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Resource Review Thursday: Beyond Time Out

beyond time out cover imageWhen I picked up Beyond Time Out [Sterling, 2008] from the library to read and review it, I had no idea what it was going to be about.  I certainly had no idea where it would lead me in exploring what it means to have healthy power in a parent/child relationship. As I wrote earlier, thinking about power when it comes to gentle discipline is kind of tricky. Even the name, gentle discipline, carries a connotation of reduced power in its very gentleness.

Beyond Time Out is written by Beth Grosshans, a child psychologist who has a clinical practice in which she consults with families who are having a difficult time with a child’s problematic behaviour. From her clinical work, Grosshans developed the strategies in Beyond Time Out.

Beyond Time Out aims to teach parents how to achieve a healthy level of power, either to correct an existing Imbalance of Family Power or prevent an imbalance from occuring.  Grosshans examines four problematic parenting styles that can lead to an imbalance of power, and then explains how to use her strategy, called the Ladder, to discipline effectively.  The steps of the Ladder involve an initial friendly bid for cooperation, one reminder, then the child is sent to his room until the parent tells him he can come out again.  If the child resists going to his room, the parent physically carries him there and holds him securely if he tries to run out or otherwise loses control and rages in his room.

Strengths of Beyond Time Out

  • Highlights the importance of power in the parent/child relationship, which is often glossed over in many attachment parenting books.
  • Shows how parents’ own experiences can contribute to their current parenting style, such as feeling guilt over being a working parent or being stressed about other responsibilities.
  • Describes the Outlier parenting style, which I was previously unfamiliar with.
  • Is clearly against spanking, yelling, “hot-saucing”, and other extremely harsh or punitive styles of discipline.
  • Points out the importance of clear communication, such as understanding the difference between a question and a directive, avoiding use of the trailing okay when a child’s input is not really being asked for (“You need to put your toys away now, okay?”) and inappropriate use of “we” instead of “you” (“Now we’re going to brush our teeth” when only the child is having his teeth brushed).
  • Grosshan’s discipline strategy, the Ladder, is action based, practical and clear. The emphasis is on action rather than talk-based parenting, which is more effective for very young children who have limited verbal abilities.

Weaknesses of Beyond Time Out

  • Power is over-emphasized and attachment is under-emphasized, despite the importance of a strong, connected and mututally respectful relationship as the foundation for good discipline. Hold on to Your Kids by Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld also discuss the importance of parental power, but they discuss power in the context of a healthy attachment.
  • Overgeneralization and misunderstanding of “feelings-based” parenting approaches.
  • The discipline method in Beyond Time Out is primarily based on behaviourist psychology instead of attachment or needs-based theory.
  • Grosshans does not discuss staying with a child during the time out, whether in a comforting role or simply listening and being present, except when the parent is required to physically restrain the child. Healthy boundaries and limits are necessary, but unconditional love and support is equally necessary, and is especially important when a child has “messed up” or otherwise needs to be reassured of the parent’s continuing love.
  • Grosshans is clearly against co-sleeping and elimination communication.

Power, Control and Love in Parenting

The approach Grosshans describes in Beyond Time Out is clearly better than discipline that advocates the use of corporal punishment.  It’s probably also better than discipline that is is the result of the insecurities and lack of confidence of “jellyfish” parents who are unable to provide strength and support for their children. However, for parents who are confident in themselves and looking for support in attachment-based parenting practices, Beyond Time Out might really challenge your assumptions about what it means to be a positive, gentle parent, and probably won’t reassure you that natural parenting choices such as co-sleeping or homeschooling are right for your family.  Reading and discussing the issues surrounding power and parenting has been a great opportunity for me to think more deeply about what it means to practice gentle discipline and what kind of role a parent should have when it comes to parental power and authority, but Grosshan’s anti-co-sleeping sentiment and strong focus on obedience was kind of off-putting.

It’s not always comfortable or enjoyable to wield power, even in a responsible and respectful way, and I can understand why some parents may want to claim that power dynamics have no place in their homes. However, the fact is that parents ARE more powerful than children – they have to be in order to provide a safe, secure environment with food, shelter and loving guidance. Children are autonomous people and worthy of all the respect due another human being, but they are naturally dependent on their parents and it is a parent’s role and duty to provide the support and guidance his or her child needs.

Children Need Parents To Be In Control

While reading Beyond Time Out I discovered a blog called Essential Parenting.   In this post, Chris White writes about Hold on to Your Kids and the “tears of futitility”.  The tears that arise out of frustration, disappointment, anger and sadness at not getting your way actually help a child’s developing brain adapt and grow. Not having those experiences can actually be an obstacle to a child’s maturation, and this is the main problem I see Grosshans trying to address. I suspect she sees many parents who want to practice attachment parenting but lack the tools they need to do it successfully, such as their own source of self-control, confidence, power and ideas about what boundaries are healthy for children. While healthy boundaries are important, it is also crucial to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. Being an effective parent is important, but in order to do that successfully parents who lack their own self-control, confidence, etc, will need to develop those traits in themselves before they will be able to successfully teach them to their children, whether by Grosshan’s methods or any other parenting philosophy. Attempting to increase your power over your children before you have the confidence or respect necessary to temper that power may not have very positive results.

As Chris at Essential Parenting also points out, this question of how and why parents exert control with or over their children is analagous to whether or not attached parents should ever let their baby cry. Crying alone is stressful and harmful to babies, but not all crying results in trauma of this kind. Some crying is a useful and healthy expression of emotions and frustrations that are part of the normal experience of life. Overuse of parental control can be traumatic and have negative effects on a growing child, but some parental control is useful and healthy, allowing children to experience their tears of futility while growing and maturing in a loving, respectful environment.

Would I Recommend Beyond Time Out?

Despite agreeing with Grosshans about the necessity of a healthy degree of parental power, the importance of not spanking and using clear communication and action-based discipline, I have a few reservations about recommending this book for parents who wish to practice attachment parenting and gentle discipline. These are my reasons why:

  • Working from the attitude that parental power is the key to good behaviour in children sets parents up for slipping into abusive and harsh parenting practices, whether they intend to parent in this way or not. Grosshans clearly states the importance of avoiding this, but in my own experience, parenting with the attitude that my word is law sets us all up for far more conflict and far less playful, flexible, respectful time together.
  • Most of the problematic parenting styles Grosshans describes have their root cause in the parent’s own issues or past experience, such as guilt about being a working mother, being overscheduled or stressed out, carrying wounds from your own childhood experience or an inability to empathise with your children. Following instructions from a parenting book without a serious re-evaluation of your choices or past experience isn’t going to change anything. As long as a parent’s personal problems exist, family conflict will pop up around them.
  • In the chapter on sleep, Grosshans recommends Tracy Hogg’s advice from her book, Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. You can see my review of Hogg’s book here, but in a nutshell, Hogg recommends sleep training that doesn’t involve a baby crying alone but is still very much about a parent exerting control over a small baby to force him or her to fall asleep in a crib. This confirmed my intuition of Grosshan’s attitude towards the parent/child relationship as being primarily one of direction and control rather than attachment and responsiveness. If you liked Hogg’s book, you’ll probably like Beyond Time Out. If you’re against Tracy Hogg’s style of sleep training, give Beyond Time Out a skip too.

Who might benefit from Beyond Time Out?

Would I recommend this book to anyone? Well, that depends on how you read and implement the advice in parenting books. If you are the sort to read parenting advice and immediately implement every piece of advice exactly as it was recommended, then I’d say this book might give you some good results if you really are able to stay calm and respectful while using Grosshan’s discipline tips. However, I suspect that most people who are parenting in the problematic ways she describes are going to encounter obstacles in their own personality that will prevent them from staying firm, calm, cool and collected. The combination of focusing on power and how easy it can be to lose your cool leads easily into harsh, punitive parenting if you’re not careful. However, if you’re looking for a step-by-step script to help you stop spanking or uselessly pleading with your child and implement an alternative form of discipline, then Beyond Time Out is a step in the right direction.

I would also recommend this book to parents who feel confident enough in themselves and their parenting choices to pick and choose the parts that they know might work for them and their children. For instance, if an over-reliance on reasoning and talking isn’t working with your toddler, then the advice to give directions twice and then move into an action-based discipline technique, such as removing a child from the situation, might certainly be helpful. However, the fact that Grosshans doesn’t recommend staying with a child while he is in time out and her anti-attachment parenting stance on co-sleeping will probably be an obstacle to many parents dedicated to attachment parenting who might benefit from learning more effective action-based discipline techniques. Being able to take what you need and mix it with more attachment-focused discipline techniques, such as staylistening, would be possible, but it means reading through Beyond Time Out and being able to separate out the useful tidbits from everything else.

In Conclusion

Grosshans’ message in Beyond Time Out is one of respect and a balance of parental power and love on the surface, but her techniques and attitudes towards children indicate that she believes they can be manipulative and need to be controlled. As this article in hand in hand parenting states, holding the belief that children manipulate their parents tends to colour your interpretation of their actions in a way that is harmful to both parent and child. By viewing your child’s misbehaviour as sign that needs are not being met (and those needs may indeed be a need for clearer boundaries), you are then in a position to providing responsive, respectful care instead of taking the attitude that it is necessary to control and police your child.  I’m glad I read Beyond Time Out because it really got me thinking and examining my beliefs about parental power, but I know I want to wield that power carefully and I’m not willing to subscribe to Grosshan’s views 100%.

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Marie October 23, 2011, 9:00 am

    I agree with you in that if I started thinking about power and my word as law I would start getting really angry all the time and it would definitely cause conflict. I think it cause me to assert my power over trivial things too when really I should be seeing the situations for what they are.

    I think I would probably have the same opinions as you if I read the book..so thanks for the review – I do not think its a book I will be picking up in this lifetime :)
    Marie´s last blog post ..Christmas Toy Expert – Official Top 10 Christmas Toys 2011

  • Cynthia February 12, 2012, 8:12 pm

    Saw this book on a friend’s table; she said she liked it and was sending it to her sister to read. Googled for reviews on it and yours was one of the first results. ;) Very interesting; I was glad to get your perspective.

    I 100% agree that when I get into the attitude of control/power, things go downhill fast here. When I parent with the attitude of problem solving/seeking solutions, things are much calmer and the solutions are more effective and respectful for everyone involved.
    Cynthia´s last blog post ..Weekend Reading: Double Edition

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