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The parent, who's had it up to here , goes ballistic and banishes the kid for a 'timeout.' Does it work? Maybe. Is it right? Maybe not. : Go to Your Room

April 14, 1993|GORDON MONSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On one side of the department store cash-register counter stood the mother in the blue dress and heels. On the other stood her 7-year-old son in the red-and-white Oshkosh B'Gosh outfit and Nikes.

He wanted the Kit Kat candy bar. She did not want him to have it. She told him no five consecutive times. He responded repeatedly with an agony-laden "Puhhh-leeeeze."

Mother lunged at son. He bobbed away behind a display stand of compact discs. As she closed in, the boy picked up a Garth Brooks CD and threatened, "I'll throw this like a Frisbee. I will."

A gathering crowd of customers in the check-out line turned almost in unison to hear the mother's response:

\o7 That's it, young man. Stop it or, or we'll go home and you, you will go straight to your room!

The boy promptly flung Garth Brooks 25 feet into Aisle C.

Clearly, the threat didn't carry a lot of clout with this kid.

Measuring the modern-day specter of those once-powerful, almost institutionalized words of parental control--Go to your room!--is a complicated proposition.

Psychologists, parents, even children disagree on the notion's effectiveness in modifying behavior, particularly now that many children have rooms decked out with televisions, cable service, videocassette recorders, stereos, telephones, computers, Nintendo hook-ups, games and toys.

Some experts challenge the wisdom of sending a child to a room that might very well be stocked with goodies. Others say that most kids crave parental approval and that banishment to a room--TV or no TV--can be an effective punishment.

"If you send a kid to his room, it should be an environment that's not exciting," says Myron Dembo, a professor of educational psychology at USC. "A sterile environment could help suppress (negative) behavior. On the other hand, if a kid has a stereo, TV and VCR, it's not an adverse situation. It's not sterile and unpleasant. A room filled with stimulating activities might not do that."

This is not breaking news to Donna Ellis of Altadena, mother of five children between the ages of 11 and 18, who long ago gave up the idea of imposing "timeouts" as punishment. Instead, she revokes privileges.

"You have to hit them where it hurts and, in my case, sending them to their rooms never hurt," Ellis says.

"They have stereos, phones, reading materials, all kinds of things in there. They like being in their rooms. When they were younger, sometimes I'd make them sit on a chair in the hallway. But they've always had too much to do in their rooms for it to be a punishment."

Ellis' 15-year-old son, Brian, concurs. "Sending me to my room never did any good," he says. "I'd just call and talk to someone or read."

But some experts say bedrooms can still be used as "banishment" zones if parents forbid their children to use their appliances or games during timeouts.

"Tell them that they cannot turn anything on," Dembo says. "They must sit in a chair or on the bed and think about what they did wrong. That can be effective."

It's also time-consuming. Says Ellis: "I'm not going to send them to their rooms, then sit there and keep my eye on them to make sure they don't do anything. I want to punish them, not me."

All three of Christine Gan's daughters have TVs, complete with cable hook-ups, in their rooms. The two oldest, 11 and 13, have phones. No matter, Gan still exiles them to their rooms on occasion.

"It's not so much punishment as a way for me to get rid of my anger and for them to think about what they did wrong," she says. "It reminds them that they did something wrong, that their behavior has consequences."

Carolyn Gan, 11, admits to turning on her TV. "But I still think about what I did wrong," she says. "Even if I watch TV, there's still a big, black cloud hanging over me. I keep thinking about it."

Elise Jones of Riverside, a homemaker who has three girls under age 7, says that when her oldest daughter, Hayley, is sent to her room, she sits on her bed and cries. "She hates being isolated from the rest of the family," Jones says. "That's severe punishment for her. All her toys are in her room, but she just stays on the bed and does nothing."

Such a reaction is not uncommon for two reasons, experts say. First, children want parental approval. Second, they don't want to be sent away from their parent.

"Most children interpret 'Go to your room' as 'Get out of my sight,' " says Herbert Blaufarb, director of outpatient treatment services at the San Fernando Valley Child Guidance Clinic in Northridge. "Kids, of all ages, who have an attachment to their parents will respond to that. They don't want that to happen.

"Even if a child is sent to his room and plays, he knows--he's been told--his presence is not wanted. The ultimate for a child is the approval of the parents . . . no matter how many gizmos and gadgets he has."

Nelson Gonzalez of Pasadena, father of a 7-year-old girl and a 2- year-old boy, agrees, at least in part. He recently asked his daughter what is the worst part of being sent to her room.

"Her answer was, 'The worst is that I'm in trouble and that (Dad) is mad at me,' " Gonzalez says. But "she said being stuck in her room alone isn't so bad. She has 300 books in her room, and she loves to read."

Dembo says parents who send children to their rooms should do so infrequently and without a lot of preliminary arguing.

"Don't yell, scream, preach or be physical," he says. "Just say, 'You're gone' and follow through. The time in the room doesn't have to be long--10 or 15 minutes. Just long enough for them to realize what they did wrong."

Dembo advises parents to explain and discuss the inappropriate behavior with their children during or after the timeout. Then look for positives to reinforce positive behavior when it occurs.

"Give them an opportunity to act correctly," he says. "Then praise them."

And what if they react by hurling Garth Brooks over to Aisle C?

"All of this varies from child to child," he says. "If it works, do it. If not, then think of something else that will."

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