Why time-in beats time-out every time


This year Maija and I decided to implement a family devotion time before bed. Our first session was not particularly successful, as our eldest son (10 years) refused to participate, especially in prayer. We gently cajoled him and tried to persuade him and incentivize him and do all the usual things, but he was not interested. And he was disruptive. And his attitude sucked. I finally told him that he was welcome to go to bed if he didn’t want to participate with the family. He stormed off, “Fine!”

If you’re a parent, I’m sure you’re familiar enough with this scenario. You try your best, then give up and dispatch the misbehaving child to their bedroom for some time-out. It feels good. It makes everything quiet and peaceful again. At least, for us it does.

What if what you chose to do at this moment, as they stomp away, was the turning point in your relationship with your child? What if you didn’t leave them alone for time-out, but instead joined them for time-in?

I would have been very glad to let him go downstairs on his own and leave him there. I was annoyed. But I can’t escape the reality that God has never sent me to be alone and “think about what I’ve done.” Rather, Scripture tells me he is always with me, he never leaves or forsakes me, and he even leaves the 99 others to come and find just me.

So I went downstairs and knocked on my son’s door. I asked if I could come in. He grunted. I went in, and climbed onto his bed and lay down beside him. He didn’t acknowledge me. I said hi. He didn’t acknowledge me. I put my hand on his back. He didn’t acknowledge me. After a minute he grunted, and forcibly removed my hand from his back.

Those kinds of reactions aren’t disobedient or naughty, that’s just a child self-actualizing and expressing their emotions. I don’t react to that stuff anymore. I asked him if there was something going on. Truth be told, he’d been less and less engaged spiritually for about 6 months. His refusal to join us for devotional time was not an isolated incident. Similar disengagement was happening at church and within our community gatherings with friends. 

He just grunted again in response. So I waited. As adults, we should have a far greater capacity for silent waiting than our children do. Eventually he said that yes, there was something going on, but he didn’t want to talk about it. 

It’s easy to feel frustrated when your child stonewalls you. But pay attention to what’s going on here: my child had actually just opened up. Maybe only a crack, but a crack is all we need.

I wanted to make sure his heart felt cherished and secure. I told him a story about how, when I was about his age, I did something I knew was wrong and I was scared to tell my parents about it. I wanted to tell them because I felt like there was a terrible burden hanging over me, but I was also scared. I didn’t want to disappoint them, I didn’t want to hurt them. I felt trapped. It was horrible. Eventually I found the courage to tell them, and while it was difficult, I felt so much better afterward.

I didn’t share this story to guilt him about his refusal to pray with us, but to let him know that I knew how it felt to not share something, and how much better it would feel if he opened up. I asked if there was something he was wrestling with, something he was having a hard time with. The crack widened just a little more, as he said, yes, there was something.

I gave him more time. Then I told him another, similar story. And then I told him that nothing he could ever tell me would change the way I felt about him. That I loved him, and he would always be my son, and there was nothing wrong with him. Through tear-filled breaths, he began to tell me his burden. He felt that there were two forces inside of him: one telling him to do bad things, the other to do good things. He felt like the bad one was starting to win and that scared him. He was ashamed and he felt powerless to stop it.

I gently explained the concept of the sinful nature, and how Jesus triumphed over sin and allows us to share his victory. I told him that since he is a follower of Jesus, he can claim Jesus’ victory just as much as I, or anyone else, can. I asked if he’d like me to pray for him. He said yes. We prayed together to help him surrender to Jesus, and for Jesus’ strength to fill him and be made perfect in his weakness.

We talked some more. Our hearts connected. We prayed some more. I asked him how he felt. He said much better. And then we went back upstairs to rejoin the family. I think it was 20 minutes, all told.

An hour later I was sitting on the couch doing some editing and he came and sat down right beside me, put his arm around me, and asked what I was working on. I can’t remember the last time he shared his physical space with me that intimately; he’s not super physical. This was a boy who knew he was safe and cherished, and the only place he wanted to be was close in his father’s embrace.

And I could have chosen to leave him there in his room to deal with his fear, his shame, and his weakness, alone.

The specifics of your situation may differ, but taking the approach of intentional time-in with your children will reap dividends over what simple disciplinary time-out might accomplish. Time-in is far more costly to you, but is infinitely more valuable to your child. The best you can realistically hope to accomplish from time-out is an outward behaviour modification that temporarily restores the standard of behaviour that you’re looking for (“Go away and calm down. Come back when you’re ready to be quiet.”). Time-in, on the other hand, can restore a child’s heart to a place of strong connection and equips them for a higher standard of self-regulating personhood. It provides you the opportunity to have conversation, or physical connection, or quiet time together, or even to just tidy their room while they ignore you. That’s 4 out of 5 love languages right there, simply by choosing to stay with your frustrating, misbehaving child rather than leave them alone.

If you’re so wound up that you can’t be with them at all without being a danger to them, then by all means give yourself some space until you can get yourself under control. But understand that at that point the issue is your behaviour, not theirs.

Friend, there is grace to help you with this. God always stays with you and always pursues your heart. Any anger or frustration he feels at our behaviour is the very fuel he uses to feed the fire of grace that never stops burning. His anger at our sin manifests itself as passionate commitment to do whatever it takes to restore us. Your anger can be harnessed as commitment. You can lay down the retributive violence that your anger makes you feel is so necessary, and instead let your anger drive you to pursue the heart of your child just like God pursues you.

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