few days and I'm going to address this exact question – If not time-out, then what? I'm going to write a new twist on what discipline really means and how to use it with children. ~Caitlin

  9. Caitlin says:

    Thanks for your comment, Anna Marie. If you read my article, then you might remember that time-out is always ineffective before the age of six, *even if you are explaining why.* The neo-cortex, which is responsible for logic and reason has been scientifically proven to not be fully developled before age six. Therefore, no matter the amount of explaining you do, children before the age of six will not logically be able to make the brain connection to understand why they are in time-out. I am writing a part 2 article within the next few days which will include how to respond to undersirable behaviors in children. I will also provide alternative methods to time-out. ~Caitlin

  10. Caitlin says:

    Hi Shining Light, thank you for reading. Like I told the others above, I will be writing a part 2 within the next couple of days and I am going to answer all of these awesome questions! Stay tuned! ~Caitlin

  11. Caitlin says:

    Lastly, you contradicted yourself by saying, "Children, unlike dogs, do have the ability to understand and rationalize cause and effect." Then a few sentences later, "Try rationalizing with a 2-year-old having a tantrum!" Perhaps you should educate yourself on the science of brain development and then with that education, become clear on your own beliefs. ~Caitlin

  12. Caitlin says:

    Yes, Jacey, we do need to re-think discipline and what it actually means and how to implement it. I'm going to be writing about just that in my part 2 article! ~Caitlin

  13. BrotherRog says:

    In a word. Yes!!

    In a few more: What a wonderfully profound and insightful blog! A real gift to the world.

    Bless you.


  14. Caitlin says:

    Hi Josh, I hear you on what you are saying. However, one point I would make is that I believe it is exact science and also intuition. The science part of it is what I described in the article about brain development before the age of six. The intuitive part of it is attuning to your child to figure out where he/she is at energetically, emotionally and logically at any given time, because you are right, it's not like one day the logical part of our brain just turns on. It will be different for every child (around the age of six). Yes, children are actively learning cause and effect from age three on, however due to the brain not being fully developed in the area of logic and reason, I personally would choose other tactics than time-out to use, until I know they are definitely old enough to get it. Especially at age three, I see children more absorbing with their brain than using logic.
    more to come in my second comment… won't let me post the whole thing..

  15. Caitlin says:

    However, it seems as though, like Megan above, you may also be using time-out in a different way, which I then don't consider to be called time-out. If you're not using time-out as a punishment, but rather removing stimuli in order to support the energetic level of your child, then I say, right on! ~Caitlin

  16. Caitlin says:

    Thank you, Roger.

  17. Caitlin says:

    Hi again Anna Marie, I re-read your question and my response and I would like to add to it — I apologize if I came off strong in my response to you. I said that time-out is always ineffective before the age of six, but I would like to clarify. I tend to use this as a general rule of thumb, but it's not like a child turns six and then bam, he can integrate logic and reason into his life. I see it more as an interative process of gaining the understanding of reason and logic that starts around age three and fully develops in the brain around age six. To say that time-out is always ineffective before the age of six is inaccurate of me. When you feel your child has reached the developmental state of understanding logic and reason, then yes, explaining to your child would definitely be effective. ~Caitlin

  18. Caitlin says:

    iterative process*

  19. […] Time to say Good-Bye to Time-Out. ~ Caitlin Winkley (elephantjournal.com) […]

  20. Caitlin says:

    Here's the link to my part two article- http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/02/time-to-sa

  21. Cisca says:

    Great article Cait! While I can't say I have a lot of experience with children, I also want to add to the conversation something that stuck with me from my psychology studies and personal memory, which is that children need help regulating overwhelming emotions, a skill that is then internalized as they grow up. I have really bad memories of being put on time out during a tantrum and having my emotions just escalate out of control. I can't speak to the cause and effect part of the argument- but I think learning healthy self-soothing techniques, through contact with the soothing, stable, calm parent is very important-if not all the time, a good portion of the time. But I understand parents are stressed out too…then what?

  22. Caitlin says:

    Hi, Cisca! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I totally agree with you, helping our children to regulate their emotions and self-soothe is extremely important for emotional health. If a parent is to teach regulation to their children, then of course they must know how to regulate themselves first. If you're feeling really stressed out in the moment and you're trying to soothe your stressed out child, chances are it's not going to work too well. I think the most important thing we can do as parents is to work on the parts of ourselves that do experience stress, and send love to and heal those parts, so that we are bringing the most resourced parent to our child. If you get a chance, check out my part 2 article 🙂