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Arthur Staats, child psychologist and father of the ‘timeout,’ dies at 97

Arthur Staats with his young daughter, Jennifer. The pioneering psychologist was credited with popularizing the notion of "time outs" for children.
Arthur Staats with his young daughter, Jennifer. The pioneering psychologist was credited with popularizing the notion of "time outs" for children.Family photo/The Washington Post

Arthur Staats, a psychologist who made a science of the “timeout,” a disciplinary technique that gave exasperated parents an alternative to spanking and helped usher in a new era of child-rearing in the second half of the 20th century, died April 26 at his home in Honolulu. He was 97.

The cause was heart ailments, said his son, Peter Staats. Dr. Staats was an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Dr. Staats may not have been a household name, at least not beyond the professional circles where he was known for developing a field of study called psychological behaviorism. But his “invention” — as his elaboration of the timeout is sometimes styled — became a fixture in homes where young children bound and play, inevitably breaking things and rules as they go about the hard work of growing up and making sense of themselves and the world.

Dr. Staats embarked on his career in the 1950s, when behaviorism, the theory championed by psychologists including B.F. Skinner, was a prevailing school of thought. The theory posited that outward behavior, as opposed to inner thought, was the more valid subject of psychological inquiry. It further suggested that behavior, good and bad, is learned through the process of conditioning.

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Dr. Staats found behaviorism, on its own, inadequate to explain human behavior in all its complexity. He developed psychological behaviorism, which included elements such as emotion and personality, to “behaviorize psychology and to psychologize behaviorism,” as his view is often explained. But his professional training was put to perhaps its most consequential test when his daughter, Jennifer, was born in 1960 and his son, Peter, followed in 1963.

Dr. Staats had first used the term “timeout” in the 1950s, according to the volume “The SAGE Encyclopedia of Abnormal and Clinical Psychology” edited by Amy Wenzel. But he began applying the technique as his children entered toddlerhood, that liminal period when a child is old enough to begin following basic rules but is still too young to do so consistently.

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"My brother jokes that I was so naughty that my dad had to invent" the timeout, Jennifer Kelley told The Washington Post in 2019. But she added, "I'm sure I was an angel."

Experts note that the concept of the timeout, even if the practice was not known as such or detailed in psychological literature, had existed for generations before Dr. Staats’s work. Stephen Mintz, author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood,” once noted in an interview with the Atlantic that the author Catharine Sedgwick essentially described a timeout in a 19th-century novel in which a 10-year-old boy tosses a cat into scalding water.

"Go to your own room, Wallace," his father commands him. "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."

But Dr. Staats was widely credited as the first psychologist to study the timeout with scientific rigor, bringing his academic expertise to bear on the daily struggles that spare no family making its way through early childhood, with all the attendant joys and frustrations.

The psychological underpinning of the timeout is the notion of conditioning, or the modification of behavior through positive and negative consequences. If a child is exhibiting an undesirable behavior, such as pitching a tantrum or throwing toys, the parent might remove the child from the room and take him or her to a quiet place. There the child is deprived of reinforcing influences, such as attention or the presence of the toys, and allowed the time to calm down.

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To parents who had been spanked by their own mothers and fathers — a practice that Dr. Staats considered a “terrible idea” — the technique was revolutionary. In addition to offering the child a moment of calm, it gave one to the parent as well.

Dr. Staats recommended the timeout only in the context of a loving relationship in which the mother or father is a “companion, helper or trainer” and not a “ruler of the household,” he told The Post.

He discouraged parents from following a common rule of thumb, which holds that a timeout for a 2-year-old should last two minutes, that one for a 3-year-old should last three minutes, and so on. Rather than applying such arbitrary rules, he said, a parent should end a timeout as soon as the unwanted behavior ceases. And when the child behaves well, he said, it is critically important for the parent to offer praise and encouragement.

In recent years, detractors of the timeout have argued that the measure can be counterproductive, making children feel isolated or abandoned, and that in some cases it might induce them to suppress their emotions. But applied correctly, and in the proper context, many experts consider it a positive technique of parenting. Interviewed by Public Radio International after Dr. Staats’s death, Kate Ellis-Davies, a psychology lecturer at Swansea University in Wales, cited a 2017 survey indicating that 77 percent of parents use timeout with their children.

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“Dr. Staats had a profound impact on the science of clinical child psychology through his ground-breaking work on time out,” Cheryl B. McNeil, a professor of psychology at West Virginia University, wrote in an email.

“The use of time out from reinforcement is an integral component of many effective interventions for children with behavior problems,” she continued. “Also, time out is a powerful and positive tool for all parents that helps them to avoid harsh discipline techniques like spanking, yelling, and criticism when raising young children. Staats’ career will live on over time through the important contributions that he has made to the welfare of children and families across the world.”

Arthur Wilbur Staats was born in Greenburgh, N.Y., on Jan. 17, 1924. When he was an infant, his family set out for California, via the Panama Canal, in search of a better life, according to his son. Days after their arrival in Los Angeles, Dr. Staats’s father died of pneumonia, leaving his wife, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, to support their children by taking in laundry.

Dr. Staats was just shy of 18 when the United States entered World War II. He dropped out of high school to join the Navy, serving in the D-Day invasion in 1944.

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He had been a lackluster student in high school, his son said, but was invigorated by the study of psychology. On the GI Bill, he enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1949, a master's degree in 1953 and a PhD in 1956, all in psychology.

Dr. Staats taught at Arizona State University, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin at Madison before joining the University of Hawaii in 1966. He retired in 1997.

In addition to his work on the timeout, Dr. Staats was known for his study of learning. He resisted the notion that a person’s IQ was a fixed value, instead arguing that it could be improved through proper teaching techniques. He taught both his children to read before age 3 using a system of reinforcement involving tokens that could be exchanged for prizes.

Survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Carolyn Kaiden of Honolulu; his two children, Peter Staats, a physician and specialist in pain medicine, of Jacksonville, Fla., and Jennifer Kelley, a child psychiatrist, of Honolulu; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Dr. Staats wrote numerous books on topics including human behavior, learning and language, including at least one with his wife, Carolyn Staats, who is also a psychologist. His most recent work was “The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Nature Unique” (2012). But his most enduring contribution to psychology, and to parents and children everywhere, remained, perhaps, the timeout.

The license plate on his BMW read: TYM-OUT.