The time out as a liminal space of possibility?

So, I am using this blog as a way to work out different ideas I have about troublemaking–how it functions and how it is represented and understood within a variety of discourses and media. At a certain point–family members, friends, colleagues, students, acquaintences, random people on the street–grow tired of hearing me go on and on and on…and on about my theories/ruminations/rants of particular examples of making trouble and valuing troublemakers. That is where you, my dear blog, come in. You are my opportunity to squeeze every troublemaking drop out of an example (I haven’t even begun to tap into the possibilities of the Brady Bunch and “A fistful of reasons”). In that spirit, I want to continue my “critical exploration” of The Book of Timeouts.

Earlier today, I had a brainstorm while I was in the bathroom (Martin Luther, eat your heart out!).  I started thinking more about the link between troublemaking and punishment and kid’s troublemaking and time outs. One thought I had (and that I mentioned in my last entry), was: Do they need to be linked? Can we imagine the consequences of troublemaking to be good (transformative, leading to change) instead of all bad? That is a continuing theme of mine and one I will come back to again and again. But, after I finished my last entry, I started thinking more about the connection between making trouble (in all forms) and being punished. Then, I started thinking about the prison industrial complex and all of the important critical activist work that is being done on this crisis. So, I picked up a book by Angela Davis that I have been meaning to read all spring, Are Prisons Obsolete? In her introduction she ponders what it might mean to do away with the prison system and rethink how we address and deal with crime. Instead of reforming prisons or finding ways to create more of them, she wants to raise the question of “how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into what prisoners call ‘the free world’” (20). For many, that is a radical and inconceivable idea. How, exactly, could we go about doing this? Davis’ shift in emphasis would require a complete transformation of how we think about “criminals”, criminal activity and how to respond to it.

With that in mind, I started thinking about the time out and how it functions in terms of resolving (or at least dealing with) kid’s troublemaking behavior.  Consider how Lucke envisions it when she writes in her introduction:

You got more and more out of control. Finally someone like your mom noticed and said, ‘You need a time out!’ And suddenly, surprise!–you were on a little vacation form everyone else. In a corner, by yourself, where you could pout away until you could play nicely with others.

Lucke understands the time out implicitly and explicitly as a place of punishment and, in many of her examples, presents it as the equivalent of a prison cell. As a prison cell, the time out place (most often the dreaded time out chair) becomes a space of confinement that you are banished to when you do something wrong. You go to the time out chair not so much to settle down but because you did something that you need to be punished for. The time out chair takes you out of the action and out of the fun. It is meant to separate you from everyone else–from your friends, family, the world–as a reminder that you shouldn’t act out, you shouldn’t be too full of yourself, you shouldn’t step out of line.

The time out chair (and the idea of the time out in general) can be understood simultaneously as a threat (see kids, don’t behave like these bad troublemakers who got extra long time outs) to ensure that none of us actually do things we aren’t supposed to and as a means for wearing us down and draining us of our ability to resist and step outside of the system (so, you want to make trouble, huh? We will just lock you up until you come to your senses).  Whether it functions as a threat or a means of punishment, the time out (chair) is a necessary part of a kid’s moral education.

As I mentioned in my last entry, Lucke uses her different examples of troublemaking as moral lessons for her reader. The front flap makes the connection between troublemaker and moral lesson explicit: “Lucke showcases some of the world’s most famous troublemakers and proves that lessons can be learned from all of them”.  For each of these troublemakers, getting a time out (and often in the form of the time out chair) is a necessary part of growing up and learning what not to do. Don’t be too full of yourself (Hannibal). Share with others (Napoleon). Always apologize (Grace O’Malley). And, reading about what these other troublemakers allows kids to shape their good and improper behavior against the threat of punishment for bad behavior.

But, what if we thought about the time out space differently? What if we didn’t imagine and reinforce it as a fixed location for punishment, as a kiddy prison cell where you went when you misbehaved? What if we reimagined the time out space as a space of reflection and rumination, where a kid could ponder and process their thoughts and feelings and where she might be able to channel them in different ways? And, what if we imagined the act of a time out as not being experienced in a time out chair? What if we kept part of the goal of the time out (that is, to allow a kid to cool off and to stop the trajectory of their out-of-control actions), but didn’t connect that goal with punishment and got rid of the chair?

Would disconnecting the time out (as the process of stopping or tempering out-of-control behavior) from punishment enable us to think differently about how to deal with “bad” behavior? Would it allow parents to think differently about how to guide (instead of just disciplining) their kids? Would it give kids a different model for thinking about how and why they should develop strategies for dealing with their desires to disrupt and challenge authority? Would it require that we rethink moral education outside of the discipline and punish mentality?

Now, I need a lot more time to ruminate on this idea. I want to do a lot more (re) reading on punishment (Foucault, Davis, to name a few). I want to do a lot more researching on how the time out chair functions within the literature on child development. I want to think more about what this might mean for how I do my own parenting. And what this could mean for how we respond to the prison industrial complex.

I want to be very clear here: I am not suggesting that there is a simple (and direct) connection between children who are sent to the time out chair and prisoners who are sentenced to a prison cell. It is much more complicated than that. What I am suggesting is that the implicit and explicit connections we make between improper/out-of-control behavior, punitive consequences, and moral lessons begin in the time out chair and help to produce a society that becomes too dependent on prisons as the answer for “solving” crime and too dependent on punishment (or the threat of punishment) for developing morals and/or ethical codes of conduct. Troubling the time out chair and how it should/does function, could open up some new ways of thinking about how to deal with and understand disruptive, improper behavior. And it could open news way of thinking about how to develop and practice moral education for children.

Now, in ending my writing here, I haven’t even begun to answer the question I posed as the title of this entry: The time out as a liminal space of possibility? I guess that will have to wait as I continue to think through how to connect these thoughts that are swirling around in my head. Maybe I should spend some more time in the bathroom.

It worked for Martin Luther and Doc Brown (is that too obscure of a reference for you?), didn’t it?

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