Time-Outs for One-Year-Olds? Ignore this Parenting Advice

A toddler standing alone against a bed with white linens. Open curtains are in the foreground.

It’s not surprising there are so many approaches to raising children. Views on parenting techniques like time-outs change over time, along with new research and new understandings of human development. Then there are differences of culture, background, and life experience.

Every now and then, though, I hear a piece of parenting advice that’s so off-base it stops me in my tracks and makes me pause to remind myself what is truly important in bringing up kids.

That’s what happened recently when I read about Caroline Goldman, a French psychologist whose harsh recommendations for dealing with challenging behavior include using time-outs to discipline children as young as 12 months old.

You read that correctly: time outs for one-year-olds.

Before I proceed, let me make clear that Goldman’s advice is simply wrong—and not supported by any evidence from neuroscience.

Still, she has received so much attention in Europe that it’s important to set the record straight. According to the Washington Post, Goldman says that the moment an infant is old enough to “look at his parent showing an awareness of having broken the rules, then he is asking for a punishment, and he is ready for it.” She said that usually happens around 12 months.

Dr. Goldman is correct that by around one year of age, children look to a parent for their response. Babies do this to seek guidance about safety and danger. They’re little, curious scientists, and a parent’s role is to keep them safe. A mother or father might respond by clearly signaling “no” with a facial expression, words, tone of voice, gestures, or by distracting them.

Too often, people wrongly confuse what’s called “gentle parenting” with permissive parenting–coddling children, having no rules or never saying “no”. Their assumption is that consequences are the only way to teach a child.

Let me take the opportunity to remind us why it’s so important to do the opposite of what Goldman recommends: to be responsive to our children, to build connections, and to make children feel safe in their relationships and in the world.

Indeed, from the moment we’re born, humans are on a quest to feel safe. Newborns instinctively stare at the face of the parent holding them. They are hardwired to cry—not as a conscious bid for attention, but to indicate a need inside their body.

In the words of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child: “When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain.”

That’s how we develop resilience. On the other hand, the nervous system has evolved to detect threat and protect the child, so it is always surveying inside and outside of the body to make sure the child is safe.

An infant’s primary need—other than nutrition—is to be taken care of and given cues of safety. Lacking those, the child learns over time not to trust the environment. When those connections aren’t being made, a child might appear to be docile or obedient, but what’s really happening is that the nervous system is detecting threat and conserving energy.

It’s also worth remembering the origins of the time-out concept. The approach of withdrawing attention to discourage unwanted behaviors is rooted in behaviorism, which was developed on rats and dogs in the middle of the last century. The approach was later applied to addressing the behavior of children.

Still, behaviorism lives in our parenting culture. But consequences such as time-outs are an outdated method to teach children.

As I have laid out in my books, Beyond Behaviors and Brain-Body Parenting, instead of judging an approach based on behavior modification, we should focus on helping children feel safe in their nervous systems. Withdrawing contact when a child doesn’t meet expectations, is curious, or even testing limits is using shame and rejection, rather than teaching through age appropriate and loving limits, boundaries and guidance. 

Again, the words of the Harvard Center of the Developing Child: “Because responsive relationships are both expected and essential, their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. . . . If an adult’s responses to a child are unreliable, inappropriate, or simply absent, the developing architecture of the brain may be disrupted, and subsequent physical, mental, and emotional health may be impaired”.

In short, what we should ignore is anyone who suggests time-outs for babies. And keep in mind that compassion, presence, reassuring words, and hugs are what build connections and nurture resilience in our babies and children.

 

If you are interested in a supportive community of parents and providers, the Brain Body Parenting Collective, here’s more information. 

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