Trading Time-Outs for Time-Ins: Dr. Laura Markham Shares “Sweet Spot” for Parenting Happy Kids

Dr. Laura Markham's sweet spot for raising happy kidsParents who engage in empathic parenting by setting age-appropriate expectations while offering love and understanding will find their “sweet spot” for raising happy and successful kids, Dr. Laura Markham, the founder of Aha! Parenting, recently told a group of parents.

With peaceful parenting, we regulate our own emotions to set limits while supporting and connecting with our children; we’re working to achieve cooperation without punishment, the renowned parenting expert said March 27 at Our Savior’s Way Lutheran Church in Ashburn, Va.

“This means whatever your child is trying to master, you’re giving them the support to learn how to do it,” Dr. Markham said.

Teaching our children emotional regulation through self-discipline and resilience is key, she continued. We need to show our children how to meet our expectations, she explained.

One of the key takeaways from her talk was that “emotions drive behavior.” Knowing this is the beginning of learning how to help our children “cooperate without punishment,” she said.

Dr. Laura Markham told the group of parents her “bag of tricks” for helping parents learn how to raise their children “will change your life.”

Dr. Markham’s parenting philosophy rests on a foundation of several key tools:

  • Discard punishments such as time-outs in favor of time-ins;
  • Help kids work through their emotions to empty their emotional backpacks;
  • Show how to achieve expectations with support, love and understanding;
  • Set high but age-appropriate expectations;
  • Help children learn self-reliance and how to develop resilience; and
  • Don’t fall into the permissive or punitive parenting traps.

Emptying the Emotional Backpack

One of the keys to mindful, empathic parenting is to let your child “empty her emotional backpack” by crying when she needs to and letting out her pent-up emotions. Kids have a backpack full of pent-up emotions; that’s why they’re acting out, she explained.

For parents like me who have children with food allergies, laying a solid foundation for teaching my children how to manage the challenging emotions that are sure to crop up in school is so important.

For example, Dr. Markham said, all day at school, children often hold in their emotions. They come home with a full backpack. Let them come home, cry, and let them all out, she said.

It may take some time, but once they feel better, they will stop acting out and be happier kids, she promised.

Outing the “Time-Out”

Dr. Markham also drove home the importance of refraining from using punishments like the time-outs that I often hear parents touting. Indeed, many parents believe time-outs are the gentle and accepted route, because they are so much better than spanking and yelling, right?

Dr. Markham, however, emphatically disagrees that time-outs are the way to go. Because I gobbled up her book the minute I found it, I knew she didn’t believe in time-outs. This is one reason I bought her book: I’ve never seen their beauty.

While I never needed anything like time-outs before I had my second child, when our new baby needed more of my attention and big brother started acting out, I briefly turned to them. I quickly saw first-hand that they didn’t help at all but instead made us feel less connected.

But what’s the alternative? How can we raise kind, happy, cooperative kids without using time-outs?

Dr. Markham’s toolkit for gentle, empathic parenting is my answer.

In a world where the word “time-out” is said to children almost as much as “eat your breakfast” and “get dressed,” hearing this cool, witty, engaging, confident, relatable mom and psychologist in person tell us to discard time-outs–and why we can and should–was one of her “Aha!” parenting moments for me.

For starters, Dr. Markham said that instead of having a time-out chair, have a comfort chair where you can connect with your child each day before things escalate. Sure enough, I’ve found that putting in time and connecting with my eldest before he feels out of sorts can really make a difference.

Self-Discipline, Resilience Are Key

One of the key ways to ensure our kids are happy and successful in life is to teach them self-discipline and how to regulate their emotions, Dr. Markham explained. Helping our children learn how to achieve self-discipline is one of the most important tools we can give them. “It is what matters most,” she stressed.

Time-outs don’t teach our kids how to regulate their emotions or learn self-discipline, she said. Rather, they create further disconnect, create power struggles, put kids on the defensive, trigger feelings of being alone, and leave kids feeling misunderstood. Moreover, they will lead you down a path where your child will not want to turn to you for help, she said.

Time-outs don't teach self-discipline.

“As adults, we’re always in a position of looking at things we want, and realizing there’s something we want more,” she said. “That’s what self-discipline is.”

“Over time, your child exercises that choice: giving up what they want for what they want more. It’s building that self-discipline muscle,” she said.

“Do you know how kids learn self-discipline?” she asked. “They learn it when there is something they want, like that cookie, but there is something they want more, like mom told me not to take the cookie. So it is not just that they develop self-discipline by giving something up. There has to be something they want more.”

She continued to drive home the point that children develop this self-discipline muscle by wanting to make the choice: “Okay, I’m going to give this up for what I want more.”

But Isn’t This Being Too Permissive?

Dr. Markham also addressed the big question that most parents have: Won’t this mean I’ll be too permissive? Won’t it turn into a free-for-all?

“Does anybody have a hard time between knowing how strict or how permissive to be?” she asked the group. “This is the one that most parents get really stuck on because we don’t really know where that sweet spot is between being strict and permissive,” she acknowledged.

The reason for this is that it is all about our expectations of our child, she explained. “We have our expectations and we want these expectations met, right? What we’re missing here is how we get those expectations met. We’re missing half the picture, and that’s why it’s hard to figure out.”

“They don’t get there by us dragging them, kicking and screaming,” she said, highlighting that kids who are raised by authoritarian parents “actually don’t develop much self-discipline.”

Strict parenting means “my way or the high way, sit down and shut-up, go to your room until you can be civil,” she said. “But this is low support that is not showing our child how to meet our expectations.”

“Many of us who were raised in authoritarian households may recognize some of what I’m saying,” she said. “We know how these kids come out: They’re more obedient when they’re younger, but by the time they’re teenagers, they’re very good liars.”

She went on to say these children learn several bad coping mechanisms that result in:

  • learning to sneak around and do whatever they can get away with;
  • often developing anger-management problems;
  • having a strong super ego that leaves them very self-critical, because they actually have taken in the voice of their authoritarian parent;
  • trying to rebel against the voice in their head, so for example, they can’t stick to a diet; and
  • not being self-disciplined.

While this is “sad news” and “one more reason to move away from punishment,” it doesn’t mean you should turn to permissive parenting, she said.

Children who are raised with permissive parents are raised with low expectations. “You need to give support toward what your child needs to master; not support that says ‘Oh, let me do everything for you,’” she said.

“So what happens to these kids who are raised permissively?” she asked. “They’re not asked to give something up for what they want more, so they also don’t have self-discipline and they also often think the world revolves around them. But maybe even worse, they don’t learn any resilience, because they never feel bad emotions as their parents are always trying to protect them from bad emotions.”

Dr. Markham explained that what these parents are teaching their kids is: “I will rescue you from those terrible feelings. You can’t bear those feelings. They are intolerable. We don’t ever want bad feelings.”

As a result, these kids will avoid bad feelings for the rest of their life, she said. “They will cheat and lie. They won’t face the music, in a sense, of their life. And they will run from whatever happens to them emotionally, and they won’t develop resilience,” she warned.

Children need to learn resilience: being able to have their hard feelings and learn they can make it through, Dr. Markham said. “You don’t want to communicate that they can’t handle their emotions,” she explained.

Of course, in addition to permissive and strict parenting, there are the parents who are not involved at all. “These are the kids with the worst prognosis,” she said, noting that these kids often self-medicate and spiral down another path.

Dare I say Dr. Markham’s advice about mindfulness, understanding, love, listening, connecting, gentle supporting and emotional regulation could be applied to all of our relationships? I think we all know the answer to that! 

Dr. Laura Markham is a trained clinical psychologist, a parenting coach, the founder of Aha! Parenting and the author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Dr. Markham also visits churches and schools to share what she has learned. If you have the opportunity to hear her speak, get yourself there. It really will get you thinking.

Dr. Markham’s book started me down the path of mindful parenting and gave me that “Aha!” moment. You can find it at Amazon: Shop at! 

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Have you had success with “time-ins” and other peaceful parenting techniques? We’d love to hear from you!

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One Response to “Trading Time-Outs for Time-Ins: Dr. Laura Markham Shares “Sweet Spot” for Parenting Happy Kids”
  1. Emily

    Thanks so much for this summary! How lucky you got to hear Dr. Markham speak in person. I really appreciate reading your “notes” – these are such important things to keep in mind and hear again and again.