Why Time-Out Doesn't Work for All Kids and Other Secrets From Temperament-Based Parenting

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010


Time-out for misbehavior is a time-honored child management strategy. But as some parents have learned, time-out and various other management strategies do not work for every child. The reason that some children do not respond to various tactics is frequently related to the child’s temperament. By understanding principles from temperament-based parenting, however, effective management strategies that are specific to a child’s temperament can be implemented.


Soon after birth a child begins to exhibit a distinctive temperament. Researchers in child development have confirmed what parents of multiple children have come to know through experience. Each child is unique. One may be friendly and flexible. Another cautious and shy, and a third, perhaps, is feisty. Temperament is defined as the consistent reaction style that a child demonstrates across a variety of settings and situations, particularly those that involve stress and change. Temperament is also a lens through which individuals view their world.1 In the framework of temperament-based parenting, four dimensions of temperament contribute to a child’s general behavioral style:2

  • Activity refers to a child’s motor activity or tendency to move around and be active.
  • Approach/Withdrawal is the child’s first reaction to new people or situations.
  • Task Persistence is the child’s tendency to stick with a task until it’s done, even if he or she is interrupted.
  • Negative Reactivity is the child’s tendency to have negative reactions to life situations.

The first step in temperament-based parenting is to recognize your child’s temperament. You can generate a temperament profile of your child at

Principles of child temperament theory

  1. Underlying the selection of temperament-based child management strategies are several principles:
  2. Children are born with a unique temperament. Temperament involves the intrinsic and stylistic parts of an individual’s behavioral style that are usually consistent from an early age. For example, some babies enjoy novelty while others get distressed when they see new people or objects. Likewise, some babies are easily soothed while others cry for long periods of time.
  3. Temperament influences behavior and emotional reactions. Many temperament reactions are evident because they are manifested by a child’s behavior. Others are more subtle because they involve internal reactions and perceptions to situations.
  4. Temperament is easy to see in situations that involve change or stress. Challenging situations are likely to elicit an honest temperament reaction.
  5. Temperament does not change easily. Consequently, efforts to change a child’s temperament are usually unsuccessful and can also be punitive. For example, a child who is low in approach cannot be changed into someone who is eager to meet new people. Likewise, a child who is high in motor activity is likely to be so in almost any environment.
  6. Goodness of fit is the answer. Goodness of fit is the match of the child’s temperament to the demands, expectations, and opportunities of the environment.3 To promote positive development, effective parents and other caregivers adjust the environment to match a child’s temperament.
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