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Time-Out is the Wrong Disciplinary Sports Metaphor

Posted by on June 2, 2011

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Every parent in the Western world is familiar with time-outs. Used properly (e.g., as prescribed by 1-2-3 Magic), they can be an effective and useful tool for disciplining children (in the punitive sense).

Why do we call them time-outs, though? Does this sound like how we use them or how we ought to use them?

“In sports, a time-out is a halt in the play. This allows the coaches of either team to communicate with the team, e.g., to determine strategy or inspire morale. Time-outs are usually called by coaches or players, although for some sports, TV timeouts are called to allow media to air commercial breaks. Teams usually call timeouts at strategically important points in the match, or to avoid the team being called for a delay of game-type violation.”

I get that parental time-outs are supposed to halt play and allow parents to “communicate with the team”, but that’s where the similarity ends. Time-outs in sports are generally called voluntarily, and they have no punitive aspect. I also know some people don’t like to think of time-outs in a punitive way, but who do they think they’re kidding? A time-out is clearly a form of penalty. Why don’t we just embrace that, and move on from Dr. Staats’ term?

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I propose that we use a different sports metaphor. How about the penalty box from hockey, or the sin bin from rugby? The latter seems to employ a version of soccer’s yellow/red card system. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send kids to the penalty box than give them a time-out? The metaphor is perfectly natural, and as a side benefit it prepares them for participating in sports.

Actually, we don’t have to entirely retire the time-out metaphor. Ala 1-2-3 Magic and Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child, time-outs can be used before a situation requires punishment. That is, when kids need to be given a chance to cool off and regain self-control, a time-out can be called. When punishment is needed, a yellow card can be issued, and the child(ren) can be sent to the penalty box or sin bin for an appropriate period of time. If too many yellow cards are issued (and here one could break from strict metaphorical interpretation), a red card can be issued, meaning play time ends, a kid goes up to his/her room, a kid is grounded, the car is turned around, and/or a public place is departed.

In short, a time-out is really a misleading name for time in a penalty “box”. Let’s just use the more intuitive term, shall we?

What do you think?

P.S. The time-out spot in our house is a square marked by masking tape on our living room floor. I’ve started calling it the penalty box, with mixed results. There’s been some resistance from our know-it-all 2.5yo. ūüėČ

P.P.S. If I’ve gotten the rules of any sport screwed up it’s because I’ve never played on a sports team. I was a really nerdy kid. ūüėČ