During our usual weekend trip to target this past Saturday, I separated from my boys so that they could peruse the books and I could run through the infant/toddler section. While comparing baby foods, an ear piercing shriek erupted two aisles over, interrupting the unusual peace and quiet of this portion of the store.
The noise didn’t faze me; as the parent of two young kids, I’m accustomed to sudden outbursts, whether they are of sheer joy or complete unhappiness. I carried on with my browsing accordingly.
A woman sharing my aisle then made a comment loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear:
“What that child needs is a long time-out.”
With great effort, I withheld my own comments and thoughts. I strive to be understanding of each situation, and know that every person and family is different – we were raised differently, hold differing opinions when it comes to parenting, and we choose to react to situations as we see fit. But it was really, really difficult to bite my tongue knowing this woman who knew nothing of this child felt bold enough to express her unwarranted opinion.
I feel so strongly about her words for one specific reason: we don’t do time-out.
One of the greatest pieces of parenting wisdom I’ve ever had the privilege of reading comes from Magda Gerber, founder of the RIE parenting method. RIE: Resources for Infant Educarers. A quick summation for those unfamiliar with RIE: this method is geared toward children from infancy up to age four, and encourages you to understand the child as a whole person; one with thoughts, feelings and opinions, just like you. We strive to use RIE (pronounced “rye”)in every aspect of our lives. It’s respectful, dignified, and loving.
Magda Gerber had this to say in regards to outbursts and challenging moments:
“Your child is not giving you a hard time; your child is having a hard time.”
I read those words and thought, YES! Yes, that is it exactly. You see, these tiny little people carry the same big emotions and thoughts that we do, but their ability to express them is completely different from our own because they are still learning what these feelings mean.
If Miles is upset because he cannot have ice cream for breakfast, it’s not a call for punishment (we don’t do “punishment”, either) but a time to learn. Our conversation might go something like, “Miles, I understand you feel upset that you cannot have ice cream for breakfast. I know it can make us feel sad or angry when we cannot have fun things each time we ask for them. Your body will be at its best having something for breakfast that will help you have energy to run and jump and play, and use your big imagination. Let’s pick out something together.” We always explain to Miles that just because we can’t have what we want now doesn’t mean we can’t have it later, or at another time.
Children do not always know what these big feelings are, or why they have them. Taking the opportunity to put a label on it, letting him know he feels upset or angry or sad, helps Miles communicate his feelings later. He can tell me, “Mama, I don’t want to leave the park, and I am ANGRY!” And that’s good. I want him to feel angry, and know what that feels like; it’s the first step in learning what we do with those big feelings.
Like many toddlers who are angry or upset, Miles will look for a physical act to help release the energy from those feelings. He might yell or throw toys. We welcome his physical expression of anger in a safe manner. “You are upset, and it makes you feel like throwing toys. I won’t let you hurt yourself or throw a toy that could hurt you or someone else; you may throw this stuffed animal.” We give him a safe space, a “yes” space, to express these emotions. Over time, as children grow older, they will learn to recognize that desire to throw stems from a feeling of anger or frustration, and they will be able to communicate verbally. This doesn’t mean your kid will never throw a toy; I know plenty of adults who still have physical responses to their feelings of anger, so I would never, ever expect my child to become completely void of that response themselves.
Time-out, for us, wouldn’t work. Having time-out isolates a child when they are in their most vulnerable emotional state; they need us to sit with them, be with them, talk about these feelings to work through and understand them. We aren’t going to punish a behavior; we are going to understand why the behavior occurred. Did you color on the wall because you’re bored? Well, help me clean it up, and then we will go outside and play. Did you dump your yogurt out because you don’t want to eat it? Help me clean it up, and let’s remember that you can always tell me that your body doesn’t want or need the yogurt, or that your belly is full. Are you mad because you can’t have marshmallows for lunch? Well, your choices were a grilled cheese sandwich or fruit and yogurt; you may choose one of those, or have no lunch at all. We will find a time for a special treat later.
We don’t want time-out. We want time in. We want time together to talk and feel and hug. To us, taking a child in a heightened emotional state and sending them to sit alone in their room or a corner sends them a message: you are too difficult for us to manage, so we need you to be away from us.
I get varying reactions from people when I talk about how we parent. I hear a lot of Kumbaya because we want to talk about our feelings and hug it out; to some, that sounds like some hippie business. But to us, it’s nothing more than treating our children the same way we want to be treated ourselves. Our children are people, after all – they aren’t puppies waiting to be trained. They are little humans wanting to learn.
I wouldn’t put you, an adult, in time-out because you got snarky with me. And I certainly wouldn’t hit you because you were late meeting me for lunch (yes, of course we vehemently oppose any physical punishment as well). So why would I do that to my own child? We are here to teach love and acceptance and understanding; not isolation, not that love is conditional, and not that anger or violence is the solution to any issue that arises.
I have been asked whether this parenting style “works.” Well, we never consider whether or not something “works”, because our goal isn’t to have perfectly behaved children who never express or respond to emotions. Do we like what we do? Yes, we love it.
I have a child who can tell me how he feels, what makes him happy or sad, and is learning how to recognize the emotions that make him want to have a strong physical response. Because of this, he is better able to talk instead of tantrum – not all the time, but a large majority of the time. Our boys know that we respect them, and that their opinions are equally as important as our own; that their thoughts, ideas, feelings, questions and suggestions are welcome and encouraged. They feel safe and secure, and they know our love is unconditional, because we have never reacted in a way that would make them feel otherwise.
So is it a little Kumbaya? I don’t know; I never considered it that way, but I can see where some who parent differently would think that. I do know this: it’s love. Pure, true, overwhelming love. We give it, and we get it.
If you’d like to learn more about RIE, I’d encourage you to visit the following sites: