Family Matters

I've heard that, as a rule of thumb, the length of a timeout for misbehaving preschoolers should be equal to one minute for each year of age. What do you think of this standard?

Back in my early days as a shrink, I couldn't keep this rule straight. Was it one minute per year of age — or one year per minute of age?

Seriously, before we talk, let's talk terms. Psychologically speaking, “time out” is shorthand for “time out from reinforcement.” The theory is that timing a child out separates him or her from whatever factors might be propelling the “inappropriate” conduct — your attention, his manipulation, a sibling, a parent. Right.

All in all, time out is good discipline. It's fast, easy, ever-ready and can be repeated as often as necessary. That said, the one-minute-per-year rule needs some major clarifications.

The rationale for the rule is that the attention span of a preschooler is pretty short (true, except when he's being visually and electronically entertained). Therefore, time out can be short and still be effective (true, provided the child stays put, the time-out spot is boring and the parent is willing to do this hundreds of times during a period of months). Because many experts are real uncomfortable with strong discipline — for them, it smacks of that dreaded word authority — their advice is cautious. The child shouldn't be disciplined, they say, beyond what is developmentally comfortable.

But what is developmentally comfortable? Will five minutes psychologically overload a 4-year-old? Further, who says a little discomfort isn't a good teacher? After all, it's only boredom.

A second consideration: Some, perhaps most, preschoolers aren't even quiet for the first several (or more) minutes in a timeout. What kind of discipline is it that says, in effect, “You go over there, verbally and emotionally explode for a while, and then come out”? In such scenarios, time out isn't a discipline. It's a forum for a fit. Time-out minutes must be quiet minutes.

Then, too, some infractions deserve more time out than others. For run-of-the-mill misconduct, several minutes might be sufficient to teach a lesson. For the bigger stuff, a stronger, leaner message needs to be conveyed. I'm sure you don't mean to communicate, “Now, Rocky, no hitting your sister in the head. Time out, please, for four minutes. Your sister's head is worth four minutes.”

Also, time is relative. It depends on where the time is served. Sitting on a chair in the middle of the kitchen, watching the panorama of family life go by, isn't real aversive — unless one's family is extremely boring. Corner time out, on the other hand, can be shorter because facing a corner is pretty uneventful. A corner needs less time to work than a seat with a view.

To sum up: One year per minute of age is a fine rule of thumb to follow. But its effectiveness will vary greatly with the degree of a child's cooperation, the seriousness of his infraction and the setting of the time-out space.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a father of 10,

a psychologist and an author.

He can be reached at DrRay.com.