As part of Religious Education at my school, we studied the Seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. It was actually quite interesting.
Within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we learned about the criminal justice system and the different purposes which punishments can serve.
I recently came across this article,which raises some concerns about the current popularity of ‘time out’ as a parenting technique. However, the article seems to me a bit equivocal as to whether the strategy actually works, and I wonder whether this is because it fails to establish the victory conditions. It is an important research principle that one cannot evaluate the success of anything without first defining what success would mean.
With that in mind, I propose to apply the categories of punishment from the 1992 GCSE RE syllabus to the ‘Naughty Step’.
The offender is given the opportunity to ‘make it up’ to their victim, or to society at large.
This is clearly not the purpose of ‘time out’, and would be better achieved by, for example, making a ‘sorry’ card or doing extra chores.
So far, so straightforward.
The punishment encourages the offender to mend their ways and be a better person in future. This is more complicated, and I think is closest to what the PBS article (linked above) was trying to address. So – can a child in ‘time out’ learn the error of their ways?
My strongest memories of this childhood punishment (in which I was sent to my room, as was the custom of the time) are of counting the seconds until I was allowed to go back downstairs and play. I think that I did learn something from the experience – a kind of resilience based on waiting it out, the belief that ‘this too shall pass’ – and that that was helped by the certainty that when I had served my time, my mother would be warm and loving. Maybe it also taught me something about coping with my own shortcomings, accepting the consequences of my failures with grace and patience, knowing that I could move on from them. I find it interesting, though, that I can remember nothing about the crimes which led to my exile – I wonder whether it had any immediate effect on my behaviour.
I have seen many children seething on the ‘naughty step’, cultivating anger and resentment against the parent who put them there. As soon as they are told the sanction for their behaviour, all the focus moves away from the behaviour which needs to change and onto the injustice which has been done to them.
Very occasionally, my children have experienced remorse during their Time Out and have resolved to behave differently. Those were the times when I sat with them on the Naughty Step, held them close and talked quietly about how sad they were to have hurt each other. Occasionally, having a parent alongside them has enabled them to overcome the hurt and anger and rejection, and to find better ways to control themselves.
My five-year-old came in while I was typing this, so I asked her what she thought about when I told her to sit on the stairs, and she said “it just makes me more crosser.” She confirmed that she does sometimes think about how she can avoid being sent to sit on the stairs again, which, according to Kohlberg’s (somewhat flawed) theory of moral development, is the appropriate level of moral reasoning for her age and the best we can hope for; he does not hold five-year-olds to be capable of genuine remorse and empathy-based decision making. She also agreed that this thinking is easier to do if Mummy sits with her.
If deterrence is the main aim, I’m not convinced that time-out is the most obvious solution. Neither is my five-year-old.
This is where I think ‘time out’ can serve a genuinely useful purpose. When my children were younger, I often had to intervene to protect my son from his little sister’s violent attacks. Physically moving her away prevented her from hurting him or his treasured possessions. It sent a clear message to him that he is important and worthy of protection, that hurting is unacceptable, and that his parents can be trusted to keep him safe. It protected his physical and emotional wellbeing, and also his relationship with his sister.
I am not a perfect parent. There have been occasions when I have sent my children into another room, briefly, to give me time to calm down. Used sparingly and without threat, I think this models important messages about self control and my responsibility for managing my own anger.
Revenge: somebody hurts you, so you hurt them in return.
Many children learn to cope with the ‘naughty step’ by giggling and distracting themselves, leaving parents to worry that it is ‘not working’ and to wonder what harsher punishments they might need to inflict. Others are more immediately and visibly distressed… is that a success?
I do not want to take revenge against my young children. While I recognise that any attempt to moderate their behaviour might be unpleasant for them, I never want this to be my aim.
The final goal of each of these models is reconciliation: The sinner is reconciled with God; the criminal with society; the child with its family.
Sending a child into a solitary ‘time out’ seems unlikely to have such a positive effect. It may curb an immediate risk, thus protecting a valuable relationship, but it seems unlikely to repair a relationship which has already been damaged.
Taking an angry or over-excited child to a quiet place, calmly and lovingly, to support them in mastering their feelings and in thinking through how to meet their needs in a more acceptable way… well, that is something else entirely.