For almost as long as children have had rooms, parents have been sending them there as punishment.
But while barking “Go to your room!” surely represents an improvement over what used to be an all-too-common punishment for children—spanking—it can introduce problems of its own. As some child-development experts told me, the saying can work against a parent’s goal of raising a considerate kid.
“What do we think is going to happen when they go to their room?” asks Laura Markham, a psychologist who founded the site Aha! Parenting (ahaparenting.com) and promotes a model she calls “peaceful parenting.” Children may emerge from their rooms calmer, but, Markham says, they have missed out on an opportunity for development. “Under anger”—an emotion that often leads kids to act out—“there’s always fear or hurt or powerlessness,” she says. And one of the messages usually coded into “Go to your room” is Suppress those underlying emotions until you’re ready to interact with the world again.
A constructive alternative is for parents to talk things through with their kids—why did the child do what he did? “When the child feels heard by us,” Markham says, “then they will begin to take a deep breath and get under control.” A conversation—an acknowledgment of the child’s feelings, perhaps an explanation of why the world can’t be as the child would prefer—allows more vulnerable feelings to emerge. “If he was sent to his room, you wouldn’t have that breakthrough emotionally,” Markham says.
According to Markham, this general principle also applies to time-outs and groundings. Sometimes, though, restrictions might be in order. For instance, if a teen violates a no-video-games-during-the-week rule, Markham says, a parent might want to respond with something cooperative like, “Playing video games was more important to you than keeping your word to me, so we aren’t going to play them until we are back in a state of trust with each other.” The idea is to emphasize that something has been broken—trust, or maybe a rear bumper—that it’s the child’s job to help repair.
Sharna Olfman, a professor of psychology at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, presents another way of thinking about “Go to your room”: She told me about the importance of a parent’s goal in saying it. “Is my intention to send you to your room to give you time to calm down and do some reflection,” she says, “or is it more of an assertion of authority?” The former approach might be useful, but the latter, especially if taken out of anger or frustration, doesn’t provide as much permission for children to discuss their feelings.
Meanwhile, Brett Laursen, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University, raised a more practical point about the limits of saying “Go to your room.” “Lots of children have hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars’ worth of electronic equipment and games in their room,” he told me, “which doesn’t exactly make going to your room much of a punishment.”
So if “Go to your room” comes with all these issues, why do parents keep saying it? Olfman offered one explanation: There’s comfort in the idea of a “one-size-fits-all solution” for the complex problem of a misbehaving child. Markham offered another: Many parents are “uncomfortable with their kids’ [negative] emotions,” she says, “so they try to shut them down or revert to punishment” instead of talking them through.
Laursen stressed to me, “Generally speaking, if you want young children to learn limits, you have to use some form of punishment,” and that’s especially true of toddlers, who almost instinctively probe the bounds of propriety.
“Go to your room” is just one of the ever-changing ways parents punish their kids. “Parents are wisely tailoring their punishments to what children find aversive,” he says, “and taking away your phone right now is very aversive for a lot of children.” Several decades ago, parents turned much more readily to spanking (though, remarkably, about one-fifth of the parents polled in one 2010 survey said they still spanked—and 10 percent reported that they paddled).
Spanking has had a long history. “In the 17th century, there were theorists who argued that the buttocks had been created precisely so that we could spank—that that was their biological purpose,” said Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. In early America, corporal punishment was thought of as necessary for a class of humans deemed incapable of reason. Puritans in particular, he said, thought that “kids needed to be tamed … the same way animals are.”
Remnants of that philosophy are discernible in the specific history of “Go to your room,” too. “The contemporary notion of sending a child to her or his room—the archetypal time-out—is generally attributed to the psychologist Arthur Staats in [the 1950s and ’60s], when, for the first time, large numbers of kids had a room of their own,” Mintz said. Staats recommended time-outs (versus responses like shouting or name calling) as a way for children to learn to calm themselves—a self-taming of sorts.
But, Mintz notes, some parents were very quick to deploy time-outs before considering other alternatives; others used tenuous rules of thumb—3-year-olds, say, get three minutes on lockdown—to determine a time-out’s duration.
The earliest reference Mintz was aware of to the practice of sending children to their rooms comes in an 1841 novel by the New England author Catharine Sedgwick. “Go to your own room, Wallace,” a stern father says to his son, who has just, in a fit of rage, thrown a kitten into scalding water. “You have forfeited your right to a place among us. Creatures who are the slaves of their passions are, like beasts of prey, fit only for solitude.”
Now, two centuries later, the specific words may have changed, but condemning children to their rooms can sometimes send a similar message, whether parents intend it to or not.