Family Matters

Time Out

Q What's an appropriate length of time for a preschooler to spend in time out? I've read that one minute per year of age is a good rule of thumb.

A By “time out,” I assume you mean placing your preschooler in a chair, a corner, her room, or some other semi-isolated place for a period of time as a way of dealing with misbehavior. In the old days, it was called going to your room, or visiting the corner. These days we've given it an air of psychological respectability: time out

Time out has fostered many relatives: the quiet chair, thinking time, the cool down rug, the sitting place. Whatever means is used, it essentially means removing Harmony from one scene — where the action, fun or trouble is — and placing her in another — where it's quiet, boring and trouble-free.

Because time out is standard preschool discipline, parents wrestle with its length. How long is long enough to let the lesson settle in? The rule of one minute for each year of age is based on the developmental notion that little kids aren't readily capable of spending much time in one place. Making Patience stay put beyond a few minutes is pushing her past the limits of her attention span and endurance.

Here are some ideas that are more workable:

E One quiet minute per year of age. Time doesn't begin until Paul is quiet, and time starts over if he starts over. In effect, Paul can shorten his time if he accepts it well.

Will this stress him beyond his developmental limits? No. There's nothing unhealthy about stretching his limits. He is learning to sit a little longer than he'd prefer to. That's what discipline by boredom is all about. He's not going to be stunted emotionally because he had to stay in one place four extra minutes.

E Link the amount of time out to the seriousness of the infraction. It only makes sense to link longer stays with whatever's at the top of your hierarchy of problem behavior — whether it's throwing temper tantrums or tormenting siblings or showing disrespect. At the top of the list put whatever you find more serious or whatever you want to teach your children more quickly.

E Make time out boring. The more dull the location, the less time needed for Grace to simmer down. If she sits on a dining room chair with a panoramic view of family life, she can watch her surroundings to entertain herself. If she stands with her back to the action, she's more likely to be bored.

A caution: Every parent has to balance the need for supervision with the need for boredom. Sometimes it may be better to keep Sigmund close by to avoid the trouble he could create behind your back.

One mother used her stairs creatively. Time out on the first step was a five-minute stay. If her son squawked, he earned the second step, also worth five minutes. If he was quiet for five minutes there, he could move back to the first step for five minutes. Last I heard, mom was adding a fifth floor to her house.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist and author.