I was about eight years old. I had done something deemed wrong or inappropriate. I have absolutely no recollection what it was. That part of the memory faded very fast, and it was really beside the point. There had been some conflict and I had lost and was now subject to my parents’ authority. I was sentenced to what was in 1972 a fairly progressive form of punishment. Not a spanking, but a ten-minute time-out on the Naughty Stool. It was bar-stool height, wooden and painted bright orange with many chips out of the paint, and while it had other uses around the house most of the time, when placed in the laundry room beneath a misbehaving child it was the Naughty Stool.
What did my parents think the time-out would accomplish? They no doubt believed it would give me time to cool down, to think through my misbehaviour, to internalize their behavioural expectations and to emerge contrite and apologetic, less likely to misbehave in the future. And if I perceived the time-out as harsh and punitive, well, a little negative reinforcement for poor behaviour isn’t a bad thing, is it?
As an adult I now understand all this about my parents’ choice to utilize time-outs. As a child, though, I remember having a very strong sense that a time-out was to try to make a child feel rotten and cry, a kind of tit for tat. “You were mean to your brother, so now we’re going to be mean to you. You will endure this humiliating acquiescence to our control over you. And it will make you feel powerless, indignantly angry and hurt. Exactly as it should.”
Truly. That’s what I thought they were doing. Trying to hurt me back.
So there I was, sitting angrily on that painted orange stool in the laundry room when I had my eight-year-old’s epiphany. Since the point of the time-out was to make me feel hurt and angry, I could trump the whole thing by sheer force of will. I would not become angry. I would not feel hurt. I would breathe deeply and remind myself that I was right, that my parents were idiots, that they could not control me. I would matter-of-factly continue to believe that I was justified in my (mis)behaviour and I would jolly well not feel contrite. And then I would feel cheerful and I would have won! They would have failed to hurt me!
I sat. I did not cry. I breathed calmly and deeply and smirked quietly to myself. And I basked in the newfound knowledge that they could not control my feelings, nor could they ever truly control me. I was too smart and determined.
It’s one of my clearest childhood memories. As a young adult I pondered it plenty; I was beginning to sense how badly I had misinterpreted my parents’ intent with this relatively benign punishment, but I was also beginning to believe that this memory of my 8-year-old thought processes was something important I wanted to hang on to so that I would understand my own children and how punishment would affect them.
It is no wonder I have chosen the path of positive discipline as a parent.