The Problem with Timers

“Kids seem to have all the time in the world—but adults don’t. Even with an established routine, time is an abstract concept, especially to young children, so you can hardly expect them to share your sense of urgency. The solution: Get a timer. The bigger the numbers and the louder the ding, the better!”         – Nanny Stella, Nickelodeon Parents Connect 

If you use a timer, I know what you’re probably thinking, because I wrestled with it, too: “Why pick apart a tool that’s working for us when you could be offering constructive advice? What could possibly be wrong with using timers? They help us set limits and deal with transitions more gracefully, and our kids love them.”

On the surface, timers are fun, effective, and innocuous, and I would certainly never criticize parents for using them. But my belief is that timers can also wind up (no pun intended) getting in our way, undermining a parent’s ultimate goals. So I’m hoping you’ll hear me out (and feel free to disagree).

Finding our rhythm as competent leaders

Establishing ourselves as the confident, empathetic leaders our children need takes experience and plenty of practice. Setting limits and garnering cooperation are not anyone’s favorite aspects of parenting, nor do they come naturally to most of us. So the appeal of a device that can play the bad guy and say it’s time to stop playing outside on a warm summer evening is certainly understandable. But is it wise?

Personally and as a parent coach, I’ve noticed that the more we practice confronting head-on our children’s resistance to our limits, the more we get used to facing, accepting and acknowledging their displeasure. Over time, it gets easier, and we become more confident in our gentle leadership role. A timer in the mix to offset the “blame” is a crutch we don’t need and can inhibit our progress in this area.

Gimmicks

Like my mentor Magda Gerber, I am not a fan of child care gimmicks of any kind, which is one reason (of many) that I avoid gadgets like walkers, jumpers or bumbos; nor do I use bribes, tricks, sticker-charts or even kiddie terminology like “time-out”, “use your words”, “big feelings” or “babywearing”.

This may seem extreme, but I want everything I say and do in regard to my child to remind me 24/7 that he or she is nothing less than a whole person. I need the path of our person-to-person relationship to remain clear. It’s hard enough to stay on track when there is such an astonishing lack of support in our society for respecting our youngest kids.

A reliable barometer for discerning whether a term or tactic is respectful is to ask ourselves if we would use it with an adult: Would we use a timer with anyone but a child or an egg? (DING!) “Time’s-up for lounging around, Sweetheart, come help with the dishes!”

Your time has expired

“Timers help give your kids a sense of time, and be more aware of the concept of time. This can only benefit them in the long run, not to mention help nip some of your daily battles in the bud now!” – Nanny Stella

Yes, a reasonable sense of time is important and good ‘in the long run’, but why the big rush to instill the concept at such an early age? I remember a concerned friend complaining that her child’s Kindergarten used timers to move the children from learning center to learning center every five minutes which, unsurprisingly, unnerved her child rather than teaching him anything (except that school is impossibly stressful).

I’m sure that would be my reaction, as well, even as an adult. I imagine hearing that tick, tick, tick sound in anticipation of a loud ding, and I get anxious. (Might also explain why I’m rattled by Jack-in-the-boxes.) And this distracting, panicky feeling would certainly kill the joy of any activity or train of thought I might be involved in. Perhaps timer-time is worse than no time at all.

One of the many mountains of things I treasure about young children is the total communion they have with time being relative. Kids lose themselves in time all the time and can inspire us to release ourselves from clocks, slow down and join them. Why hurry children to learn the meaning of time when ignorance is such bliss?

How did it get so late so soon?”  – Dr. Seuss

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(Photo by
ciocci on Flickr)

 

106 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Could you explain how using timers is different from counting down time to prep kids from moving from one activity to another? When we’re leaving the house or a fun activity like the park, I give my kids a 10-minute warning and a 5-minute warning so they have time to get their things together, wind down, and prepare however they want/need for the transition. I feel like they’re sort of similar concepts, but also different, and I’m not sure how to articulate if/how they’re not the same. Thanks, Janet!

    1. Suchada, the difference I see is that one revolves around the parent’s leadership and the other is about a timer. I think it’s extremely important for parents to practice leadership, because the more comfortable we get, the more relaxed our family life will be. And the confidence parents gain when they become comfortable with respectful leadership is transformative. Also, and I almost included this is in the post, think about it… Would you rather be awakened from playtime by an alarm (DING!) or by the sound of your trusted parent’s kind voice?

      1. I say things like “five more minutes, then we have to go!” when we’re in the playground a lot, and I was thinking about getting a timer… but this post really made me appreciate what we do now as opposed to the rigidity and invasiveness of a timer. One other difference I see is that looking at my watch (instead of setting a loud timer) allows me to be a little bit more flexible without sacrificing authority. I.e., if I say “five more minutes” when we’re in the playground, but then my daughter gets really absorbed in something or is, say, in the middle of climbing up a ladder when five minutes have passed, I can quietly wait for her to finish (or say something like “ok, one more minute, then we’re going”) before making her stop. If a timer had just binged, I would feel like I had to rip her off whatever she was doing THAT SECOND or else she’d stop believing me when I say “we’re leaving in five minutes.” Writing this out, I hope this doesn’t sound misleading or wishy-washy… because yes, I sometimes say “five minutes” but then consciously allow it to turn into seven before I say “ok, now we have to leave,” and my 1.5 yr old daughter doesn’t know the difference. However, I feel like I’m very comfortable enforcing limits (which quite often lead to some protest from my daughter, though not for long), I just like the flexibility to allow the boundaries to fit the natural rhythm of play a bit better. What do you think, Janet? Is it ok to fudge the boundaries a bit like this?

        1. (Just to clarify, I DO follow through every time when I say “five more minutes”– I never just make it some kind of empty threat– I just sometimes allow a few extra minutes before I make my daughter stop what she’s doing.)

          1. Maya, I think the way you’re handling these situations is sensitive, considerate, strong…awesome!

      2. Like any method timers can be abused. But used sparingly are a very useful respectful tool for time management. The parent’s or caregiver’s voice must always accompany the sound of the ding. As for something like leaving the park, the parent is still the “bad guy” for deciding it’s time to go.

    2. Sorry if this has been covered before but i am new to your site, but is a timer different from ‘1,2,3’ – as in if you dont do it by 3 (insert disicpline here) – and if so, do you suggest an alternative?
      thankyou

  2. As far as your question about if adults would like a timer, I would say I do, or an alarm at least. I feel if I have something to tell me when the time is up, I can more fully relax knowing I wont sleep/lounge/whatever longer than I meant to. I don’t think kids have that worry though, so it may not apply, but certainly would use timers for more than just eggs.

    1. I’m with you about needing an alarm, Juliana, but as I wrote to Suchada, wouldn’t you prefer being awakened by a responsible, loving person?

      1. As an adult, I dont think it’s always possible to have another person available to keep time for me, and I trust a timer/alarm more at this point. But I totally agree a parents reminder is better for kids!

      2. Yes, I totally agree Janet..
        All my sleeping children awake to a sweet little song
        ‘Wake up x, beautiful, beautiful x (child’s name)’
        Even my 12 year old loves to hear her name sung for wake up 🙂

        Ps I rarely use an alarm….believing I have an ‘inbuilt’ one already..it works just fine, it’s about trusting ourselves, and building a strong healthy rhythm…:)

  3. I use timers for myself all the time when I’m grading papers—limiting how long I spend on each one keeps me from getting lost in a paper or staring off in the distance and thinking about something else…

    1. Sounds good, Larissa. And if a child chose to use a timer for self-discipline, that would be entirely different from it being imposed upon him or her, don’t you think?

  4. avatar Tamara Krinsky says:

    This is off-topic, but since you mention it, I had to bring it up. Why are you against the “use your words” idea? I realize this may not be the post to answer the question (and if you’ve talked about it previously, please let me know), but I’m very curious about this. I never use it to stifle my child from being upset – I’m all for her experiencing emotions like frustration, sadness, anger, etc. – but I do think it’s important for her to learn to communicate in a manner that others can understand. And to help her move beyond the whining. Thoughts? Thanks!

    1. Tamara, this is going to sound nit-picky, I’m sure, but I prefer “please tell me”, because we would never use the phrase “use your words” with anyone other than a child.

      1. Thank you for the alternative phrase. I was also wondering this as my very verbal two year old has started a whiny phase and I want to encourage him to tell me what he wants rather than just hanging on me and whining which makes no sense and gets irritating. I’ve read your previous posts talking of not using the phrase “use your words” and in the moment struggled to find an alternative. Will be trying this one out today!

          1. Hi Janet, just had to update. “Please tell me what you want” has been very effective! Also, I noticed the whininess subside quite a bit overall, but that could be that it was a developmental phase as we inch closer to 2.5 years. I also ask him to take a breath and then tell me when he gets a bit worked up with the whining or is getting bossy/rude. Taking that moment usually resets him and his request is easier for him to get out verbally and politely.

            1. Wow, sounds great, Jen! Thanks for checking in and sharing that.

      2. avatar Tamara Krinsky says:

        Thanks for the alternative phrase. I’ve actually employed that interchangeably with “use your words,” so now I’ll just make a more conscious effort to use that phrase instead. And it doesn’t sound nit-picky 🙂 Part of the reason that I like reading you is because you offer concrete tools and suggestions about how to tweak things.

        1. Well for an adult there is no need to say “use your words” because adults understand how to verbally communicate. When children are verbal enough to use their words to express their needs and desires I find this phrase useful as a beginning teaching tool. Once a child understands/ has mastered the verbal skill then I use the phrase, “tell me or explain” what you need /want / feel.

    2. I love what Magda Gerber had to say about the phrase “Use Your Words.” – “If the child COULD use her words, she would.” So often infants and toddlers communicate through gestures and actions, and this is totally appropriate and possibly the only way they CAN communicate, so telling them to “use their words” when they don’t have words, and are clearly communicating in the way they can, is just rude, dismissive, and counterproductive. Better maybe to ask, “Are you feeling…?”, or “Are you saying…?”

      1. avatar Elanne Kresseer says:

        Thanks Lisa and Janet for sharing this bit about “Use Your Words.” I don’t say this to criticize anyone who uses that phrase and there is something about it that always makes me cringe. I’ve had the same thought that Lisa just mentioned — if they could they would. I’d rather speak with my child in the moment and say, “I don’t understand what you want right now, can you tell me?” or something that is immediate and related to the situation.

        The whole article is great. I’ve also resisted a timer and haven’t known exactly why, but this helps me to understand. It’s so great to have someone else spell out the thought process I hadn’t yet become cognizant of!

        1. Thanks, Elanne. As I mentioned in the post, it’s been very important for me to always feel like I’m talking to another person when I speak to babies and young children. That may not matter to other people, but I need that clarity.

      2. Wow, am I ever happy to have broken my “don’t read comments” rule!
        “Use your words” has always sounded terrible to me and I’d love to get rid of it’s use in my school. When I hear adults say it I alwasy think, “well, *what* words? This kid certainly doesn’t seem to have any right now.” I find myself asking parents to think about a time in their lives of intense emotion and then ask them just how verbal they felt in that moment. It often seems like a lightbulb goes off in their heads.
        With my toddlers, I will ask something like “do you want to say ____” when they are in a conflict situation with another child, or if it is a situation with me, I will offer “I’m ready to listen…” and then wait, maybe offering to verbalize some emotions, or telling them how I think they might be feeling and asking if that’s the case. With the older (pre-school age) children at our school, I try to ask both psrties “what do you have to say?” if they are struggling to solve a situation. Happily, most of the children who have had practice with talking and listening to each other as toddlers need very little adult assistance with this and sometimes will even mediate for their peers if a problem arises.
        The rule of only say things to a child if you’s say them – straighfaced – to an adult is so sensible to me. This comment thread has been great – thanks!

  5. I’ve never found it necessary or desirable to use timers when caring for children, but I’ve sometimes suggested parents use them, depending on the family circumstances and history.

    In general, I really agree with you that using a timer seems somehow disrespectful, and takes away from the authentic “person to person” relationship, and I certainly know I,(as an adult), have railed against an arbitrary and imposed time limit when being asked to cooperate with another person’s agenda. (That’s the toddler in ME!)

    I don’t think timers help toddlers to understand time or to cooperate any better, but sometimes maybe they help parents to feel more patient or in control? Toddlers are so present oriented and immersed in the NOW, and whatever they are doing, that transitions can be almost painful.

    I think maybe it’s a little different with an older child (age 4 or 5 and above), or if an older child or adult chooses to use a timer to remind himself, challenge himself, or keep focused.

    I have a very good friend who sets a timer to remind himself to stop working at the computer and take a break to get up and stretch and eat, and I’ve sometimes set a timer for myself when I’ve had to tackle a task that I’ve been putting off. I tell myself, “OK, I am going to set a timer for 10 minutes and start on this task, and when the timer goes off, I’m free to stop!”

    I’ve also known some older children who love the challenge of setting a timer and then racing against it to see if they can accomplish a task like cleaning up all their toys in the allotted time, but again, this came more from them than from me or someone else saying, “I am going to set a timer for 10 minutes, and I expect that when the timer goes off your room will be cleaned.”

    1. Lisa, I think timers do help parents feel more patient and in control, because they make setting limits feel less confrontational. But what about when they don’t have the timer? Do they feel less equipped than the parent who has worked through their discomfort…learned not to take their child’s resistance personally, etc.? This is what I wonder, Lisa.

      I agree with you that timers used for self-discipline, fun clean-up games and the like are totally harmless.

      1. avatar Emily Johnson says:

        My 3 year old really needs to have his own choices and be in control of his own circumstances. When we argue about him resting for a nap, I tell him, he doesn’t need to sleep, but he does need to lay down for 20 minutes and rest (and he almost always falls asleep, hence the daily rest time).

        He always asks me to set the timer so he knows when he can get up and play. I think it helps him relax, knowing that I won’t ‘forget’ to come in and tell him, but also that he is somehow more in control. He would prefer to defer to a machine than defer to me!

        1. We have a “wake up light.” It doesn’t make any noise (so jt won’t wake him up) it’s just a nightlight on a timer that comes on at the end of nap time and at wake up time in the morning. It’s been amazing for his sleep and calm… I think it just adds a measure of predictability to his mornings and afternoons.

        2. A great example when a timer is helpful. When I have an older child who doesn’t want to nap setting a timer know when they can get up. Somehow when it comes to resting children would rather not defer to a parent keeping track of the time.

    2. My mom always set a timer for Saturday morning chores. We’d have our “15 minute cleanup” and my sister and I would race around the house to see how much we could get done in 15 minutes. We loved it!

      1. I can imagine that being very fun, Ali! That’s a situation in which I can definitely see using a timer, maybe because it’s a game…

  6. I like Tamara, would also like to know why you recommend not saying things like “use your words” ? I worked in a kindergarten that used sand timers as a way to encourage turn taking. This way the children could be empowered to manage their turns on the computer (5minutes) as it was visible – do you also disagree with things like this? They had sand timers around the room with different times, not for the teachers to use and tell the child ‘oh now you have to do this..’ but so the children could use them however they please – i thought this was a good way to empower the children to self-regulate sharing. Otherwise the teacher would of had to of been watching each child ensuring they didn’t spend longer than 5 minutes on a specific toy or activity. What are your thoughts?

    1. Letisha, I explained my reason for not using “use your words” in my response to Tamara… I think using the sand timers sound fine, especially with Kindergarteners, who are old enough to practice self-regulating.

    2. I would like to know why these kindergarteners are having to switch activities every five minutes. What kind of value can you get out of engaging with materials for such a short amount of time? The pre-K children that I work with can sometimes take the better part of an hour to really be finished with what they are interested in and they are certainly not required to “share” until they have finished using whatever material they have been working with. I think Janet’s questions about whether or not you would do this with an adult can be applied here. If an adult was going to create a piece of artwork it is HIGHLY doubtful that he would be able to accomplish what he wanted to in only 5 short minutes.

      1. I thought that was amazing, too, Jenny. And it was at a very highly-ranked public school.

      2. As a early childhood (pre-k to 2nd) teacher, I wondered that too? And, what is the teacher doing during those rotations? What could she accomplish in 5 minutes?

        I had a “consultant” come into my classroom a few years ago and suggest using a timer to “remind” me to stop our activity and have the children write in their learning journals. I tried it and hated it! The awful ding, the abruptness yanking us from our real learning, and the anxious feeling I’d get right after I started it. I can imagine how young children might feel about timers stopping their play.

  7. I’ve totally used “big feelings” in conversations with my husband, and I use it with my toddler too. I think more adults should use this very descriptive phrase that seems to fit the situation much better than fancier turns of phrase!

    I’m feeling a bit torn about the timer issue. I have sometimes used a timer when my toddler seems “stuck” in a certain activity and I can’t seem to get her to transition. I don’t use it often, or by default, I use it as a last resort. My toddler will sometimes even ask for the timer with some measure of enthusiasm. I also feel that the timer is teaching her that “two minutes” has a concrete meaning and isn’t just something we arbitrarily say whenever we want more time.

    Anyway, it’s good food for thought, and I will re-examine how I use the timer.

    1. I like your thoughtfulness, Brigitte. Regarding “big feelings”, I’ve caught myself saying it, too! I think when you read something again and again, it can’t help but stick in your mind… But I prefer “strong feelings” or “intense feelings”…or something more specific if I’m sure what the child is feeling. “Big feelings” sounds very patronizing to me.

  8. Great article!

    Timers are useless on my very persistent 4 year old! He requires gentle, persuasive, persistent leadership (as someone else coined).

    I like to set a timer for myself at work or to remind me to start preparing meals etc. I’m not sure how I’d feel about someone else setting a timer for me. Probably outraged that they had the temerity to rob me of my autonomy.

    One of the tools I grudgingly use frequently is “let me keep cleaning your teeth or we won’t have time for a book before bed.” I really don’t like the idea of teaching my son that he’s time poor and I wish i had a better tool. Any ideas?

    1. Does he cooperate more when you tell him he might not have time for a book? I’m not asking as a “gotcha,” just genuinely curious. When my son resists tooth brushing we remind him, “I need your help to brush your teeth” over and over until we are finished. But my son is 2, so I’m guessing his reactions may be slightly different. 🙂

      1. avatar Emily Johnson says:

        Mine 3 yo does. I simply say, ‘we have 20 minutes for before lights out and you are choosing to play instead of get ready.’ We have already set up that if he’s not ready for bed, we won’t have time for books so its a gentle reminder. On the evenings he regrets choosing play over books, I say, “Yeah, you wanted both. But we don’t have time for everything and today you chose play. Maybe tomorrow you will choose differently.”

        I don’t impose the consequence (I’m not going to take the book away because he was playing), I just remind him of the choice he is making and the natural consequence (time is running out) that will occur because of his choice.

      2. With teeth brushing resistance, or any bedtime routine delay tactics I’ve found adding that if we have extra time we can have an extra book gets my 2 year old in the mood to participate. It started by accident one night when he had just been so cooperative we have about 15 minutes I had not planned for so I just kept reading books and letting him know we had all of this extra time because of easily we had gotten through bath time and teeth brushing. The next night he asked if there would be extra time. Sometimes there is, sometimes there is not, but he’s finding out he’d rather have an extra book than play around or run away while I attempt to brush his teeth.

      3. Hi Meagan,
        It certainly is very effective. Otherwise I wouldn’t continue to use it!

    2. We do this with my daughter except I say “If you goof around and it takes too long to brush your teeth there won’t be time for a book”. I prefer to think of it as a natural consequence. Time management is an important life skill.

  9. avatar monica ryan says:

    I always appreciate your encouragement and reminders for me to be a gentle leader – I catch myself avoiding confrontations with my daughter and this helps me back on track to being the parent I want to be, confident and respectful to her in every way possible. Thanks Janet!

  10. avatar Jamie Grace-Duff says:

    When I was growing up, my parents had a cuckoo clock. Every morning before going to work, my dad would pull the chains and the weighted pine cones would pull up to the top. If it had stopped in the night, he would gently tap the maple leaf pendulum and reset the time. All day long you could hear the gentle tick of it and at each half hour the cuckoo would pop out once. One the hour, it would cuckoo the hour. I swear to this day, I can feel a half hour in my bones. It was a non-threatening way to instill time passing as there was no consequence when the cuckoo called, just to notice that it was there.

  11. Great post. I have a timer aversion. Ask my husband, it drives him mad when I’m cooking. My philosophy, and I’m lucky to be able to live it, is this – lets do something until it doesn’t work anymore. If we are playing outside, and it’s getting late…who cares. We play outside until it doesn’t work anymore….sometimes we play well after dark. Sometimes it’s earlier because someone gets hurt and it naturally brings itself to an end. Whenever I find myself wanting to say, ‘ok. That’s enough. We are done doing this…’ I try to take a deep breath, remember that the tide always shifts, and the kids feel much more empowered and joyful if they are a part of the ending process. Again…I say all this knowing that I am very lucky to be a Stay at home parent. And I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to home school my children. I have that much longer to nurture their childhood. The ultimate timer is life. I’d rather just live by that…and not the ticking of a clock.

  12. We don’t have a timer… My son is 2 and I can’t actually imagine how or why we would use one right now. I am curious what you think of timers as an extra option though? The context I’ve heard it used is for slightly older kids… say preschool age through early elementary. Something like: “We need to leave in five minutes, would you like me to set a timer?” The idea I think is that it gives them a tangible?

    I tend not to refer to time at all, but stick with events instead… Or at least I try. Meaning, I try to emphasize what we need to start doing next rather than time being up or getting late etc. I guess I’m also lucky that I have the luxury to do that… Aside from school, our schedule is pretty flexible, so I don’t HAVE to rush him most of the time. I’m in no hurry… why should he be?

  13. I love your perspective on this! I wouldn’t use a timer at this point with my two year old as I feel it would only add stress to his life. However, once he is older I do plan to have some type of timer, sand or otherwise. The reason being that I loved them as a child. I was so proud that I came inside on my own, without prompting. I felt such independence! I would like to offer my son the same self regulating opportunities.

  14. My strategy was a bit manipulative… “do you want two minutes or five minutes?”… My child was able to make a choice, felt he/she had made a smart decision, and usually owned that choice.

  15. “A reliable barometer for discerning whether a term or tactic is respectful is to ask ourselves if we would use it with an adult”

    In that case, problem solved. I use timers on myself — I have a timer set to go off when I need to go home from work, I have my phone ding when I need to do things, etc. With my wife, I tell her “do you need 10 minutes? OK, 10 minutes it is”. While I do not set a timer, since my wife knows how to read time, she would not suspect dishonesty when I tell her the 10 minutes are up. With my kid, for whom it will be a while before she can tell time herself, timers are “uncorruptable” — there is no way to fudge the results. As soon as she can tell time, she’s getting a watch, and as soon as she can set her own alarms, I will let her do that.

    1. I understand what you are saying but I think there’s a difference between choosing to use a timer for yourself, or negotiating with your wife, who is also an adult and has an ability to understand time, vs. choosing to use a timer to impose a limit or deadline with a child who has no understanding of time, and who can’t make a choice. Try telling your wife you’re setting a timer for 10 minutes and then it will be time to leave for the activity you have chosen for her, and see what response you get.

  16. Janet,

    Thanks for a really interesting article and point of view. I generally really agree with steering clear of “Accessories” and gimmicks. But I wondered what your opinion would be on a toddler clock (namely the gro clock) which parents can set for a night light or a day light (blue moon vs yellow sun) to help toddlers get a better sense of sleep schedules. My toddler is generally a fab sleeper but often rises too early – still cranky and tired – but thinks it’s time to get up. I thought this clock would actually foster independence.

    I know there are plenty of counter arguments such as following his natural rhythms but I do feel we’d be a happier pair if mornings started a little later and I feel a clock could help us reach that.

    What do you think?

  17. Janet, I agree that timers are a bit of a crutch. In a recent visit to a classroom where I coach teachers, beginning where they are as teachers in child care, a timer was used effectively IMHO. I think that for some adults, using a timer can help the adult behave better. As a young teacher myself, many, many years ago, I used a timer so that I could learn to be on the side of the child rather than the big blue meanie myself. It was a transitional strategy to be sure, but before using it, I WAS a mean teacher, repeating rules at louder and shorter intervals. Once I had the timer, I was able to say “Oh shucks, the time is up, I know you really wanted to continue XXX but the timer said we have to go to lunch.” I was able to learn more empathy in this way. This is just my two cents to add to the conversation, including the idea that we all have to begin somewhere in our parenting and teaching journies.
    Lisa

  18. I hadn’t thought timers were a problem, or necessary. Janet, I like how you compare children to adults. Timers are used by adults mainly to manage their own schedules. Other than at a job where time is paid, grownups are not often on someone else’s timer, and even if they are then they are that way because they’ve agreed to it. It seems insulting to the child for places like a playschool or kindergarten or even the home to use timers for indicating when a child can do one thing or another … almost like programming the child to accept direction, not just from a person but now from a beeper.

  19. I see your point about timers. I use a timer for myself… Wash dishes for 15 min, take a break for 15 min… A la flylady style. Works for me, otherwise I tend to get waaaaay distracted. That may just be me. So I tend to use it for a “5- minute tidy,” “5 min wiggle before bed” (when I’m desperate to get pj’s on and the kids just want to run around!), or to track computer/iPad time. Oh also when I give the kids “10 more min at the park- or wherever” to get them used to the idea of leaving– utilizing that transition time. My almost 5 yr-old son doesn’t complain about the timer except when he wants to play on the computer more and also, from what I can gather, when he doesn’t like the stress of a rushed “hurry let’s see how clean we can get this in 5 (or 10) min” at first I thought he just didn’t want to clean but I think what bothers him is either the thought that he won’t be able to get it all done in whatever time we decide, or that a focused rush rush, do this do that stresses him. Maybe both. So I’ve changed that approach. I still use a timer for me though!

    1. That’s a good observation about the rush, rush causing stress, Elizabeth.

  20. Hi Janet,
    I’m interested to hear you thoughts on the use of timers for Special Time (hand in hand parenting tool style)?
    I was intensively resistant to using a timer but forced myself to try it and found that for my son it was/is really helpful. As Patty might explain this is a little different to the uses you are describing as it is mostly to help the parent be fully present with the child and also creates safety for the child because the own that time and it gives a reliability that children don’t often get in a world where parents tend to call the shots time wise.
    I still have feelings about using the timer sometimes and will resist if but for my son it seems very positive and helps us define when is the time we can do what he wants and when it is time to give and take.
    In terms of adult reaction to someone given me the same thing with a timer … Of course I’d probably prefer no time limit but generally that is what happens. For me an adult ST might be booking a massage (timed), catching up with a friend when we both usually (esp. Since having children) has a limited time.
    I haven’t ever used a timer for setting a limit. This way the theory is that our strong connection supports us setting limits in an authoritative way.
    Setting limits is certainly easier and my son is more co operative when we do regular special time (as opposed to just playing with him as I can during the day).
    The other way I’ve used the timer a few days when really pressed has been to take turns. Okay 20 mins ST for me, 20 mins of cleaning or working for me … Let’s keep taking turns so we can meet both our needs. I should add here that my son is now 4, an only child so in the absence of other children needs a playmate more than ever (a much more social stage). And I have been working so he’s needed much more topping up and support than usual.
    That has turned out a little long and I’m typing on my phone – hope it makes sense!!
    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and more on how as a parent to be in that place of respectful authority.
    Thanks Janet!

    1. Katinka, you certainly know your child and his needs better than I do… I’m not crazy about timers for special time… For me, being timed would make this potentially wonderful time together feel like a chore, but that’s me…old fashioned, I guess, and something of a purist.

  21. Janet,

    I couldn’t agree more! I love your point, “A reliable barometer for discerning whether a term or tactic is respectful is to ask ourselves if we would use it with an adult.”

    My mentor, Dr. Garry Landreth, didn’t like timers either citing them as an external rather than internal means of self-control.

    Thank you for the post! Must share this.

    1. This is obviously preferable to direct instruction and might be necessary for children from impoverished environments, or those who have lost their ablity to invent meaningful play due to overscheduling or too much passive entertainment, etc. I like the suggestions around interaction and even some “co-playing” is okay, but I prefer play and learning ideas that are child-initiated. AND from my experience, learning to support play as the article suggests is an art that the average preschool teacher may not be able to master easily. The tendency is for the adult to take balls like these and run with them, meaning be too directive. So, I still believe that trusting children to learn through “free play” with adult interaction and responsiveness is the safest and best curriculum for the preschool years.

  22. I generally agree with what you say about parenting and teaching (I do both.) but I have to say, we use a timer in our house. I wanted to share that we DO use it with one another as well, which maybe is why it doesn’t feel inauthentic or disrespectful in our family. We know that we can get caught up… reading, working, playing, so we use timers to get everything done. (I use a timer when I meditate, which is a time I respect myself, but also a time when I need some structure.)

    Tonight I used the timer when we had to leave the playground as much for my son as for me… I had friends there and the weather was beautiful, but I know it’s best for my son to start dinner on time so we can have a slow, easy bedtime… so I set the timer. and when it went ding dong we headed home.

  23. Thanks Janet. I only just re-found this blog and looked for your response. Haven’t had a chance to read all the comments yet though. In the case of my son it is actually his preference to use the timer. I’ve checked in with him more since reading this blog and he is very clear that he prefers to use the timer. I asked him why and he said it is because then he knows that when it is over he isn’t waiting/wondering if I will keep playing the same game or not (ie. otherwise I might be doing something else / take a phone call and he is left with a feeling of being left hanging or waiting not sure if or when I may join in again). I suppose that could be a matter of clearer communication at any stage during a day where I join in a game or activity he loves but I don’t honestly think I could give him that on the fly. With the timer he knows where he stands and he has some time at completion to say goodbye or complete on that devoted time and integrate back into more flexible time or time playing on his own. He is definitely much happier when we do special time and much more co-operative too (unless perhaps at times where he is left wanting for more cause it hasn’t been regular enough). That’s all I can go on really – how he is as a result and the fact that he chooses the timer. Lately we’ve also made the timer more enjoyable by using my phone so that rather than an awful beeping sound, he chooses from sounds like ducks, motorcycles, dog bark … It is a more fun and gentle end notice. 🙂

  24. I am curious what your thoughts are on how much leeway to give children who seem to have zero sense of time. My three year old moves at a snails pace in nearly everything that’s not “fun” (eating, going potty, cleaning etc.). I have a hard time keeping myself from sounding irritated when we’re 10 minutes into the hand-washing and soap hasn’t even been applied yet…

    1. @ Megan, That’s when you say would you like to wash your own hands or do you need help? When he stalls you say, “You are showing/telling me you need help. Here I’ll help you.”

  25. Our 3-year-old sometimes struggles with moving away from an activity he really loves. He is often really tired though, and needs to be done! I find if I say to him, “five more minutes” or “you can do it 3 more times” he will just say “all done”. It’s interesting that as soon as I set the limit he decides to be done. Other times, it really helps to set a specific limit. Thoughts on that Janet?

    1. Hi Deb! Sounds like he appreciates being autonomous…being the one to say he’s done.

  26. I have to say, this one is hard to take for me. My son is oppositional defiant,.and we both have adhd, so a timer is a life saver. I started using one for me…because its a wonderful time management tool, then I had the idea of using it to help my son shift gears without his ego response getting in the way. It gives him a sense of control and its not an authority figure. I just don’t see how its disrespectful to use a tool that fills a need and prevents upset and aggrivation. I am working on developing my gentle leadership role, and its the greatest challenge of my life because of who I am leading.

    1. @ Annette. You have difficult circumstances at your house. Timers are often used in special education classrooms. In this instance I believe timers really useful and not disrespectful to a child.

  27. avatar Crisinda Mann says:

    Janet, I completely agree with your stance on timers. I tried it once while my two year old son played outside and my son was so aware of the timer, that it was distracting him from his play. It was literally a kill-joy. It went straight in the trash. I don’t use them for my eggs either. I don’t strive for a perfectly boiled egg every time. 🙂 thanks for sharing!

  28. I totally agree that a timer that “dings” is useless with children. There is no way to convey the length of time allotted and it is very stressful for them to wait until it dings. HOWEVER .. I use a visual timer .. a large 2 foot high homemade 3 minute “sand-timer/egg-timer” which is amazing. The children can see, literally see… how much time is left and learn very quickly to monitor themselves accordingly. It works great, as well, for giving 3 minutes of play with a coveted toy to the child who has it, before it is the next child’s turn. Then after 3 minutes it goes back, and so on, until they choose other activities. I’m in a home day care setting, and my kids play with the timer, use it to see (literally, see) how long things will take, use it to challenge themselves re. how long it will take them to clean up, etc., to solve the sharing problem and many other uses. A “ding” timer would mean nothing in these situations.
    Most of the comments above suggest situations where a visual timer like a large sand-time/egg-timer could be very useful and a positive experience.

  29. hi janet,

    i like the point you’re making here. and definitely agree with the barometer of “would you do it to an adult?” though I know we don’t use gentle leadership with fellow adults….so not sure if the barometer is perfect….but what is!? 🙂

    i just wanted to share an experience of mine. when my daughter was 7 she was having a very difficult time leaving playdates. she wouldn’t come when she said she would and wouldn’t respond to “let’s go in five minutes” so we had a talk about it. i share with her how frustrated i was when she agreed to leave and then didn’t and how i didn’t like to have a power struggle with her, particularly at a friend’s house. she didn’t like the whole thing either. (who would!? i imagine the friends hated it too!) we both wanted the same thing: leaving peacefully. but she wanted to have more control over the terms. which i could understand. her idea, which totally worked for me, was for me to come twenty minutes before it was time to leave and then to give her my phone so she could set the timer herself (and i’ve never been a timer mom so i hadn’t used it before but she knew it was a phone feature.) and then she’d set it and when it went off, she’d happily leave. we did this several times and it worked well. she felt less controlled i believe and had a greater sense of the time she had left. and 20 minutes felt to her enough to wrap it up. so from a “gentle leadership” persepctive would you think this is giving her too much “say” and ability to participate in working with me to come up with a solution that works for both of us. is “gentle leadership” more about her “cooperating” with me?

    1. She has you sitting in the car for twenty minutes waiting for her while she uses your cell phone? Hmmm… Clever girl! I don’t know, Jennifer. What do you think? 🙂 I think you may have avoided and postponed a battle, rather than ending one.

      1. No! i guess i explained it wrong! i arrive at the house twenty minutes before it’s time to go, not five minutes before. then she sets the timer on the phone…and i hold it. or we put it on a table or something. we did this for a couple of times (a year ago) and it really helped her feel she wasn’t just being told what to do and when…that she could ease herself out of the playdate. and then it was a crutch no longer needed. and it hasn’t been a problem since. but problem solving with her and trying a solution that met both of our needs: mine to have peaceful exits and hers to have some autonomy worked. for me, arriving 15 minutes earlier to pick her up isn’t a big deal at all…and nothing compared to the battle of trying to get her to leave on my watch. but interesting how you see it.

        1. I’m glad this worked well for you, Jennifer. For me it might have made more sense to call the house and ask the parent to give my daughter a 20 minute “heads-up”, if we were both having such an issue with this situation. But the phone timer adds “proof”, I suppose, which is one of the problems I have with it. As I’ve said, I think it’s healthier in the long run to conduct our parent/child relationships person-to-person with trust. Avoiding direct confrontations with our children tends to create more struggles with them in other areas.

          I’d be more intersted in understanding why coming “when she said she would” became such a battle in the first place… It’s certainly reasonable to ask a 7 year old to make a commitment like that.

          1. it’s hard for her to come because she’s having the time of her life! totally engrossed in deep imaginative play. loving her friends. loving life. hard to leave that. it’s hard for me to leave it and i often prolong it and hang out with my friends longer because i’m having so much fun. fortunately for me i don’t have someone lording over me telling me to get in the car right now. i can’t tell you how many times i hear parents tell kids to stop what they are doing because they have to go and then they spend twenty minutes saying good bye to their friends. at 40 they are certainly old enough to follow through on what they say and yet they don’t. it’s a two way street. pleasure is hard to say good bye to.
            and i can relate. and have a great deal of empathy for that. when people lived in nomadic tribes (which is for the majority of human life) people didn’t have leave their friends because they travelled with them. and in earlier times children could play on the street together and not have their time goverened so strictly by their parents time. it is a fairly new phenomenon from a historical and evolutionary perspective.

            1. Sorry, Jennifer, but you’ve completely lost me… Did nomadic tribes have timers? And regarding your daughter needing more time for “deep imaginative play. loving her friends. loving life”… Why not just give her plenty more time and pick her up later? How is a kind mom waiting to take her home (at the time you both agreed to) “lording over” her?

  30. t Jennifer, you and your daughter came up with this plan together. You guided the discussion, so you gave the perfect gentle leadership that she needed. 🙂

    1. thanks Aunt Betty. I agree with you. I really like to work with my children to find solutions that meet both of our needs and of course it is me who does guide the process but it is a process that they are learning and i am certainly open to them when they say they’d like to find a solution to a problem.

      i am just cloudy on the idea of a baromoter being: would you do it to an adult when i always problem solve with my husband and don’t think of myself as using gentle leadership with him even when it’s my idea to have a problem solving meeting and vice versa. i think of problem solving, looking at underlying needs as best practices for adult and children conflicts, friendship conflicts, marriage conflicts and co-worker conflicts.

      when my daughter wants to leave and i ask her to wait while i finish a conversation i don’t think of myself as “clever” getting her to wait…i just think of it more as respectful.

  31. avatar Andrea king says:

    Janet, thank you for finally putting into words my long standing discomfort with using “big feelings.” It’s very prevalent, and well intended, in the parenting circles/ language in our community. And I’ve been using it for far too long. I see now that it’s always felt patronizing to me, too, and incongruous for me to speak to my newborn child in a straightforward, respectful, and honest way, but to then use the babyish term “big feelings” when he’s older older. I’m going to switch to using “strong” or “intense” feelings. By the way, when do you feel it’s appropriate to say ” you seem mad” or “your friend seems angry” ? Clearly we don’t want to put words in our kids’ mouths and label emotions for them…love to hear your thoughts. Thanks so much.

    1. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who dislikes the term ‘big feelings’, Andrea. I think it’s always appropriate to say “you seem…” or ask, “are you…?”, because then we are probing, and also helping children to understand how they appear, rather than labeling or putting words into their mouths.

  32. I have twin boys and after a while of trying to negotiate toys between them it gets tiring. They’re only 3.5 and still learning the turn taking. I had read an article where they suggested that the kids ask each other in how many minutes can they have their turn. Then they ask me to set the timer. What do you think about that as a use for timers. I’d appreciate other suggestions as well.

    We do ask for open ended turn “Can I have a turn after you are done?” but that doesn’t work all the time.

  33. i was a middle school (3-6 grades) classroom teacher for many years and of course we lived by the bells and I hated them probably as much as the kids! so I agree completely about timers of any kind and think more progressive schools are trying to work around the dreaded 45min block. But when you said anything that “offsets the blame is a crutch that can inhibit our progress”, it made me wonder about a very useful strategy that I still employ with my teenage daughters. In the classroom or at home, we have a set of rules that are agreed upon –in my class they were posted on the wall at the beginning of the year and largely solicited by the students themselves. When a rule was broken, the student and I would look at the wall where there were also agreed upon consequences for breaking a rule, and they would be able to impose their own consequences with my guidance. Then I would have a follow up discussion with them about how they were going to try and avoid that behavior in the future. My point is I never yelled and never had to their judge. I could be sympathetic to their struggle and teach them compassion both by my example and by the firm consequences that were enforced. I found this incredibly helpful but maybe it was a crutch–I used it with my daughters at home as well. If they broke an agreed upon rule at home or school, I could be compassionate and a good listener because we already knew what the consequences would be. Is this offsetting blame? Was I really being cowardly? Maybe a little.

    1. Did it feel cowardly? It’s sounds fine to me, Emily! Not like a crutch at all.

  34. Use myself as a barometer? As an adult I use timers constantly. Not just for cooking but for regulating my time. While I would love to have the luxury of becoming completely absorbed in an activity with no need to stop or interrupt, this is not the reality of life. Yes the shrill noise can be jarring, which is why timers have been adapted to play gentle music or even soundlessly vibrate.

    Though I understand the importance of strength and trust in parenting, the plain truth is that I don’t trust myself with time. Without a timer I can easily become so involved in work or play I completely forget about everything else. While this may be healthy for a child it certainly isn’t productive for an adult. Ideally we would all love to abandon our schedules and absorb ourselves in the world around us. This is, however, a reality that most can’t afford.

    Even though children may regard parents as omnipotent we are only human and we all have our faults. I will own mine and my children will have to ‘trust’ that I set the timer correctly. In the end it is we who follow through with the result. While on the whole I understand your perspective, I think the concept of a barometer is misguided.

    1. Your decision to use a timer for self-discipline is quite different from imposing this on another adult. Would you do that as well?

  35. Why is baby wearing gimmicky?

    1. The term is dehumanizing…although I realize people have gotten used to it. I haven’t! We wear clothing and jewelry, not people. Babies are objectified enough as it is.

      1. Is there better way to describe it? Thanks

  36. Am I correct in thinking that you prefer to speak to babies and children without using “baby talk”? If so, how do you square that up with the concept of motherese? Surely this is how babies are programmed to learn language in all cultures, and this is how adults instinctively speak with them?

  37. I love this! “Perhaps timer-time is worse than no time at all.” No wonder people find that they work so well. Thank you for clarifying how game timers and a timer that the child asks for is different from the timers that are used in lieu of parents setting limits with eye contact and conversation.

  38. avatar Daniel Eliezer says:

    If timers of any kind have one distinct positive attribute, it’s that they’re ‘objective’, and an effective means for for helping remove person-person conflict. With my grandchildren, sometimes there’s not enough to go around, e.g. two swings and three children, etc., and having a neutral measuring device, e.g. hourglass, pendulum, let’s all the children know they’ll get their turn – and it will be the same turn. Older children appreciate this better, but for all children it’s a neutral way of defusing what’s cooking within. As we all know, rarely is something so enticing as it is when someone else desires or uses it. Things that sit untouched, overlooked, or ignored, from backyard swing to toy or puzzle or book more, become instant things of attraction when brought to our attention. The legendary ‘apple in the garden’ was meant to be eaten.

    Another way of looking at timers is that they define boundaries and create space. They need not be considered devices of control, but can be considered devices of freedom, too. Inside their boundaries I have my space and I’m free to be with my heart’s desire, and outside their boundaries and space I have to consider others. And they are mutual.

    Daniel Eliezer

  39. Thankyou for all yoyr articles, i reallly enjoy reading them. My heart really feels for this article. But how about getting our kids ready for school and getting them to do their work without having to repeat n times and tgis constant fear that my child will not be successful unless he learns to do that work or procastinates in everything.

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