I, like many adults, have memories of being put in time-out as a child. It’s a pretty standard parenting practice when children misbehave. After all, we can’t just let them run wild! There must be consequences or they’ll never behave.
So the thinking goes, but is that true? Is it punishment or consequences that get children to behave? Not necessarily.
Building connection can be a powerful motivator for good behavior. Think about how hard you work for a boss you respect and feel connected to—how much you want to please them.
Children are the same way.
They listen to us when they feel close to us. They trust us when we invite them to show us every part of themselves, and when we welcome their big hard feelings, not just their smiles.
This is the idea behind “time-in.” If misbehavior is often a cry for connection, why not respond with connection?
Here’s why time-ins work:
When I first became a Montessori teacher, there was one particular little boy I had a tough time with. He was a charismatic, funny, bright little guy, and he didn’t listen to a single thing I said. It was truly frustrating to watch him happily cooperate with my mentor teacher and completely ignore anything I asked him to do.
My first thought was that I needed to be stricter, more firm in my requests. Clearly, he was not taking me seriously. When I mentioned my frustrations to my mentor though, she had a suggestion that took me by surprise. Sit with him at lunchtime. Every day.
Not only did this sound like a recipe for disaster and a source of daily stress I wasn’t sure I could take, but it seemed irrelevant to me. How could eating lunch with this child who was making me doubt my abilities as a teacher possibly help the situation?
Despite my reluctance, I invited him to sit with me, half-expecting him to refuse. He sat by me and told me all about his pet cat and his sister and his weekend adventures.
And things changed. Not magically or completely, but gradually and over time.
We now had the beginnings of a relationship that was not built on me trying to get him to behave all the time. He now felt connected to me and was infinitely more willing to listen to me the rest of the day. Just as importantly, I now felt connected to him and didn’t see him as only a problem or a tough spot in my day.
Connection is powerful, both for our children and ourselves.
What time-ins look like
Time-in removes a child from a situation or behavior just like a time-out. The difference is that you stay with your child, rather than sending them away.
For example, if a child is being unsafe on the playground and ignoring the rules, instead of putting them in a time-out, you might invite the child to sit with you until they can be safe.
Time-in is inviting your child to be with you while they work through their hardest feelings.
It is taking a deep breath and asking them to sit by you when all you want to do is hide in the closet, or behind your phone, or fast forward to after bedtime.
It is being present, looking at your child without anger in your eyes, while they kick and scream because you said no to a cookie for a snack. It’s offering a hug when they’re done (and sticking with the snack you provided).
It is taking them aside to talk when you’ve caught them lying to you, rather than sending them to their room.
It is so simple, and it is so hard.
It’s hard because our children’s behavior can make us genuinely angry. It is unbelievably frustrating when someone you pour your heart and soul into won’t listen to a simple request or follow a rule you know they understand.
It’s okay to feel angry and frustrated—we are only human. But we are also everything to these little people, and sending them away, to a corner or to a room, can be scary and can, quite literally, push them away, rather than building up our connection.
If you can’t possibly imagine sitting calmly with your child after some upsetting behavior, try giving yourself a time-out first. Try saying, “I need five minutes to take deep breaths so I can feel calm and then I want to sit together.” This gives you the space you need to regroup, without sending the message that your child is bad or too much to handle.
What time-ins are not
Time-in does not mean being a pushover, accepting all behavior, or simply offering hugs when a child has done something wrong. It is about showing your child you accept them, not necessarily their behavior.
Time-in encourages you and your child to reconnect before you talk about what you want them to do differently. They are much more likely to hear you if they feel connected, than if they feel ashamed or like they’ve let you down.
Once you’ve sat together for a while and you’re both calm, you can discuss what needs to happen going forward. You might decide that your child can have another chance at the playground now that they’re feeling safe. You might choose that it’s time to go home.
Either way, the message is that the behavior is unacceptable and that you are right there with them to help them make better choices. You are there to protect them, even if it’s from something they are doing themselves.
How we discipline our children is a highly personal decision. There is no one right answer. Every child and every family is different.
The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to decide. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation. If you currently use time-outs, you can try a time-in sometime to see how it works with your child. Notice how it impacts their behavior, and how it makes you both feel. If you like it, make the change over time. It never hurts to try something that will increase your connection.