I’m sure you’ve heard of time-out (where a misbehaving child is made to sit alone). Well, time-in is just the opposite. It’s when a well-behaving child is given tiny bits of play and encouragement. Experienced parents and teachers know that a steady stream of time-ins is a much more effective way of raising a happy, cooperative child than a steady stream of time-outs! There are many types of time-ins. Here are a few of my favorites.

Time-Ins: Attention

Showing your child that you’re interested in what he’s doing makes him feel great. (Remember, you’re his rock star! How would you feel if your idol watched you do something with genuine interest?) Think of offering attention in terms of bite-size bits. You don’t have to stay glued to your toddler’s side 24/7. You can easily feed the meter with just a look, a touch, a wink, a smile, or a few encouraging words. 

Time-Ins: Praise

Sprinkling praise throughout the day is a great way to boost green-light behaviors. But praise can backfire if it’s done incorrectly. Here’s how to make your praise really count:

  • Give a “balanced diet” of praise. Think of praise as a yummy casserole you feed to your child: lots of plain noodles (calm attention) and a big cup of tasty sauce (mild praise and encouragement) topped with a sprinkle of tangy cheese (cheers and celebration).

  • Praise the action you want to encourage . . . not the child. “You’re my best helper” may be true one day but false the next (when your child refuses to help). On the other hand, “Scrubbing the pots really helped” is 100 percent true and it highlights exactly the behavior you want.

  • Praise good tries. Cheer your child on when he tries, even if he doesn’t quite succeed. You’ll see steady progress, and he will feel like a success every step of the way.

  • Don’t give praise . . . then yank it back. “Good. You picked up your toys. Now, why did I have to nag you to do it?” Ugh! Psychologists call this “praise spoiling.” It’s like getting a gift, then having it yanked right back. It teaches kids to never trust a compliment.

Time-Ins: Gossip

You know how compliments are easy to brush off, but if you accidentally overhear someone saying something nice about you to someone else behind your back you take it to heart? Toddlers feel the same way! Not only do we tend to believe things we overhear, but when those comments are whispered like a secret—we believe them even more. Gossip makes your words of praise more effective. So, when your toddler does something praise-worthy, try whispering about it to your partner, or even one of your toddler’s teddy bears! Learn more about how gossiping encourages good behavior.

Time-Ins: Little Rewards

Little rewards (or incentives) are small gifts we give to acknowledge when a child does something we like. Rewards are not the same as bribery. Bribery is done to discourage bad behavior, while incentives encourage good. Of course, you are your child’s number one reward. His favorite gift will be a little roughhousing, an insect hunt, playing tag, or story time. But occasional small incentives like stickers, poker chips, hand stamps, or a bit of candy can have a magical effect. 

Say changing diapers is a daily struggle. Stand your tot on the table and take out a little reward, like a special “diaper cookie” (only given during diaper changes). Offer half the cookie when you start the change and half in the middle. Usually, within days, the struggle will diminish. A few days later, begin to withhold the second piece until after the diaper change is complete. After another week, reduce the reward to just a half-cookie when you’re done. Eventually, you won’t need the cookie.

In addition to giving the cookie, reward his cooperation by feeding his meter with some cheery praise and a minute or two of play right after the diaper change. Your loving time ins will be the top reward for him.

Time-Ins: Hand Checks

You know how kids love hand stamps and tattoos? Well, child development whiz Dr. Barbara Howard suggests rewarding toddlers with a pen check mark on the back of the hand when they do something good. 

Hand checks are great because kids notice them all day and are reminded of what a good job they did. At bedtime, count the checks and recall what he did to earn each one. He’ll end his day feeling like a winner! (Bedtime sweet talk helps build up your tot in a similar way.)

Time-Ins: Star Charts

A star chart is a great way to use a little reward to feed an older toddler’s meter (it works best for kids who are 2 and older). Here’s how it works:

  • Pick three behaviors to focus on. Pick two your child already does and one he’s not doing.

  • Choose goals that are specific. For example, telling him to say “thank you” is much clearer than saying “Be polite.”

  • Explain your plan. Sit your child down and discuss some things that he’s done well lately; then mention your plan for helping him do even better. Tell him the three things you want him to do each day. Let him know that every time he does one, he’ll get a star.

  • Prepare for success. Create a two-week chart. Let your child help decorate it and choose stickers. Involving your child will get him excited about succeeding—it makes it his.

  • When your child meets a goal, let him put a star on the chart. Boost the effect of the chart by gossiping about your tot’s success.

  • Give bonus stars for special cooperation. Ask your child what his special little reward should be for every ten stars he earns (funny stickers, poker chip, cookie, etc.).

  • Display your chart where your child (and everyone else) can see it. He’ll get a dose of “visual praise” every time he walks by and sees his success.

  • Redo the chart every two weeks. Add new behaviors to be rewarded as your child does better and better with the old goals. 

Time-Ins: Play

Play is a top toddler nutrient. When you give your child a big daily dose of “Vitamin P,” you thrill his senses, help him master movement, encourage language use, sharpen his thinking, boost his people skills, build his confidence, teach him about the world, and on and on. Do you see why play is such a brilliant way to feed your child’s meter? Try to give your child three types of play every day: outside play, creative activity, and reading. Happy, healthy toddlers have their days filled with chasing, pretending, rolling, and tinkering. 

Is Screen Time a Good Time-In?

I think of screen time like candy: A little is okay every so often, but not a steady diet of it. I recommend you limit your toddler’s screen time by following these guidelines:

  • Keep TVs, phones, and tablets out of your child’s room.

  • Put a cap on total screen time. Limit your toddler to a maximum of 30 to 60 minutes a day. And when possible, try to watch your toddler and talk about what you see.

  • Be picky. Let your little one watch only gentle cartoons; toddler-oriented nature videos; and slow-paced, educational children’s shows and play nonviolent games.

For more tips about boosting cooperation and reducing tantrums, check out The Happiest Toddler on the Block!

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.