Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting XII. The Time Out Tool

Even a child makes himself known by his acts, whether what he does is pure and right (Proverbs 20: 11).

In previous articles on Christian marriage and parenting I have discussed the exalted vocation of marriage and the profound spiritual obligation of appropriate parenting (cf. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/Indexes/Morellix.php). Consider the profound meaning of the words of St. John Chrysostom (2003) in Homily 13 on Colossians 4: 18: "A child is a bridge connecting mother and father, so the three become one flesh."

Marriage an Image of Christ's Presence

In his Homily 20 on St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians (5: 22-33), St. John Chrysostom (2003) compares the sublime marital union to the relationship of Christ and His Church: " ... the obligation is far greater because there are no longer two bodies, but one ... 'The head of Christ is God, (1 Cor. 11:3) and I say that husband and wife are of one body in the same way as Christ and the Father are one."

"The Household is a Little Church"- St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom goes on to discuss the parenting imperative: "Concern for spiritual things will unite the family. Do you want your child to be obedient? Then from the beginning bring him up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord ... .Make him into a good Christian ... " It should be noted that in the popular mind discipline means use of corporal punishment. While the term has been used in this way, it is noteworthy to consider that the first definition of the word "discipline" in the American Heritage Dictionary (1994) is: "Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement." This is how "discipline" is to be understood in all Godly and mindful parenting procedures.

Image of God — Intelligence

Furthermore, we are obligated to use our intelligence in all we do. This means acting according to our image to be like unto God in managing the household, the "little Church." Let us recall God's words as recorded in Genesis: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion...over all the earth..." (Genesis 1:26). McGuckin (2004) observes the term "image," as used by several of the Greek Fathers of the Church, is related to Adam's naming of the animals, thereby linking an attribute of the image of God in man to "mankind's dominion over the created order." Consider that the patristic commentary links the different characteristics that man possesses beyond the animals, such as understanding, rationality, and intelligence, to conclude that these characteristics define in some measure the term "image of God."

Use of our intelligence cannot be over-emphasized. It is a moral imperative. Consider the words of St. Nikitas Stithatos (Philokalia IV):

God is ... intellect, beyond every intellect ... He is light and the source of blessed light. He is wisdom, intelligence and spiritual knowledge. If on account of your purity these qualities have been bestowed on you and are richly present in you, then that within you which accords with the image of God has been safely preserved and you are now a son of God guided by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14).

Scientific Method: Godly Use of Intelligence

The scientific method is simply a method to use our God-granted intelligence to learn about God's creation to follow His command to have "dominion" (cf. Gen. 1:26). It is generally agreed that scientific methods involve: observation, hypotheses, falsifiabilty , data collection, analysis, reporting and interpretation (Morelli, 2006c). The cognitive behavioral principles suggested in previous Smart Parenting articles and this article are based on these scientific methods (https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/Indexes/Morellix.php).

It should be remembered that science is an instrument, and a neutral instrument at that. As a knife can be used for evil as in a criminal act, or it can also be used for good as in medical surgery. So too, all the parenting techniques discussed in previous articles and in this essay are tools that are the recommended "discipline" to bring children to "instruction of the Lord." Thus the blessed married couple will be able to cooperate with God's grace as prayed in the Orthodox Marriage Service that they be: "(united) ... in one mind and one flesh, and grant unto them fair children for education in thy faith and fear ... "

Behavior Shaped by its Consequences

As previously noted behaviors (both appropriate and inappropriate) are shaped by their consequences. Morelli (2005), wrote:

There are basically two types of events that follow behavior: Rewards (or reinforcements) and punishments. Remember the goal of parenting is to increase appropriate or good behavior. However all behaviors, whether inappropriate or appropriate, will increase if they are rewarded.

For example, if a child places his dirty dishes in the sink (a good behavior) and the parent says, "Mary, I am proud of you for putting your dish in the sink" (and the child smiles, noting pleasure at the praise), such good behaviors will increase. But suppose Joseph is told to put away his bicycle and he responds with a defiant "No" (a bad behavior), and you counter "Yes, you will," and he says "No" again (not only a bad behavior but now an additional bad behavior because he is talking back to you) and you say again "I told you, to put way your bicycle," such bad behaviors will increase. Why? Because they are followed by rewarding consequences. The parent is attending to bad behavior. (Note. In this case, Joseph should be told ahead of time the consequence of not putting way his bicycle, (or better: the favorable consequence or outcome of putting his bicycle away) "Joseph, if you don't put away your bicycle you will have an extra garbage chore to do." (or "You will not watch your 7:00 PM TV show." (alternatively: "Joseph, if you away your bicycle, we will do your garbage chore for you today," or "You will get to watch that show on TV at 7:00 PM that you wanted.") Simply say it once and then apply the consequence.

Inadvertently Reinforced Inappropriate Behaviors

The scientific technique or tool that is the focus of this parenting article is Time Out. It is used in situations in which inappropriate behaviors are occurring and they are reinforced by consequences usually "outside of the control" of parents, teachers, or other designated child caretakers.

Two examples: Johnny, a first grader, is making funny faces during a school lesson. His classmates cannot help but laugh, which is very pleasing (reinforcing) to Johnny. His inappropriate funny face behavior increases. The teacher asks the other children not to laugh, but this is not easy to bring about, because Johnny's behavior, while inappropriate, is genuinely comical.

Eight year old fraternal twins Jack and Jill are fighting over the use of a new computer game. They are yelling and hitting one another. The inappropriate fighting seems to be escalating. It almost seems they enjoy the fighting as much as the computer game itself.

Defining Time Out

Time Out is defined as time out from positive reinforcement of inappropriate behavior. "Positive" merely means some consequence was added to the bad or inappropriate behavior that the misbehaving child finds pleasant or rewarding. In the first case the laughter of Johnny's schoolmates is added (the consequence) to his face making. It is pleasant, and he will continue his face-making behavior. This "bad" behavior will probably increase in frequency and duration. Technically, Time Out is a negative punishment procedure because the parent or teacher is removing (subtracting or making negative) a consequence the child finds favorable that is maintaining his or her "bad" behavior.

In the second example, Jack and Jill's yelling and hitting is added (by one another) in a spiraling escalation of fighting over playing the computer game. The escalating fighting appears enjoyable to them. Getting the last word (yell or blow) is especially satisfying.

In examples such as these, Time Out would be the parenting discipline tool of choice. The reason is because in both examples the consequences (schoolmate laughter and sibling fighting responses) are "not easily under the control" of the teacher or parent.

When the teacher or parent has control over the pleasant consequences, Time Out is not be recommended. For example, if a child were instructed to do their homework before playing a computer game, the computer game would be a reward for doing the homework or not using the computer (a negative punishment) for whatever activity the child was doing instead of homework). Note that in this example the consequences are easily under parental (or teacher-caretaker) control.

Practical Use of Time Out

In the Time Out examples above the inappropriate reinforcement-reward cycle has to be broken. In the first example, this means removing Johnny from the sight of the other children. Typically in a schoolroom a Time Out area with chair is placed in the rear of the classroom behind a curtain so Johnny would not be visible to the other children.

With the fighting siblings, one of two methods could be used. Each could be sent to different areas of the home for the designated time period. Conversely, the computer could be locked out in some manner so no one could use it.

Time Out can be used with prudent flexibility. I once had one parent walk one of their misbehaving children out to the family car for a few minutes while the other parent stayed with their remaining children in a fast food restaurant.

Time Out Rules

  1. Always state the behaviors before hand that are inappropriate and that are going to result in Time Out. The behavior must be concrete (called behavioral pinpointing, Morelli, 2005, : e.g.: "Johnny making any 'movements' with your face and mouth will result in Time Out. Your face should look like this [possibly demonstrate a motionless face]."); Do not describe behavior abstractly. General descriptions are ambiguous and thus useless: e.g.: "Johnny, stop being bad", "Stop acting stupidly.")

  2. Always give a warning that the "next" behavior as described above in #1 will result in Time Out.

  3. Tell the child the place and duration of Time Out.

  4. A certain period of appropriate behavior while in Time Out should be specified before the child is released. (All of the first 4 rules should be clearly and unambiguously communicated to the child--verbally and, when appropriate, in writing. For example, a chart on the efrigerator at home or section of the blackboard at school are frequent ways to convey explicit written reminders. Another example: if the parent or teacher has some intuitive inclination that the child might be contemplating a "bad" behavior, a simple calling of the child's attention to the Time Out rules is helpful).

  5. All communication to children (or anyone) should be done in a non-angry neutral, even pleasant tone of voice (Morelli, 2005, 2006b).

  6. The Time Out duration should be as short as possible. The Time Out period should be long enough to have the misbehaving child stop the "bad" behavior and be able to display a "good" behavior. In my clinical experience I have found in most average family and/or problem situations between 3 and 5 minutes suffices. However, I have dealt with children with extreme behavior disorders that needed 5-6 hours of Time Out.

  7. Reinforce-Reward some new "good" behavior as the child is leaving Time Out and continue to watch and praise the child for continued good behavior after coming out of Time Out - catch the child being good. An example with Johnny: "Johnny, you are very pleasant to look at, you control your face and mouth nicely, now I am proud of you." The siblings could be told to take 15 minute to half hour turns and come to the parent to change the "player." A coin toss could decide on the first player. Accepting the coin toss outcome could be the first "good" behavior reinforced by the parent. For example: "Jack, I see you are a good sport, after Jill won the first toss. You will play basketball before your turn. I am proud of you. Make sure you come to me after Jill's 30 minute computer game time." Note these consequences are a combination of social rewards (paying attention, praise) and activity reinforcers (game playing) (Morelli, 2006a).

Critical warnings for Time Out use

Never apply Time Out when angry. The parent (teacher, child-care guardian, etc.) has to have complete emotional control (Morelli, 2006b). Never observe some bad behavior a child is doing (no matter how bad) and arbitrarily say (especially in an angry tone): "Ok, Time Out for you" or "You should have known better." Even if a child has been told not to do something in the past, if the bad behavior has not been linked specifically to Time Out (as outlined in the Time Out Rules), do not as a "punishment" or "get back" technique, shoot Time Out "from the hip'" so to speak.

I have seen many incorrect uses of Time Out. They are interpreted by the child as mean-spirited and elicit emotional outbursts, interfere with the child's cognitive processing, and weaken the link between their perception of their behavior and its consequences. Following the Time Out Rules, whereby the child is informed ahead of time, the child knows what is expected up front, the program is explicit. It is less likely to be seen as arbitrary, capricious and vengeful. When the child is part of the Time Out planning process it usually attenuates untoward results and facilitates favorable outcomes.

The Godly Ethos of Scientific Psychological Tools

None of the behavioral tools suggested above should be viewed as replacing our total dependency on God and trust in Him. Rather, in the spirit of St. James the Apostle, we should reflect on his counsel: "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26). In the writings of Sirach (2:10): "Consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?" Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain has told us (Ageloglou, 1998): "God is kind; therefore, He takes care and looks after His children (for the one who doesn't provide care is not kind). It is in the nature of people ... to look after their children." To follow God's Will in this, the Church at home must be fully integrated into His Body: the Church.


American Heritage Dictionary. (3rd ed.). (1994). Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

McGuckin, J.A. (2004). The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology . Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part I. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, March 25). Smart Parenting III. Developing Emotional Control. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.

Morelli, G (2006c, May 08). Orthodoxy and the Science Of Psychology. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliOrthodoxPsychology.php.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1995). The Philokalia, Volume 4: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.

St. John Chrysostom. (2005). On Marriage and Family Life. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: May 26, 2008

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