Somehow we have managed to screw up time-out.

We use time-out sparingly, for behavior we know Sophie knows is wrong—standing up on the antique wooden desk chair and rocking it back and forth (which will surely make it tip one day), opening the TV cabinet doors and pressing buttons, etc. In an ideal world, when Sophie engages in such behavior, we would tell her she has to sit in time-out. She would walk to her corner, upset, sit and want to get up. We’d tell her no, she has to stay. Then we’d ask why she’s in time-out and she’d say “chair no” or “cabinet no” and we’d know she understood. We’d ask her to say she’s sorry, she’d give us a kiss and hug, we’d wipe her tears and time-out would be over.

The problem? She loves time-out.

Whenever we say “no” she now smiles, looks up at us eagerly and says, “time-out?”

And now she’s begun rocking chairs and opening cabinets on purpose simply so she can go to time-out.

Here’s how time-out works in our non-ideal world:

Me: I hear the chair rocking and jump up to save her from a nasty fall. “Sophie, no!”

Sophie: “Time-out?” smiling (and sometimes laughing).

Me: “Yes, Sophie, what you did is bad,” in a scolding, responsible-mother-like tone. “Time-out.”

Sophie: “Time-out, time-out, time-out” in a sing-song voice.

She sits gladly—happily. I turn away, so as not to give her attention. She asks to get up. Good, I think. She’s going to want to get up and I’m going to say no and then she’ll be upset and realize this is a punishment.

Me: “No. You know you’re not allowed to rock the chair. You have to sit in time-out.”

Sophie: Nothing. She just sits, contentedly, or starts saying “time-out, time-out, time-out” in her sing-song voice again.

After more than enough time has passed for a not-even-2-year-old in time-out, I go back to her and squat, so we’re eye level with each other.

Me: “Sophie, do you know why you’re in time-out?”

Sophie: “Chair, nooooo.”

Me: “That’s right. Rocking the chair is very dangerous. You could fall and hurt yourself. Don’t do it again.”

Sophie: “OK.”

Me: “Please say you’re sorry.”

Sophie: “Sorry, Ma ma. Kiss?”

Me: “Yes, kiss. Thank you.”

Sophie: “Hug?”

Me: “Yes, hug. Thank you.”

A couple times, in the beginning, she would ask to get up and I would say no and she would get upset—even cry. And I don’t want her to cry but I also want her to understand there are limits and boundaries. I want her to be upset so she understands her actions have consequences. But the crying was short-lived. Recently we tried making her stand up in time-out and face the corner. She laughed and laughed, like it was the funniest game she’s ever played.

Perhaps longer time-outs are necessary—long enough for her to get really antsy but not be allowed up. Or, perhaps, we need to move the location (although there’s nothing exciting about the current location—a corner). Or maybe she’s smarter than we think. Maybe she knows that by turning time-out into a non-punishment, we lose an age-old parenting trick.

“In spite of the 7,000 books of expert advice, the right way to discipline a child is still a mystery to most fathers and mothers. Only your grandmother and Ghengis Khan know how to do it.” —Bill Cosby