The teacher — a newer one — pointed him out where he sat playing with the garden hose, soaking the sidewalk (and himself).
"He had a little time-out today," she told us.
Apparently, he had wanted to run around the corner of the building, where he was out of view of the two teachers, and after he had done so three times, he had a time-out before he was given his popsicle with the other kids.
"You might want to talk with him about that," she said, meaning, I presumed, the inadvisability of running around the corner of the building — not the experience of the time-out itself.
We've never given Mikko a time-out. I don't believe they're effective, for one thing, and they strike me as a form of love withholding, for another. (More on both of those issues later.)
Don't get me wrong; I know time-outs are super common and I believe most people who choose time-outs as a discipline technique are doing the best they can to find a discipline method that's not harmful or mean. I much prefer a short time-out over something harsher like spanking, for instance.
But I would have preferred even more that the teachers had used a gentler method more in line with his developmental abilities — like a time-in, where you sit with the child and give undistracted attention. (Sometimes "acting out" is just a cry to be focused on.) And like talking through the problem — as many times as needed. With a three-year-old, yes, it can take a lot of times to get the message through. In this case, apparently more than three. I would have appreciated if they'd asked him why he was running around the corner (more on that later, too), and if they had brainstormed ways for everyone to be happy and safe (such as moving one teacher further down the playground so everyone could be seen, even around the corner). And, yes, as a mother I sometimes need my own time-out to cool off and not go with my first reaction to misbehavior, so it's not always easy to think charitably in the moment. So I understand that, in a classroom, teachers might not have the time or opportunity available for that sort of intensive, one-on-one experience.
And I don't think, either, that having one discipline method (as long as it's not abusive) in one environment (a school, a divorced partner's house, the grandparents' place) and having another in your own home is overly confusing to a child — I think children can adapt and learn the rules for each place. And, from a gentle discipline standpoint, I feel comfortable that most of Mikko's discipline experiences will be with us, so I know he'll feel loved unconditionally where it counts (well, I hope!).
Sam picked Mikko up, and Mikko immediately snuggled into him, turning his face away from the teacher. I thought he seemed kind of distant and abstracted, but she said they were all tired from being out in the sun.
We looked around for his shoes. Where were they? Not in his cubby, not on his feet, not on the playground. The teacher peeked around the corner. Ah, in the base of a tree! Tucked in neatly where the two trunks diverged. After the teacher gave him the go-ahead, Mikko ran to the tree, around that forbidden corner, to retrieve them from his hidey-hole.
It was on my mind, but I didn't talk to Mikko about it that night, or to Sam. But today, we wanted to take Mikko back to school for a make-up session.
And he didn't want to go.
This isn't rare, precisely, but he's been happy about Schule for the last several weeks. We thought we'd turned the corner and now we wouldn't have problems anymore with dropping him off. But now we were back to chants of "No Schule, no Schule, I can't like Schule."
And then it changed to "Schule too scary." Too scary.
Sam and I started talking to him about the time-out, and he was clearly still very upset about it. He didn't like being in trouble with his teacher and the feeling of being ashamed, with no way to right it. I don't know what kind of resolution the two of them had had after the incident, beyond that he did get a popsicle eventually. I bet he didn't like watching the other children eat theirs while he had to sit apart from the group, and the further shame of that.
What struck me the most was what the time-out had accomplished:
- It had made him frightened of and disconnected from his teachers, and made him shy away from the school he used to look forward to attending.
- It made him feel misunderstood and picked on.
and what it hadn't:
- Never once did he mention why he had been punished, or say he was sorry about it, or indicate he understood the problem and wouldn't do it again.
Now, I know you might say if he was used to time-outs that he would have been less distressed to receive one. Then again, if he was used to time-outs to that extent, he would be used to tuning them out entirely. I rarely received punishments at school, because I was one of those obnoxious teacher's pets — but when I did, boy howdy, did I feel awful. Angry at how unfair my teacher was being, hot shame at being called out in front of the class. Again, there was no sense of sorrow and regret for how I had misbehaved — more just a resolve to avoid being caught in future.
I finally convinced Mikko to let me take him to the school and just peek in to see that, as I'd promised, today's teachers were different. It's Spanish day, so the German teachers aren't there. As we passed by the side of the wall that he had kept running to yesterday (which, frankly, could easily be within view of the teachers, so I'm not clear what the problem was except maybe for short tempers from being out in the hot sun), he pointed to the trees there. "Trees so tall," he said, showing me, a note of apology in his voice.
I almost cried.
He just loved those trees. He just wanted to play over in their shade instead of out in the bright 90-degree heat. There was no malicious intent, just a three-year-old who wanted to do what he wanted and didn't understand why it might not be safe.
Sam and I talked more about the time-out afterward, and we're not sure what to do. My understanding from the school manual is that time-outs are a last resort, so I'm not clear if this was a case of last resort (according to the teacher's view) or if the teacher was unfamiliar with the discipline standards. I feel like we need to talk with the teachers, anyway, just to let them know how badly he was affected by the time-out and how easily his feelings can be hurt. As a sensitive person myself, I know it can be hard to bounce back from being rejected like that, and I think that's how Mikko's feeling.
Some would argue he needs to be toughened up by such adversity so he's ready for the "real world" of school with teachers in charge and jobs with bosses in charge — but, frankly, if the real world's that mean, count me out. I'll stay in the one where people are respected, even the small ones.
I don't have time to talk in this post about all the reasons I believe what I do about discipline and the futility of rewards and punishments, but I hope this showed a real-life example of (a) how punishments are ineffective, (b) how they harm relationships, and (c) how there's often more to the story than what a parent or teacher wants vs. what a child is doing. For more information on theories of gentle discipline, a book that absolutely blew my mind was Alfie Kohn's Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. And Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves: Transforming parent-child relationships from reaction and struggle to freedom, power and joy, by Naomi Aldort, has helpful and practical tips for how to change our responses to our children's behavior.
Some other resources on the subject:
- "Arbitrary discipline" — on wanting more for my children than obedience
- "Assuming the best intentions" — on searching for my child's motives in apparent misbehavior
- "Tips to help parents assume the best intentions" — Dionna's guest-post follow-up to the above, giving practical ways to take a deep breath and reevaluate our children's behavior
- Paige at Baby Dust Diaries has ongoing collections of posts related to gentle discipline, so there's a lot to delve into there.
What do you do when the discipline style of other people your child comes into contact with (teachers, co-parents, grandparents, etc.) differs from your own? (I really want to know!) I'm wondering how to talk about this issue with the school — what should I say, and how?