Naughty step, time out, thinking spot: They’ve all become the mainstay of disciplining young children. Gina Ford loves them, Jo Frost (supernanny) can’t tackle a problem without them. But do they actually work? Or, more importantly, even if they achieve the outcome we wanted, have we taught our children the right message? Let me explain why I, and a huge number of other parenting experts and psychologists hate them as a strategy.

By the way, naughty steps, time outs, thinking step – whatever you want to call it: it’s the same thing because it uses the same psychology. The terminology is irrelevant in the same way that controlled crying, ferberising, extinction, crying down, crying it out and spaced soothing are all the same thing too.

Let me give you a scenario. Your 3-year-old, lets call him Fred, hurls a wooden block at his brother – 18-month-old Tom. Let’s say the scene plays out like this:

Mummy: “Fred! We don’t throw blocks at people! You’re going to the naughty step.” (Leads Fred off crying to the step)

Fred: “waaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh” (or something like that!)

Mummy: “Right, sit down. I’ve put you on the step because you were very naughty throwing blocks. Stay here for 3 minutes and think about it.”

Fred: “waahhhhhhhhh” (sobs gets fainter)

(Meanwhile Mummy returns to continue comforting Tom)

Fred sits diligently on the step thinking, as instructed. He considers why he threw the block and realises that he lashed out in anger. On reflection, he knows that there were more constructive ways of managing his rage. He feels genuine sorrow and regret for what he did and vows never to do it again.

Mummy: “Now Fred, can you tell me why I sat you on the naughty step?”

Fred: “Because I was naughty. I wont do it again. Sorry Tom.”

Mummy: “Good boy, you can come back now.”

Ok, now in a million years do you really think that’s what happens? It’s what we want to happen. It may even work – as in, Fred may not throw blocks because he doesn’t want to go back on the step. But can I humbly suggest what is really going through Fred’s head?

“….I don’t want to sit on the step. Everybody else is in the lounge. Mummy’s gone off. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. I want to go and play…”

Chances are, if he doesn’t repeat the behaviour, it’s because he doesn’t want to be excluded and made to sit on the step again. He doesn’t have the cognitive ability to rationalise what happened, and he cant make sense of his feelings because children can’t self-regulate their emotions. He is equally likely to keep acting up, as negative behaviour often breeds more negative behaviour. Using time outs ignores their immature cognition and teaches them that they are only acceptable if they conform and don’t express themselves. It teaches them therefore, that love is conditional, not unconditional. This strategy also fails to help them explore and deal with their emotions, nor does it provide a sensible alternative reaction.

Our goal should be to reinforce the boundaries, whilst also dealing with the underlying problem, and helping both children manage their emotions. It’s not as hard as it sounds! Let me illustrate the scenario again more positively:

Mummy: “No Fred, we don’t hit in this house.” (You’re explaining what behaviour is unacceptable)

Mummy approaches Tom: “Oh, poppet, poor you, you have a big red mark on your head. That looks sore. Are you ok?” (You’re explaining to Tom that you understand he’s been aggrieved, and you’re voicing out loud what the effect of Fred’s behaviour is)

Mummy approaches Fred: “Look Fred, when you threw that block it hit Tom on the head. He’s got a bump on his head and he’s crying. Can you help me get a cold flannel to help his head feel better?” (You’re helping him learn about empathy, and reinforcing the consequence of his action)

Mummy and Fred then hold a cold compress to Tom’s head.

When the situation has cooled off, Mummy then gives Fred a hug: “When we feel upset or cross inside, we shouldn’t throw things or hit. How do you think Tom felt when you hurt him?” (Again, reinforcing the boundary, but acknowledging that the behaviour was a reaction to an emotion he wasn’t mature enough to express in words. Then you’re asking him to show you he understands the effect of his behaviour)

Fred: “Sad” or maybe ‘’Hurt”, or possibly he won’t know

Mummy: “When we hurt people on the outside we sometimes hurt them on the inside too. What do you think would make him feel better and know that you still love him?”

Fred may spontaneously suggest saying sorry, or giving Tom a cuddle, or he may need more prompting, depending on his emotional maturity. (See my thoughts towards the end on forced apologies!)

This time, you’ve achieved the same outcome, but you’ve managed to help the boys with their emotions. Each of them has felt heard and listened-to, and you’ve preserved their relationship rather than the feeling of one-upmanship when you segregate them.

If your child can’t comprehend this process, then they aren’t old enough for a naughty step anyway! Of course you can do a simpler version of this for a younger child. With a toddler or pre-verbal child your best bet is to just remove the offending item or pick them up and move them away from the scene of the crime, saying “No” gently but firmly, and model what you should do instead.

Young children cannot deal with their ‘big’ emotions – that’s why behaviour often seems to explode out of them. Just tackling the end result of the outburst is misguided because children are left feeling that their ‘big emotions’ are not welcome in the family. That they can’t be real. I wonder how many children will be dredging this stuff up in years to come with their therapist when they are unable to handle their own feelings of disappointment, anger, frustration, or sadness. Yes, the behaviour children sometimes use to express these emotions is wrong, but the emotion itself isn’t. But children will not understand the subtle distinction here. They will not be able to separate their feelings at the time of the outburst from their reaction. It is one and the same, and to punish a child by exclusion is particularly unfair as it teaches them to suppress their feelings rather than find a better way to handle them – after all, emotions (both good and bad) are healthy and normal.

Incidentally, this brings me on to why I hate forced apologies! Children can’t regulate their own emotions in their early years. They need a calm adult to help them. This is one reason why yelling and shaming or demanding apologies for bad behaviour is fundamentally flawed. You may get a robotic and insincere ‘sorry’ but this really only makes adults feel better. A better approach is to help children understand the impact of their actions on others – see the end of the Fred scenario – the idea is to get your child to empathise, and then suggest how they can make amends. It’s fine to prompt them a little, but don’t make them say sorry.

This way you have a) understood your child’s real feelings, b) helped them understand the impact on others, c) helped your child (and the person they offended!) realise that problems have solutions and d) everyone feels understood and justified. It’s not a cop out to not insist your child apologises if you take a long term view of it. You can start this, simplified from about age 2. I would argue if they can’t understand these simple concepts then they definitely won’t know why they are saying sorry – so I re-iterate my point that it is futile!

It comes back to a recurring theme that we owe it to our children to discipline them with an understanding of what they are emotionally capable of. It takes a gear change in your parenting style, but it is so worth it to nurture a child who has genuine empathy. Harder work? Maybe, in the short term, but you’ll have the last laugh a few years down the line!

Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.