My parents used to put me in time-out in a wooden chair backed up to the kitchen wall, with a watch to use as a timer. I have vowed again and again to never do this, and I know intellectually why not to do this: I know my children have less access to the part of their brain that would allow for thinking and processing when they are stressed, and I know poor behavior is stress behavior. I know that they are learning to calm themselves down, and that they need to co-regulate with me. And I know that cannot happen in time-out.
And yet- when they push and test and whine and defy, and especially when I am tired and frustrated myself, I can feel the urge in my body, the urge to say fine- sit in time out. I won’t speak with you until you’re not whining. You can’t be this way. Think about it.
I tell you this because this is not the kind of mom I want to be. And most of the time, this not the mom I am. Like many of you, I do parent in ways that mirror how I was parented, and in some areas I also parent very differently than I was parented. The truth is, had my parents had Positive Parenthood when I was pushing and testing and whining and defying, I doubt they’d have made me sit in a chair when I behaved poorly either.
It was a bit shocking the first time I got frustrated with my littles and wanted to make them sit in time-out. You may have been surprised the first time that exact thing we promised we’d never say slips out of our mouth. Sometimes, it shocks us out of our frustration. But sometimes it becomes routine…. because nothing is working anyway, and so we give up on being the parents we wanted to be. I am grateful that time-outs are not routine in my family, but I see how easily they could become routine.
Here’s the thing: the way our parents parented us lives in our bodies, and when we get stressed, we fall right into the safety net that our families wove when they parented us, and sometimes it’s full of thorns and holes- patterns we swore we’d given up. But when things get wobbly or hard and we stumble, the net that catches us is that one our parents wove, until we weave our own.
Here’s the thing with the relationship-based approach we use at Positive Parenthood- the vast majority of us were not parented this way. Most of us were parented with myths like children should be seen and not heard or punishment is unseemly but necessary to produce good children or time outs will give the child a chance to reflect on and learn from their poor behavior. These things can show up in sneaky ways: maybe you have felt like you cannot connect with your child when they behave poorly because it reinforces the poor behavior (for example, if a child is having a fit because you have not allowed them to dump sand on another kid , or if an older kid is angry because they can’t go to a party until they pick up the dog poop). And so perhaps you let the child or teen stew. Because they can’t do the thing they were doing, period.
We’d urge you though, to reframe connection in these tricky moments. Connecting with your child, especially when they are behaving poorly reinforces the child. It is to say with your actions, you are worthy of my time and attention, even when you’ve made a poor choice or had a tough time. It is this sense of worthiness that I wish to cultivate in my children: the sense that no matter what, they are worthy of love and attention and care.
As I weave my own net, sometimes I stumble and fall. And you will, too. It is a slow process, this relearning of presence and being together. It is to retrain how we see ourselves and each other, to notice the places where anger or frustration or exhaustion show up, and to tend to the times we fall into a net we swore we’d banished with kindness and compassion.
And so we are together. Sometimes it helps me when I breathe with my children, and I wonder if I need it more than them. Sometimes it helps when I can sink down onto my knees and sit with their discomfort, and ignore my grownup worries about time and schedules and long lists. Mostly though, it is a practice – a practice of weaving my own net, and in doing so, a practice becoming the kind of mother I want to be.