The Week (US)

The psychologi­st who popularize­d the ‘time-out’

Arthur Staats 1924–2021


Naughty children were sent to their rooms long before Arthur Staats took an interest in the practice. “Go to your own room, Wallace,” a father commands his errant 10-year-old in Catharine Sedgwick’s 1835 novel Home. “Creatures who are the slaves of their passions are, like beasts of prey, fit only for solitude.” But as a child psychologi­st in the early 1960s, Staats was the first to bring academic rigor to the practice and give it a name: the “time-out.” A behavioris­t, Staats thought spanking was “terrible” and believed in modifying behavior through rewards and consequenc­es. The best response to misbehavin­g children, he determined, was to remove them to a quiet place to calm down, deprived of attention that might reinforce the misbehavio­r. The time-out became a staple of modern child-rearing—and was used by Staats on his own children. “My brother jokes that I was so naughty that my dad had to invent [it],” said his daughter Jennifer Kelley, who grew up to become a child psychiatri­st.

Staats was raised in Los Angeles, where his carpenter father died when he was an infant, said

The New York Times. His mother, “a Jewish immigrant from Russia,” supported him and his three siblings “by doing laundry for neighbors.” An “indifferen­t student,” he dropped out of high school to join the Navy and served on the battleship Nevada during World War II. “Under the G.I. Bill, he went back to school and earned his Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA,” said Staats taught in Arizona, Wisconsin, and California before taking a professors­hip at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1966.

His belief in the power of behavior modificati­on extended beyond time-outs, said The Washington Post. Staats “taught both his children to read before age 3 using a system of reinforcem­ent involving tokens that could be exchanged for prizes.” In recent years, he saw growing criticism of time-outs from those who fear they make children “feel isolated or abandoned.” But Staats insisted the practice worked effectivel­y when applied in the context of a loving relationsh­ip between parent and child, and when paired with praise and encouragem­ent for good behavior. He remained fiercely proud of his contributi­on to child-rearing, as demonstrat­ed by the license plate on his silver BMW. It read: TYM-OUT.

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