When I was four, I broke my toy drum. It wasn’t an accident. Nope, I did it on purpose in a fit of rage. I got mad at my mom, which caused me to shove my thumb through the drumskin, and I popped it like some psychotic Little Jack Horner. That’s when my parents sent me to my room as punishment. As I sat there on my bed, stewing in my anger, I watched the seasons slowly pass by. I went into time-out as a four-year-old who loved ALF, and I came out into a world where Keeping Up with the Kardashians was a thing.
Years later, my mom told me I was in my room for about 15 minutes.
In that first time-out, I remember mentally picturing my parents in the other room. I was certain they were laughing and cheering, ecstatic that they finally had a good reason to put their highly-intelligent, handsome son in a time-out. They had been waiting – nay, excited – for a good excuse to finally punish me.
Well, the tables turned. My wife and I recently had to put our daughter in her first time-out. I now finally know what parents do when they’re in the other room during the whole experience.
7. You have to convince yourself to do it
My daughter entered her terrible twos almost a year early. She has the typical symptoms: constant fussiness, incessant whining, and unexplained crying. It’s like living with Barbara Streisand, but with fewer musical numbers. The negativity had been building for a few weeks, more and more of the world seemed to disappoint her. On this one particular day, it reached a peak. We could do nothing right. She didn’t want food. She didn’t want to play. She didn’t want us to bother her. She didn’t want us to leave her alone. Constant crying.
I looked at my wife and said, “Do you think we should put her in a time-out? Maybe? Or something?” I was doing that thing where you keep softening your opinion until the other person says something. “Do you think? Or not, maybe? Or something else?” She stopped me there and said maybe it was time we considered a time-out. She said it was time to do something to teach our daughter that she doesn’t get what she wants acting like that. We needed to do something that would teach her to settle down.
But it felt weird to talk that way. She was so little. What kind of evil parents would we be to put an innocent pre-toddler into a merciless time-out? What is this, Guantanamo Bay? Was she really being bad enough to warrant a punishment? So she whines the rest of her life. Maybe she’ll have a career in politics.
Moments later, our daughter’s crying morphed into screaming. Then she swung her hand and hit my wife. That was the last straw.
6. You put way too much energy in finding an appropriate punishment
Our minds were made up. We were going to officially punish our daughter with a time-out…our sweet, innocent, adorable, precocious, little baby. We felt sick to our stomachs. You’d think we were tasked with kicking a puppy or slapping Mother Teresa.
If we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. To help understand what happens next, you have to understand our thought process.
As any parents of small children will understand, their routines are a delicate balance. We had to find a punishment that wouldn’t affect any of her positive behaviors. We needed to put her in time-out, but we didn’t want to do it in a place that would conjure a negative association. We started to take her to her bedroom so we could leave her in her crib, but her room is her happy place. And we needed her to still be able to sleep on her own. We couldn’t afford for her to start thinking of her bedroom as a punishment. So that was out.
The pack-and-play! What a perfect idea. It would keep her contained and we could put it in any room of the house. As I pulled it out from the closet, my wife stopped me. “No, we can’t use that,” she said. “That’s what she sleeps in when we go on trips. She still needs to like it!” That one was off the list too.
Eventually, we remembered we had a backup pack-and-play in the basement, the one we were keeping for emergencies (or something like that). Thank goodness I found that spare. At the rate we were going, to dole out isolated punishments, we’d probably would have ended up renting an apartment and getting all new furniture specifically for moments like these.
5. You console each other in the next room
Throughout the whole experience, I appreciated my entirely new perspective on what it’s like to be on the other side of your child’s “punishment.” All my life, I had this mental picture that once my parents sent me to my room, they popped a bottle of champagne and toasted the fact they had one less child to handle.
That’s not it at all. The parents aren’t in another location celebrating the punishment. They’re actually just outside the room giving each other counsel that they are, in fact, doing the right thing. This isn’t a moment of victory. It’s a moment of sadness and pain. Which is why…
4. It’s just as much punishment for you as it is for them
It’s so painfully cliche to say that a punishment hurts the parent as much as it hurts the child. I used to roll my eyes when my parents would say that to me. I can’t believe how true that turned out to be. I so wish I could take the punishment myself, but when your kid is being a little obnoxious butthole, you learn there’s no level of self-punishment that’ll cure it. The only cure for butthole-ness is a well-timed timeout or an appropriately-restricted restriction.
As a parent, we hate to see our kids upset. On top of that, there’s this persistent fear that they’ll hate us forever. When you punish your child, there’s a moment where we see their entire life flash before our eyes: after decades of crime sprees and poor judgement, some psychologist has a breakthrough and discovers that their torturous life began that moment when they were 2 years old and their parents put them in 10-minute timeout.
3. Your child will turn into the Hulk
My daughter is 20 months old. She’s tiny for her age and very sweet-natured. Sure, she acts up. And sure, she can get so whiny that we had to make up a new word for it (“whinolesent”). Once I put her in the pack-and-play, she looked up at me with this devastated expression. It pained me deep inside, but I had to turn and leave the room.
Without warning, that cute, sweet-natured little girl disappeared. Her crying intensified. Her strength doubled. Within seconds, she exploded out of her 20-month-old shell and turned into this pulsating rage monster hellbent on world domination. With a firm grip on the side of the pack-and-play, she rage-shook the side, bounced up and down, and screamed. Somehow we gave birth to the Hulk.
Her anger became the source of pure strength. She jostled the pack-and-play so hard, it scooted across our carpeted(!) floor. In that moment, I wasn’t so much concerned for her as I was for my own safety.
2. Your attempts at logic and reason will be rejected
As our daughter exploded in rage like a roided out Incredible Hulk, my wife and I questioned if she really understood why she was in timeout. Our intent was to get her to calm down, but we inadvertently jumpstarted her supervillain origin story.
That’s when I calmly walked back in the room and carefully whispered, “Listen, sweetie. We put you in here so you’ll calm down. The second you do that, we’ll take you out. Okay? Seriously, the very moment you stop crying, we’ll let you go play.” Her response: more screaming. I can’t be sure, but I think the vein in her forehead was becoming self-aware.
I walked back out, shaking my head. My wife tagged in. She walked in there, said the exact same thing, and got the exact same results. What’s the definition of insanity again?
From then on, every few minutes we would walk back into the room, waited for her to take a breath between screaming, and then took that moment to again remind her that her time-out would end the second she calmed down.
After each failed attempt to convey this logic, we would re-huddle and re-assess the situation. Was this really the right thing to do? Maybe she is too little. Maybe we’re the problem, not her. These thoughts plague your brain, which is why…
1. A punishment’s success hinges on who’s more stubborn
At this point in the story, what do you think happened?
A) After a few minutes, my daughter understood the error of her ways, settled down, apologized and patiently waited for us to release her from time-out. She was pleasant and content the rest of the day.
B) After a few minutes, we reached our breaking point with the screaming, so we let her out of time-out way early. She was fussy and grumpy the rest of the day. So were we.
If you chose A, then congratulations! Not because you’re right, but because you’re one of those people who looks at random misbehaving kids out in the world and thinks, “Pssh, everything the kid does wrong is their parents’ fault.” You live a life full of self-pride and confidence. How wonderful!
If you chose B, then you’re like me. You lost that self-pride and confidence when you had kids. There are no certainties in life. The decisions we make as parents have less to do with what’s best for our child and way more to do with what will screw them up the least.
Our daughter got out of time-out early because she’s more stubborn than we are. There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have screamed all day if we let her. Do I feel regret? Nope. I’m sure we’ve already screwed her up in our own unique way. And if she’s already screwed up, we’ll give her whatever she wants to end the screaming. That’s parenthood.