We have a three year old toddler, and he has just seemed to realize that timeouts are nothing more than him sitting in a corner for a few minutes. He has recently started doing a whole suite of bad actions (throwing things at people, hitting people, etc), and when caught, gets an impish grin because he believes that all that will happen to him is a timeout.

How do I make these things stick? Or, if there is a point where they don't, what's the escalation move? I'd rather not go towards spanking (pretty sure that will just let him think that hitting people is ok rather than a bad thing).

EDIT: Thanks for all the replies. I can see responses vary wildly depending on parenting style, so we'll be looking into these things. I can't give a check until I see which one works for my son, and even then, it'll just be for my son and another child may respond differently.

EDIT 2: We've tried a number of things from these suggestions, but so far, the idea with the most effect appears to be a) find a particular, specific spot for timeouts (in this case, standing on a subwoofer facing the corner) and b) fighting the battles to stay in timeout until he stays in timeout. He still does naughty things, mostly in an effort to get our attention when we're really too exhausted to play with him at the end of the day, but he understands that he will get the timeout and he doesn't fight it. Instead, he seems to be getting the 'mommy and daddy are worn out, I'll just color by myself' idea pretty nicely.

We tried the charts with stickers idea, but that didn't work as we found ourselves not being consistent. Without our own consistency, he just ignored the chart too. We found that to be the case with most ideas, that our own inconsistencies leads to an idea not working. It's only by paying attention to everything that we noticed it.

Thanks to everyone!

  • Is there something he really likes that you can take away? Can you make the timeouts longer?
    – Doug T.
    Mar 24, 2012 at 23:25
  • @DougT.-- He doesn't really have anything he's particularly attached to, and making timeouts longer than ten seconds doesn't seem to help.
    – mmr
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:30
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    @mmr: ten seconds is not a very long time. Try one minute per year of age. Mar 27, 2012 at 5:55
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    If he tries to run away make him stay and start the timeout again. It can take a lot of time for a timeout to complete but I Think the effort is worth it. With my 1 year old the 1 minute timeouts could take up to 15 minutes to complete. Now he know he can't get away with it and are mostly done after the one minute. It also helps (when they are a bit older) to let them tell you why they have a timeout before the timeout ends.
    – refro
    Mar 28, 2012 at 6:07
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    @refro-- ah, I see. Essentially, a huge time investment up front, to make it easier in the late game.
    – mmr
    Mar 28, 2012 at 14:50

9 Answers 9


I don't know what you do, specifically for his timeouts (does he sit in a chair in the corner? Does he stand, facing the corner? Does he just sit on the couch or a chair somewhere?), but what I found works for my son is sit him on a stool in the middle of the room and ignore him for a few minutes. The stool is too high for him to try to get down, and he still has to watch everyone do things without him.

Another option could be sending him to his room for a while. This of course, only works if he has no form of entertainment in his room, but the complete isolation could be unpleasant enough for him to think twice about misbehaving.

What I also often do when my son is misbehaving (especially when doing something like hitting or something else to another person) is to sit him down on the floor (usually when my son does it, he's on the couch) with a firm "no." It startles him enough that he gets the picture.

Doug makes another good suggestion - taking something away. If simply taking something away doesn't work, it may also work to put it somewhere that he can see it, but can't reach it, which eliminates the "out of sight, out of mind," case.

The key is to find something that he finds unpleasant and make him learn that that unpleasant thing will keep happening if he behaves in a way you don't approve. It may require getting creative, so take a look at the things he likes to do or use and take that away from him. It may take some observation time, but will be something that only you can come up with.

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    @Shauna-- All good points. I watch him 3+ hours a day, and I have not seen him attach to any toys, and I have seen him jump off of some pretty high heights. He has reacted pretty well to having his TV time reduced though, so that's the route I'll start with.
    – mmr
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:41
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    @mmr In your case, read the TV as being a toy. The term is irrelevant, it's about taking something he's attached to.
    – Mast
    Apr 24, 2015 at 6:35

Perhaps the grin means he is getting the attention that he was seeking. Throwing things at people or hitting people seems like he wants to be noticed. My 3.5 yo will act up if he feels left out.

If this is the case, you have two options: head it off before he acts up or punish after he acts up.

My very strong willed daughter (now 10) was more than happy to up the ante when it came to misbehaviour, so I'd say it is better to be attentive to him starting to act up and address his need for attention then. Perhaps by explaining that now it is Uncle Bob's time to talk or Sally's time to play with the whatever.

There will be times when punishment doesn't work, in which case losing a prized toy for a while can help.

  • @dave-- I think you're definitely right. My wife and I both noticed that he's acting up when he's bored (I spend the day watching just to see...)
    – mmr
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:42
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    @mmr - sometimes we got into a punishment fixation with our daughter rather than fixing the underlying issue. Hopefully we are not screwing up our son to the same extent.
    – dave
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:48
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    @dave-- you remind me of what my dad said to me. "Well, now I know how to raise kids. I just had to mess up a bit first." Thanks, Dad.
    – mmr
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:50
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    A friend once told me that as parents, you get "lots of at bats". You don't have to get it right every time, but you have to keep trying. A single error does little harm, but consistent errors do great harm.
    – tomjedrz
    Mar 27, 2012 at 13:39

The primary problem is that you are imposing a punishment. While punishment is necessary in some cases, it is a losing strategy in the long term. You make yourself into the "bad guy" for administering the punishment, and it also sends the signal that it's OK to do bad things as long as he doesn't get caught. There will be trouble as soon as you take your eyes off of him.

The second problem is that if you do have to punish your child, the punishment should be closely related to the misdeed. If possible, the "punishment" should just be a natural consequence of his behavior. For example, if he hits someone, have a serious chat about how it would feel to get hit, then make him ask the victim if he is hurt, and apologize. If he makes a mess, have him help you clean it up, and also clean up something else too. If he throws a toy inappropriately, you "put it away for safekeeping" — for his own good.

Timeouts are like jail terms. He'll learn nothing, develop resentment against you, and maybe even consider his guilt paid for with his time. What you want is to make him do community service instead. Whatever he has done wrong, he should have to make things right again, as much as possible.

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    "Timeouts are like jail terms. He'll learn nothing, develop resentment against you..." is not necessarily true. People wouldn't use timeout method if it didn't work in some respect. Like jail and many other negative reinforcements, they are only effective in small doses. For people in n out of time-out (jail) constantly, it loses it's impact over time. That doesn't mean it's ineffective.
    – monsto
    Apr 11, 2012 at 17:10
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    @monsto, I disagree. Just because people do it, does not mean it is effective. It may seem to work in the short-term, but as a youth worker, I am the one who ends up with these kids that cannot resolve conflict and instead want me to 'punish' the other kid. Time outs teach nothing. Inviting a child to cool down is an alternative method that teaches self-regulatory behavior, a life-skill. We don't have to teach by hurting, there is another way. Nov 27, 2012 at 18:13
  • @ChristineGordon you disagreed then agreed. To clarify, "not ineffective" is different from "effective" in terms of degrees of effectiveness. And then "small doses" and "short term" are similar. Point is that it may work today and now, a few times, but at some point you're going to have to come up with something else (because it loses it's impact over time).
    – monsto
    Nov 28, 2012 at 14:25
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    @monsto I don't get it. I don't agree with forced time outs applied by the parent. I'm not sure what pieces you are referring to. But some thing may 'seem' effective in the short term but that doesn't mean it is effective long term. And small doses and short term are not the same thing in the context of small dose being a short stint in jail and short term being immediate results. Totally different contexts. Nov 28, 2012 at 14:29
  • in my opinion timeouts do two things: 1. give the child time to work through their feelings 2. isolate and punish the child. I think 1 is why they are effective and 2 is why they are harmful. - There are ways to give your child a time-out from a frustrating situation, without isolating/punishing your child. A timeout can also be in your arms as a loving parent.
    – Falco
    Feb 9 at 12:05

You try other things. You escalate. You do not allow him to win. If you do not teach your child to respect authority he will have exceptionally difficult teen and adult years.

** Take things away.
** Lock him in a room.
** Corporal punishment, if you are so inclined.

I recommended The Strong Willed Child by Dobson in another answer. I recommend it here as well ... it changed the way my wife and I parented.

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    @tomjedrz-- I'm really not inclined to take Dobson seriously, after reading his completely erroneous stances on homosexuality (viz freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1751579/posts). I'm also not keen on locking a kid in a room, or, as I said, hitting (aka corporal punishment), as I think both send some pretty nasty messages about acceptable behavior.
    – mmr
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:38
  • Having said all of that, though, I've read the except you posted, and a lot of that makes sense. I think where I diverge from Dobson is the methods of implementing his practice, at least in this instance. But then again, since my methods aren't working to the point that I posted the question, I think I have to think about this and go over it with my wife.
    – mmr
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:49
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    @mmr The methods can be applied independent of one's religiosity ... they are entirely behavioral. Corporal punishment is advocated because, in his view, when properly done it is effective. My experience confirms this. Be aware that properly done includes never, ever, using corporal punishment when angry.
    – tomjedrz
    Mar 26, 2012 at 5:17
  • @tomjedrz ABSOLUTELY NEVER.
    – monsto
    Apr 11, 2012 at 17:19

You are right that hitting him will just teach him that's a reasonable way to resolve conflict.

Kids basically want to please and work with us (the parents/caretakers) -- it just gets expressed in, uh, less than optimal ways sometimes. This means that you can work with him; he wants to! It's just that he's 3 and haven't learned how to yet; that's your job and responsibility. :-) I very much liked the book "Your competent child".

For our 3.5 year old we do use a combination of timeouts (go sit on the couch, stand in the bedroom, I don't want to play with you) for particularly bad things, but often it's just explaining that it makes us sad or upset and don't want to play if you throw things/push your sister/take the toy after I told you not to/whatever.

Keep it simple, but still explain that you don't want X and it makes you upset/unable to play/ -- don't just yell "don't throw the legos!"

I'd also look at if there are other things you can do differently (does he watch TV? What games does he play? How is his routine? Does he need more/different attention/activities/direction? etc etc).

  • Parental discipline is not about resolving conflict, it is about managing behavior and teaching proper responses to parental authority. The child learning that yelling at Mommy results in a shoulder pinch does not translate into child thinking it is OK to punch an irritating classmate. Mine didn't.
    – tomjedrz
    Mar 26, 2012 at 5:25
  • @tomjedrz He's not saying "resolve the conflict". He's saying "corporal punishment will teach children that hitting is a reasonable way to resolve conflict". There's a distinct difference, and its really no different than "if you get into shouting matches with your kids, they will learn that shouting is an appropriate way of communicating" (other than that I'd say "may" instead of "will"). That's not to say properly applied corporal punishment can't be effective; merely that improperly applied corporal punishment can teach kids the wrong thing.
    – user420
    Mar 26, 2012 at 17:35
  • @Beofett Yes, thanks. I thought "conflict" was a pretty good word for describing variations of "don't do that", "I did it", "I told you not to do it!". As far as I'm concerned there are only improperly applied corporal punishment. It doesn't work. You might think it does, but it causes real harm (that you might not immediately see) and long-term all studies I have seen say it causes (sometimes grave) harm. apa.org/news/press/releases/2002/06/spanking.aspx xrl.us/bmziqs ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2771618 Mar 26, 2012 at 23:38
  • eh, the middle link is an easier read than the third, but it got hidden a bit in the gooblygook of URLs: xrl.us/bmziqs (link to scholarship.law.duke.edu). Mar 26, 2012 at 23:43
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    @AskBjørnHansen You miss my point. You need to parent, to exercise authority, and to be in control when your child is young. The police officer who gives you a traffic citation for driving too fast is not "resolving conflict", he is enforcing the rules and exercising authority. And next time, you are going to slow down on the that street.
    – tomjedrz
    Mar 27, 2012 at 13:32

First, it may help to think hard about why he's misbehaving. Is he being naughty to get attention, whether the attention is negative or positive? Is he going through any difficult life changes (moving, divorce, new siblings, loss of a loved one, etc), having a hard time adjusting to preschool, etc? Having a hard time sharing his feelings or otherwise expressing himself? Understanding why he misbehaves may help you tailor an approach to working through any root causes that are encouraging the behavior.

Aside from that you can choose between rewarding and encouraging good behavior and/or punishing undesirable behavior. Don't ignore good behavior, make sure he's recognized and rewarded for it. What kinds of rewards and recognition is up to you. It might be hugs and kisses and words of affirmation, it may be m&ms or a yummy treat, it could be a toy, or a sticker on a sticker chart toward earning a prize he's excited about. What motivates one child is different than what motivates another. The point is that if you make such a big fuss and give him attention for positive behaviors, he may start to seek attention by doing good things rather than seek attention by naughty things.

As far as discouraging naughty behaviors, if he's seeking attention by being naughty, a punishment that eliminates attention may be an effective choice, and should be conducted in such a way that he's not getting rewarded with attention for misbehavior. If isolation or being ignored is not effective (it could just be too similar to a regular time-out), loss of privilege could also be chosen. Perhaps a favorite toy goes into time out instead of him. At 3, he's still young enough the consequence probably needs to be immediate for him to draw the connection with the behavior and the result, so loss of desert or not going to the playground later in the day may not be effective.

Also, remember to be clear and consistent about rules. Give him a clear spoken warning that if he continues or repeats a specific bad behavior, x will be the consequence, and then make sure you follow through so he knows you mean what you say and that your will can't be bent to match his will. It would also not hurt to suggest an alternative good behavior to do instead. "no don't hit daddy, give daddy a big hug!"

Role-playing good behavior and bad behavior might also be helpful.

  • Dude, clear and consistent parenting can't be said enough. It's the biggest problem that most parents have... saying somethign they don't mean.
    – monsto
    Apr 11, 2012 at 17:24

How about making it official? When the child is calm and you have some alone time, talk to him about this behavior and ask him what he thinks about it, and when you get to a point that he agrees that the action isn't a good choice.

After that ask him to draw a chart where you track the opposite behavior each day. So you can write: Not Throwing things at others: Monday : x,x,x Tuesday xxx

At the end of the day if he gets to 5, 10 stars he gets what he likes, activity or something else special. I encourage my kids to do things properly by tracking it for a few weeks and they get the point. Then I phase it out until it's needed again.

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    The kid is THREE .. discussion, persuasion and explanation do not work. The chart isn't a bad idea though.
    – tomjedrz
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:00
  • @tomjedrz-- yeah, reasoning with three year olds is bound for failure. We did try for a while with happy face/sad face drawings on a wall, but I couldn't think of a way to say 'one sad face cancels out three happy faces!" to a kid who can't count that high yet.
    – mmr
    Mar 26, 2012 at 3:42
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    @mmr, why cancel anything out? say 5 times he does a good behavior he gets a reward. and if he doesn't just use that to point out that he will not get a star this time. Play with it to make it work for you. I can reason with both my kids at 3 year old about some things, so it depends on the kid I guess. For the parents that think you can't, it's like probably a good idea to keep trying anyway.
    – kiev
    Mar 26, 2012 at 18:29
  • @kiev-- we'll be trying this out as well. As I said earlier to tomjedrz, I can't discount this approach before I try it, as the stuff I'm doing now isn't working.
    – mmr
    Mar 30, 2012 at 18:46
  • i went to Big Lots, bought 3x 4" tall glass vases and a buttload of colored glass beads. When my kids do something positive, they get a bead of their color dropped in their vase. when the vase gets filled, they get a special time with mom and dad... basically date night. Daily, I Drop Beads and talk about the POSITIVES. I do NOT drop when talking about the negatives. I NEVER TAKE from the vase, only NOT GIVE. It's a simple way to pile up good things and understand bad things with an easy way for them to keep track: look at the pile.
    – monsto
    Apr 11, 2012 at 17:16

I have had kids that respond to time out and kids that don't. For me it depends on the behaviour, but in general what happens to him at the end of time out? Forcing him to say I am sorry for... makes him own the behavior and he may not come out of time out (after the 1 min. for each year of age) until he is ready to say it. I had one daughter stay in time out for 45 min. because she refused to apologize. But... if time out still doesn't work, my other suggestion comes from the book Love and Logic. Depending on the behavior give a punishment that fits the crime. For example:

My daughter argued with me and therefore made me too tired to vacum the floor so she had to do it while I rested.

My daughter hit her brother so she then needs to make it up to him by doing one of his chores.

My daughter jumps on the couch she must then clean the couch to fix what she did.

My daughter refused to do a requested action she much do the action, apologize, and do something else she doesn't like to do to demonstrate that she knows how to listen.

I hope that helps.


It sounds to me like he doesn't much care that you're tired and don't have the energy to play with him, and he has a point. If he isn't getting the attention from you that he wants and needs, he'll keep trying until he succeeds. There is really no punishment that will fix this. And really, if you have to spend time with him dealing with problems, you might as we try preemptively dealing with him in a positive way to avoid the problems. It might be as simple as spending twenty minutes with him and a box of crayons in the evening.

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