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"Timeout" used to be primarily a sports phrase. No more. Now it's the very politically correct but annoying thing parents threaten their toddlers and young children with at least 25 times a day.

As in, "Kevin, stop beating your sister silly - do you want a timeout?" Or, "Sandra, if you don't stop playing with daddy's stereo system (worth several thousand dollars) you're going to get a timeout."Time out! What's that supposed to mean, anyway? Well, according to all the parenting books, it constitutes a short time away from a "stressful" situation. (Although I think the word "stressful" should be reserved for kids growing up without food or near gunfire, not little ones acting up because a birthday party's gone crazy.) It usually means several minutes spent in a quiet place. Supposedly to calm down and reflect on one's crime.

But I'm convinced it was actually developed by a child mafia in order to avoid effective punishment. (Which, of course, is only one part - but yet a very important part - of effective discipline.)

I mean, I just don't know many well-behaved children whose parents primarily use the "timeout" method. So a boy hits his little sister and is told to leave the room. Frankly, my older brothers would have taken that deal in a minute. Consider their point of view. First they get to nail me, then they get to leave me behind. That's punishment?

No wonder I see kids practically smirking as they head into their 90-second to five-minute "timeout" routine. Often, they're simply heading to their rooms where there's lots of interesting things to do while they "reflect." Then they are returned to society, often just as obstreperous as before.

True, some parents successfully use "timeouts," for instance, to defuse a situation. But as the primary method of "punishment" - to the extent '90s parents use that phrase - administered in so many households today? No way.

Color me old fashioned, but I believe the primary punishment appropriate for young children is spanking.

By that I mean a few carefully controlled - but meaningful - swats to the bottom. Nothing else will get a young child's attention faster or protect him better from his own folly. I think parents who really love their kids should wisely administer such a response when warranted.

I can't risk my 2-year-old being unclear about whether he may run into the street or stray from me in the mall. But even when it's not life and death, I don't want any ambiguity about whether he may scream at an adult or throw food. And you know what? My little guy gets it, with his father and me very rarely actually having to spank him.

Just knowing it's a real possibility generally assures his obedience. There are few rules in our household. But those that exist are enforced. And if we don't have time to "explain" a new situation - for instance as he stands on the precipice of a friend's dangerous stairs - one word from one of us to back off and he does.

But what I like best about eschewing the "timeout" strategy is that my child never experiences banishment, or being "put away" from his parents, which may be quite troubling or confusing to a child.