The case against timers: Why using a timer for your toddler is bad advice

When we place a timer in-between us and our children, we subtly give them a message: "I'm not the one to blame. Blame the timer." But is it really good advice?

The case against timers: Why using a timer for your toddler is bad advice

Has anyone told you to use a timer for transitioning your toddler from activity A to B?

Examples: When transitioning from the bathtub to putting on pj's, from playing at the park to getting inside the car, from watching TV to sitting at the dinner table.

I see it everywhere: "To help little children transition from one activity to another, use a timer." Neat and easy. When the timer goes off, everybody knows that the activity has to be over.

When we place a timer in-between us and our children, we subtly give them a message: "I'm not the one to blame. Blame the timer."

But is it really good advice?

Internet is full of parenting advice advocating for the usage of timers. I was able to find a shockingly small number of opinions against timers so I wanted to dig deeper.

Can using a timer help us with these transitions?

The answer might be yes. But it comes with a cost. In this article, I'll discuss why using a timer when transitioning between activities is bad advice.

A timer undermines your empathetic captainship

Parents are empathetic captains to their children, a role to remember throughout our parenting journey. Our empathetic captainship makes our children feel unconditionally loved and protected, while providing them with healthy boundaries.

We cannot fake empathetic captainship. Neither can we take it up part-time.

It's a role that we earn at our children's birth.

At first, we have no clue about our new role. But over time, we grow within it.

Each interaction with our children, no matter how young they are, strengthens our stance in our empathetic captainship role, rendering us more reliable and confident a captain, one instance at a time.

No matter how practical it might be, using a timer undermines our role as the empathetic captain. When we use a timer to give our children a sense of obligation in lieu of our calm, confident, and loving leadership, we miss out on a huge opportunity.

The more we practice leading our children through life's difficulties with an appetite to explore our guiding role, the more confident a captain we become as our children grow.

Children don't have a sense of time and timers rush them

Have you ever seen a toddler who wears a watch?

Children don't have a sense of time in the way adults do. Neither do they care about it.

Children's brains are wired to stay in the moment. That's how they find the dedication and focus to explore and learn about the world.

When busy with an activity, they immerse themselves completely in it until their attention runs out. And this is healthy.

When we give the authority to a timer, our children are not given a chance to transition between activities in their natural course. The finishing beep rushes their transition.

What we want to achieve is to foster their attention for healthy brain development. We can only achieve this by giving them time and space, and the right to shift their attention gradually.

Timers don't allow us to give authority to our children

Parenting coaches who advise using timers claim that children get a sense of authority when they start a timer, marking the beginning of an activity. Likewise, they feel in charge when they stop the alarm when the time runs out.

But are we really interested in giving them a false sense of authority?

Let's name it the right way. A timer is a gimmick that we use to make our job as a parent easier. It might not go as far as deceiving our kids, but it's pretty close to it.

The real authority we can give to our children sounds like: "When you are done with the swing, we will go home."

Sharing the authority that we have with our kids is one of the most important building blocks of a healthy parent-child relationship. The more we practice this kind of communication, the stronger our authority will become. At every opportunity we choose to share our authority, our kids will feel genuinely in charge.

Timers are strict and anxiety-inducing

Have you tried doing anything fun in the presence of a ticking timer?

It's not easy to get enjoyment out of an activity when we know our time is going to run out.

Is this the type of childhood we want to provide to our children? Or is it one where our children feels like we have all the time in the world for them (even if we can supply it only for a few hours a day.)

Is it really crucial to transition from one activity to another in the shadow of a strict timer? Or can they use fewer activities and more slack time in between?

If we are looking for a quick remedy, there's no problem with using a timer but there will arrive a time when our children will start questioning the authority of a timer, arguing that setting it up for 5 more minutes will not harm anyone. And they will be right.

What if the timer goes off but we feel like giving them more time? Whose authority will override the other then?

If, in our mind, we don't have clear reasons for why we are exerting these particular time constraints to our children, gimmicks such as timers will become useless someday. And by that time arrives, we will have lost many valuable opportunities to build our trust-based, authority-sharing relationship.

As a final remark, practical advice on how to handle our toddlers can sound helpful, but in fact, they might be undermining our relationships. It is wise to take them with a grain of salt.

Apparent aims to help every parent in the world become an emotional coach for their children. We pack mindful parenting, psychology, and neuroscience insights into a weekly letter and ebooks.