When a Treat Beats a Time Out

Can you imagine putting your partner in another room just because he’s irritating you? How about lecturing him for a half hour straight? Or towering over him with hands on your hips as you talk down to him? Sounds a little silly, right? But that’s how a lot of us parent by default when we’re at the end of our ropes.

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I speak from experience. My six-year-old has had her share of time outs and my two year old is just starting to really test boundaries. I actually like time outs because they put some distance between me and my kids so we can both cool off. Sometimes when that distance isn’t there the six-year-old can get caught up in a cycle of anger that she has trouble breaking on her own. Worse, I can get caught up in a cycle of lecturing where I’m talking and talking even though the message has long since been replaced by rambling. When that’s the case, a door between us can often help us find our centers again

But sometimes time outs and lectures aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Like when my kids are acting out because they’re having trouble articulating that what they really want is time with mom. Or when what I really need is to stop talking and start listening. What mom hasn’t had one of those days when practically the whole morning or afternoon has been devoted to time outs and there’s nothing new left to say but you’re lecturing on anyway? And what mom hasn’t asked herself, “Since we’re not a family who spanks, what’s left after time out and talking?”

That’s why I invented what we call the Family Time Out.

On particularly stressful days at my house when – if I can be brave enough to admit it – the grownups are being just as loud and obnoxious as the kids, I will sometimes call a family time out. That’s when I play referee, call “Time!”, and we just pull a full stop. If I’m rambling on, I zip my lip. One of the rules of the family time out is that no one can rehash the ugly episode we’re trying to escape. We all dry our tears. We all go back to using our gentle voices and, in the case of our two-year-old, gentle hands.

Then we all sit down to spend time with each other doing something that puts us close to one another but doesn’t involve a lot of conversation and leaves no room for lectures. For us a family time out usually means making homemade popcorn and watching a show or going to one of our favorite cafes for cookies for the kids and coffees for the parents. Other family time outs have been spent doing puzzles, reading out loud from chapter books, drawing, or listening to audio books. Whatever we do, though, there is usually a treat involved just to sweeten everyone’s mood.

The idea is to acknowledge that everyone was having an off day and that we can all forgive each other if we try. It might seem weird to give kids a treat when they’ve been misbehaving but think about what helps you cheer up when you’re having a glum and grumpy day. It sure isn’t a stern talking to from your partner or your boss! It’s probably something like nibbling a little chocolate or spending a few minutes alone with a magazine or sipping a glass of wine.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m big on consequences. But sometimes when my kids are having a few rough days and none of the usual consequences are working, going out for a treat has a better effect on their behavior than any punishment. My theory is that a family time out reminds us what we like about spending time with each other. It’s like a reset for our hearts and our heads, and it really works!

So maybe one of these days if you find yourself at the end of your rope because your kids just won’t let up, try a treat instead of a time out.

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