Giving a 2-Year-Old a 15-Minute Time-Out


Posted in: Infants & Toddlers

Topics: Behavioral Issues, Child + Adolescent Development

Much to what I imagine is the intense chagrin of my eighth grade English teacher, the word “consequence” has become a verb.

As in:

“If you take another cookie without my saying it’s OK, I’m going to consequence you.”

English teachers everywhere grimace when they hear a sentence like that.

And, by the way, so do experts in child development and mental health.

We’re not as interested in getting the language grammatically correct, but we DO get worked up when the language lacks developmental congruency.

In other words, telling a little kid that you “will consequence” him doesn’t usually work.  It just doesn’t make developmental sense.  That’s not to say that a child ought not to have consequences for actions; this is more a request that adults be very specific and appropriate, especially in the eyes of the child, when dolling out understandable punishment.

Let’s walk through a scenario to explain what I mean.

You’ve just baked chocolate chip cookies.  The smell has been lingering throughout the house for the last hour as the cookies first went into the oven, and then sat on the kitchen table to cool.  About every 5 minutes, your 2-year-old Sally has toddled into the room, and asked if she could have a cookie.  It’s a Normal Rockwell moment, and you couldn’t be happier.

Once the cookies have cooled, you give Sally a good-sized one with a glass of milk in her favorite Sippy cup.  She smiles, eagerly devours her treat, and toddles on back to her stuffed animals in the next room. But, then she’s back about 3 minutes later. After all, she can still taste that cookie, and what could be better than one cookie?  Two cookies!

“Can I have another?”

“No, honey, one is enough.  Tonight you can have a second one after dinner.”

Sally looks a bit disappointed, and makes her way back to her stuffed animals.  You wander to the computer to catch up on emails. And then, Sally becomes a master thief.  Your adorable little girl, with her unmatched socks and curly hair, tiptoes (loudly) into the kitchen, and takes that extra cookie. 

Brace yourself.  Here comes that verb we talked about.

“Sally, didn’t I tell you not take another cookie?”

This is, of course, a rhetorical question, so Sally just stares.  Of course you told her that.  Otherwise she wouldn’t have “snuck” back in to the kitchen.

“I’m going to have to consequence you.  You’ve just earned a 15-minute time-out in your room.”

So, what’s the problem here?  Sally directly disobeyed you, so it’d make sense for her to know that she can’t just up and do exactly what you told her not to do, and expect there to be no consequences.  And you’re right.  There ought to be consequences.

But there are some problems.

First, 15 minutes is a long time.  That’s one-half the time of an episode of Arthur, for goodness sakes.  There’s a rule of thumb that you can use here.  Once your child develops agency—that is, once he or she has the power to do things against your will—then the amount of time for a “time-out” ought to roughly equal the age of your child.  A 2-year-old gets 2 minutes of time out.  Believe me, it’ll feel like eternity to Sally.

Second, you don’t want a 2-year-old – and especially an angry and ashamed 2-year-old – out of your sight for even 2 minutes, let alone 15 minutes.  Tantrums ensue, and things get knocked over.  Kids get hurt in those lonely minutes by themselves behind closed doors.

So, the time-out takes place in the living room, maybe on the couch or a chair in the corner, and lasts all of 2 minutes. You are there the whole time, and explain to Sally that it’s a 2-minute time-out because that’s how old she is.

But then what?

Well, then you talk. But, you talk in a way that Sally can understand.

“Sally,” you say calmly, “it wasn’t OK that you took that cookie.  I love you, but I can’t let you eat whatever you want whenever you want.  That’s why we did the 2-minute time-out.”

And, if you must, if you are compelled to use the language of today, you can say:

“That’s why I consequenced you.”

And then it’s over.  By that I mean you let it go.  Sally served her time.  And you will remove the cookies from the table and put them out of Sally’s reach.  And Sally, believe me, will internalize this moment and others like it.  Because with agency comes the capacity for shame, and shame is a reasonable thing to feel when your parents are understandably disappointed in you.

And, if all goes well, that shame makes its way in Sally’s developing psyche to the experience of healthy guilt.  In other words, Sally knows without the consequence occurring that you will not be pleased when she does things that you have told her not to do.  By age 3 or 4, she’ll develop the capacity for that healthy and protective guilty feeling. She’ll feel that feeling that comes before transgressions—just a twinge, we hope, of reasonable guilt, and she’ll therefore learn to modulate her actions.

So, consequencing is fine.  It makes sense.  But developmentally, the punishment must fit the crime. Otherwise, the crime just keeps getting committed.

This article originally aired as an ABC News segment on 11/02/2009.

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Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), course director of the psychopathology class for the MIT-HMS Program in Health, Sciences and Technology, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Youn...

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