Parenting: Does discipline require isolation?

My daughter, known around here
as “Monkey,” at age 22 months.

Isn’t she a cutie?!

HELP! I’m stuck in rewind. Stuck in my head is a particular conversation from yesterday. It just won’t leave me alone. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I’m going mad!

OK, OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But I do need to stop thinking about it.

We were talking, a group of us, about parenting and about getting our kids to do what we need them to do. As parents, we are cheerleaders, encouragers, sounding boards, and loving supporters. However, being parents also means that sometimes we simply have to get our kids to DO something. The something might be “don’t run into the street” or it might be “buckle your seatbelt” or it might be “stop pounding on your brother.”

There were a lot of good ideas around the table. Some came from experience, and some came from imagination. Everyone was engaged, and interested in the discussion. It was fun, and interesting.

One lovely woman who I don’t know very well spoke up. She has two small boys, ages 2 and 4. She described her husband’s discipline technique. She said that whenever one of the kids was doing something he shouldn’t, her husband sends the child to his room. She described it as a quiet, relaxed move; her husband picks up the child and tells him that he needs to stay in his room. The isolation, she said, is a punishment that works.

Then she continued, “you’d think that this might engender some resentment from the kids, but in fact the opposite is true. When they come back downstairs, they are incredibly sweet and loving to their dad. I guess they just really need limits and they love him for setting boundaries.”


I realize that this is a loving couple whose children will most likely not be scarred for life from such a thing. No reason to make mountains out of molehills.

But it makes me so sad…

This is my two cents. You don’t have to agree, of course, I welcome differing opinions.

If you routinely isolate your child when he misbehaves, what’s the bigger message? Yes, you may get “better” behavior, if what you mean by “better” is “more compliant.” You may have a child who does what you want when you say you want it. But aren’t you also teaching him that when he misbehaves, you will withhold your love?

I have an entirely different view from these well-meaning parents. To me, it seems that the boys are not “sweet and loving to their dad” because they crave limits. I would guess that they act that way because they need reassurance. The dad made it clear to the child that if his instructions are not followed, the boy will be isolated from the family. After being banished to his room, the boy needs to check in and be sure that his dad still loves him. Which means that, at least on some level, the child has doubts.

I hope my kids know that they always have my love. Even if they make a mistake. Even if they do something that they shouldn’t have. Even…well, even no matter what.

That doesn’t mean that any behavior is acceptable. There are consequences for misbehavior. But those consequences do not include withholding of love. Love is something they get from their mom, unconditionally.

We’ve already discussed in a previous post that I’m not afraid of sibling rivalry. So it’s clear that I may be, let’s say, somewhat outside the mainstream on this issue as well.

What do you think? Am I being too sensitive? Or does this story make you sad, too?


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10 Responses to Parenting: Does discipline require isolation?

  1. Gila says:

    There is a wonderful book that talks about exactly this – it’s called Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Cohn. he talks about teaching kids to do the right thing, by teaching them what the right thing is (and why) and not by withholding love or anything else that they want. It’s hard work to do things the way he suggests, but at least for me, it’s more consistent with who I want to be as a parent, and (I hope) will teach my child to be the independent thinker I want him to be.

  2. Stephanie says:

    *My opinion, coming from a not-yet-parent (however, I did help raise my little brother when my mom got sick my teenage years, as well as hundreds of hours spent babysitting up to 8 kids at a time, for several families in my community)*

    I agree with your insight to this situation. As a kid, I got grounded, sent to my room for timeout, etc. For me, the biggest fear all through my years at home was that I was disappointing my parents. I was generally a good kid. My parents didn’t often yell (at me), but I felt such guilt at being a bad child that I felt I had to make up for it. My parents weren’t perfect, but they loved me, and I knew it. They did, however, overuse the guilt tool, in my opinion 🙂

    My husband had an awkward childhood, and has given me a lot of insight. The first three years of his life, his mom was pretty much his only companion (military dad). She took a very intelligent approach to a rambunctious, VERY smart, and severely ADHD little boy, somewhat along the lines of “teaching kids to do the right thing, by teaching them what the right thing is (and why).”

    She died when he was 3, and no one else knew how to deal with him. Grandparents had no patience for his energy and endless questions, and often forgot they had sent him to timeout several HOURS ago. By the time step-mom came into his life, he was far too old for her domineering, controlling way of dealing with him (which created a huge rift between her and his dad).

    I think his mom had the right idea, and I want to treat my kids the same way. I’m sure if they’ve got any of my husband’s genes, they will be far smarter than is good for them, be very curious, and I would rather deal with teaching them how and why (can’t wait for the “why” stage!), than punishment without explanation, or holding out love until the behavior changes. Besides, shouldn’t kids be able to express themselves? Yes, the behavior is wrong, but talking things through will probably shed some light for both you and the child on the how and why to deal with the situation.

  3. Was the Father withholding love? There’s not enough info. for me to jump to that. I appreciate that he shows his kids boundries without needing to scream at them.
    When my daughter was younger she would throw huge temper tantrums when she didn’t get her way. We were her audience and often if felt like she was holding us hostage (OK for the parents but not very fair for her older sister).
    We would put her in her room in a calm matter not for punishment but so she could scream and yell all she needed. Once she calmed down we would go in and sit with her, maybe hug or hold her and talk to her about what she was feeling before it turned to anger.
    She’s now 11 years old and is incredibly insightful about her feelings.

  4. Kimberly says:

    When my kids were little, sometimes they needed some time/space to cool down. Their room was often the best place to give them the time/space they needed. It was never for very long and most of the time I stayed with them, helping them find the words to describe their feelings. Going to their room gave them a change of location, a cooling off time, and an opportunity to reflect. Love was never ever withheld.

  5. Diva says:

    I don’t have a problem sending a child to time out or to a room. It just has to be communicated that this is time for the child to calm down or think about actions. I tell my child when she’s ready to talk, she can come out of her room and I will be there. It usually only takes a few minutes.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I don’t see the harm in sending your child to his or her room for a time out. I think it is a little dramatic to call a time out withholding love. Disciplining your children IS showing them love because you are teaching them what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Everyone needs some down time when they are agitated or angry- even adults. Teaching your children to remove themselves from a situation for a couple of minutes is a completely healthy thing and, in my opinion, does not translate to the withholding of love.

  7. Chelsey says:

    I’ve had my son(4) (who can be very feisty and passionate) hit my daughter(7) and my daughter *thanked me* for putting him in a time out. I was showing her (and I also told him as I put him in the time out) that everyone should feel safe and loved in our house and that when he hits his sister she doesn’t feel safe or loved. At the same time, my son knows that I love him so much that I won’t stand for his sister hitting him either.

    I don’t know about your kids, but mine know what the right things is to do and why, but in the moment they can get worked up and react. I’m interested to know what you did when your kids were younger if something like hitting happened between them.

  8. Rachelle says:

    My comment would’ve sounded exactly like Jennifer except that I would’ve said it’s ridiculous to call a timeout witholding love.
    Unconditional love simply means that you love them no matter what they’ve done. It does NOT mean that you can’t take a break away from them (or make them take one from you) so that frustration doesn’t make you do something you shouldn’t.

  9. Thanks to everyone for your great comments. It’s clear to me that I didn’t explain myself well, and will continue trying to articulate this concept.

    Gila: I think I read that book by Alphie Cohn. I remember thinking: oh yes, this makes so much sense to me. I might have to go and re-read it.

    Jennifer, Rachelle, and others above who think I’m nuts for saying that isolation is withholding love: I absolutely agree that sometimes it’s best for all involved to take a bit of time away from each other. People, including parents, sometimes need a bit of space to get a clear head. Children also need space to calm themselves, at times. What I’m trying to say is that when isolation is meted out as a punishment, rather than simply as “we all need to calm down for a moment,” it has a whole different feel. It was when the woman in the discussion group said, “they are so sweet when they come back downstairs” that I had that punched-in-the-gut reaction. I don’t believe they are well-behaved because they love limits. I believe they are learning to act exactly how their dad wants them to act.

    I’ve heard it said that as a parent, you can have control or you can have influence. I’d rather have influence. I think control is something that often backfires.

    Again, I am not a parenting expert, and I’m not certain that I’m getting my point across very well. I’m going to have to keep thinking on this issue to see if I can explain it better.

    Thanks so much for your comments, all!

  10. Shira Adatto says:

    It really depends on how the time out is being executed. I don’t see it as withholding love. The purpose of a time out is to remove a child from the environment that is triggering the bad behavior, allowing them time to calm down and reflect on what they’ve done until they are ready to rejoin the family. It should not be used in any way as a punishment. Barb, I agree that we can not control our children’s behaviors, we can teach them and motivate them through positive reinforcement. OK, now I am sounding too much like my Behaviorist husband so I will leave it at that.

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