Sunday, July 5, 2015

Does "time out" hurt your brain?

A recent article in Time Magazine by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson argues that "time out" – a disciplinary method that replaces spanking or other physical punishment with enforced social disengagement – is causing harm to children. Siegel and Bryson are authors of The Whole Brain Child, a recent parenting handbook.

Siegel and Bryson make their case using a very weird style of dualistic rhetoric. This is a part and parcel of The Whole Brain Child, whose tagline asks "Do children conspire to make their parents’ lives endlessly challenging? No―it’s just their developing brain calling the shots!" (Personally, I thought it was their spleen.)

Consider this quote from their Time piece:
Studies in neuroplasticity—the brain’s adaptability—have proved that repeated experiences actually change the physical structure of the brain. Since discipline-related interactions between children and caregivers comprise a large amount of childhood experiences, it becomes vital that parents thoughtfully consider how they respond when kids misbehave.
The consequent of this argument – be thoughtful about discipline – seems absolutely true, and practically tautological. It's the first antecedent – the bit about the physical structure of the brain – that worries me. Are we only worried about physical organs? What about the mind, or even the soul? Without some extra premise, for example "...and the physical structure of the brain is more important than what it does," the first part is almost unrelated to the rest of the argument.

Similarly, "In a brain scan, relational pain—that caused by isolation during punishment—can look the same as physical abuse. Is alone in the corner the best place for your child?" The rhetoric is the same: a factual statement about brain science is paired with a statement about parenting, despite their limited relationship to one another. And although relational pain can be incredibly powerful (a couple of years ago, Atul Gawande wrote a wonderful piece on whether solitary confinement should be considered torture), the reason why we believe this has nothing to do with reverse inferences about what the brain shows. It has to do with the behavioral consequences of isolation.

I haven't yet made up my mind about time out. Some parents we know practice it regularly and their children seem fine (though I haven't looked at their brains to make sure they are not physically damaged). And the American Academy of Pediatrics' disciplinary recommendations include a qualified recommendation of time out, with some evidence of efficacy for both older and younger kids. M isn't yet two, and luckily we mostly haven't had too many issues of her acting out – but I can imagine that I wouldn't rule out time out as a punishment.  

More generally, Siegel and Bryson's rhetoric stems from the basic premise that children should be maximally protected from all forms of pain or even discomfort.  Is it better to allow children to have some negative experiences, whether administered by a loving parent or randomly stumbled into? Or should we keep these experiences from them as long as possible, on the thinking that they will have to have them eventually and it is better to establish childhood as a time of greater safety? Though I haven't made up my mind, I think lean towards less protection than Siegel and Bryson do. But it is very frustrating – perhaps even dishonest – to conceal such a critical issue in a fog of brain rhetoric.

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