I think I have written about this before, but I don't know where it was, so I'm guessing it wasn't here on my blog...therefore I'm going to write about it again.
When I read Unconditional Parenting I was introduced to the notion that time out is not really a gentle method of discipline, because even though it spares them physical pain, it involves emotional withdrawal--or the withdrawal of love. For some children this is intensely painful (thus effective...and yet cruel), and for other children this is no big deal. I think most of it has to do with the child's personality--whether they are introverted or extroverted, craving privacy or interaction...but all of that still doesn't give an answer to the underlying question: if time out isn't working for you (either because it is too much for your child, or because it is too little) then what alternatives are there?
When I get to the "what now?" part of parenting, I always try to step back and ask myself the big question: What is my real goal in raising these kids? What do I want them to learn? What kind of people do I want to influance them to become? As I've stated before, my goal is to help them become thoughtful, conscientious adults. So how do I help them do that? I have transitioned away from using "time out" and now I typically try to use "time in."
Time out typically means setting the child on a chair or stool, usually in a corner or other out of the way place. They are ignored and they are not allowed to play or talk as they serve out a sentence of minutes. The goal with time out is that the child will calm down in this setting, and also that they will feel bad about what they have done and therefore not want to do it again.
Time in is only vaguely similar to time out. The way I do it does usually involve a chair, but depending on the situation, location, or age of the child, it may just be sitting on my lap, or sitting next to each other on the floor or couch. It does involve physical stillness--I find it more effective than time out ever was in helping a child calm down when he has been out of control. The big difference is that I am with the child, rather than ignoring him. With a small child I take him in my lap, hold him, may play with his hand or rub his feet, and I talk with him. With an older child we may sit side by side, or (if I'm in the middle of something) I may pull up a chair near where I am working and he will sit on the chair while I continue to work. With the physical stillness established, we discuss what happened, and why it was a problem. Depending on the situation (and age of the child) we may discuss what would be better choices to make if/when such a situation comes up again. We often talk about other things--things that are unrelated to the situation at hand. I try to use the time-in to reaffirm our relationship and my love for the child. Often hugs or other playful interactions are involved. I don't set a specific time frame for a time-in, but I try to continue it until the child seems to be feeling better and appears likely to be able to deal better with the world around him.
With an older child (preschool age onwards), sometimes I address what needs to be addressed and I can see that he just needs a little quiet time to process things or work through his feelings before he'll really be ready to be on his way. In those cases I typically say something along the lines of "Well Wolf, we've talked about the things that were concerning me, and the things that were concerning you. However it doesn't look like you're quite ready to be gentle with your little brother yet," [usually a glare at me will confirm this]. "Let's have you stay on the chair a little longer until you are ready to get along with him...I'll stop bugging you, but when you think you're ready to go just let me know." He is welcome to be silent, or to chatter to me on any topic, meanwhile he remains in my (hopefully calming) presence...and when he thinks he's ready to go then I'll tell him to go ahead. It's true that an emotional child isn't always the best judge of when he is calm enough to play nicely, but it's good practice for him to try, and if he says he's ready, and I send him on his way, and 2 minutes later he needs to come back for some more time-in, well, then he can come back for some more time-in. ☺
I'm not sure how clear I made this, so I'm going to try to restate it...
Yes I can see that giving a child love and attention after they misbehave may seem counter-productive. After all, we've been culturally trained to believe that a misbehaving child needs to be punished, and showing love isn't a punishment! However, think about it this way: the real goal with disciplining children is to teach them to behave--so we should do what works, rather than worry about what is 'normal' or even what seems 'logical' according to our social training. According to scientific studies, punishment is actually one of the less effective teaching methods (at least for humans). Therefore, why punish individual infractions (and then punish them again and again) if it's possible to just solve the problem that raised them in the first place?
My experience has been that time and space to calm down are important, but that showing love is never out of place, and that traditional 'punishments' often are.