In Praise of the Timer

Timer F 2 w grayToday I’m revealing the parenting and organizational tool that helps my family function. Although Bryan and I rely on consequences, firm boundaries, and plain old love and humor to keep life with four young kids smooth and manageable, the most tangible weapon in our arsenal is time. I’m referring to both the abstract idea of time and the specific use of a timer.

Time is practically a third parent in our household. It’s a ruler whose authority nobody questions. When the timer goes off, time is up. Not because I said so or Daddy said so, but because the timer said so. Yes, Bryan and I set the timer. But for our kids, the timer and the magical measure it represents seems to exist above and beyond the person punching in the numbers. The kids accept that we, their parents, did not choose how many minutes constitute an hour nor how many hours add up to a day.

The kids also understand that there are two types of time: the one that moves too quickly (iPad time) and the kind that never ends (waiting for a play date to arrive for time outs to end). In both cases, there’s no point complaining to Mom and Dad. The timer is in charge.

Though the potential stress of time ticking away would not work for every type of child nor for every age, we have successfully employed it so far with three out of our four kids without any problems beyond the expected moans and groans of, as I mentioned, having too much time to wait or not enough time to use depending on the situation. Our fourth is too young to comprehend all of this, but he sure gets excited when the timer beeps and the action begins.


Our older two kids (nine and seven) must get in the car at 7:45 a.m. on weekdays. Last year the mornings were hurried and unpleasant as Bryan and I spent the forty minutes the kids were awake badgering them to move along. This year, Bryan, who does the elementary school drive (I do the preschool routine an hour later), punches ten minutes into the oven timer at 7:30 then disappears to the bedroom to get himself dressed. When the timer goes off at 7:40, the kids know they have five minutes to quickly finish eating, brush their hair and teeth, and get their coats on and shoes tied. The timer also gives me the same warning that I only have five more minutes to finish packing their lunches.

Before the timer goes off, we’re moving slowly, chatting, and not frantically worrying about the tasks left to complete like we did last year. After the timer goes off, we’re all business. It’s do what you have to do to get out the door, come get your hugs and kisses, then say goodbye.


The other area of our lives improved by the timer is the kids’ screen time. They each get thirty minutes once their chores and homework are completed, but everyone begins at different times. Also, there are plenty of incidents when one of the kids has earned extra screen time for one reason or another. I rely on the timers on the microwave and oven to keep track of where we are in each person’s thirty minutes. When the timer goes off, I usually hear a shocked, “What?” from the living room or den, but other than me calling out the name of the child whose time is up, I don’t have to argue about what happens next. We agreed on thirty minutes. Thirty minutes have passed. Better find something else to do. Period.


A timer controls my screen time as well. Our WiFi plugs into an outlet timer instead of directly into the wall. The timer turns off our home’s wireless connection at midnight and keeps it off until 7:00 a.m. I do this to force myself into bed at a reasonable time and to make sure that my almost two hours of work every morning consists of writing, not clicking around the internet. I’m not exaggerating when I say that reorganizing my time this way has changed my entire life for the better.

Do other parents use timers? In what areas other than mornings and managing screen time have you found them useful? 


Illustration by Christine Juneau

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This entry was written by Nina Badzin

About the author: Nina Badzin is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis with her husband and four children. She has written about parenting, marriage, friendship and more in The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, Kveller, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at  and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter (

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  • Pam

    Nina, this is great! My daughter is too young to do the time thing (23 mo) but I have used an app called Freedom to get my writing done and to get work done- it lets you disable your internet access for as long as you wish. You have to restart your computer if you want to get on the internet before your time is up. Best $10 I have ever spent toward my productivity!

    • Nina

      I’ve heard great things about Freedom. Same idea!

  • Galit Breen

    Such good tips, Nina! I especially like the way during the morning routine things are relaxed before the timer and all business once it goes off. LOVE that!

  • Allie Smith

    I love this idea, especially for the morning routine when things are very crazy! Usually it’s me announcing “You have blank minutes to go…” The timer may get a better result than the voice the ignore half the time!

  • Stacey

    I used a timer a lot when I was a classroom teacher. I feel like my daughter is a little too young for one right now. In time, though, we’re going to be using one as the ‘third parent.’

    • Nina

      Would for sure be great in the classroom too.

  • tracy@sellabitmum

    I love this idea Nina!

  • Sarah

    I am taking this idea for our mornings! Thanks for sharing!

  • Tamara

    I’ve always found it well it works! I first saw a friend use it with her iPhone timer and her kid listened really well!
    What’s funny is that my daughter likes to time me. If she needs me and I’m working, I’ll say “two minute” and she’ll say, “Make it three.” So I get an extra minute but it’s only because her hourglass timer takes three minutes for the sand to go through. She likes that one best. I like dinging timers myself.

    • Nina

      An hourglass one would be cool!

  • Emily

    Works well for turn taking and pretty much any transition. I actually think it works with the little kids as well for transitions and preventing tantrums. Timers are a more concrete and tangible way to illustrate the passage of time and the sound of the alarm is going to get through better than a parent’s voice, which is often ignored.

    • Nina

      Exactly! I love it for all of those reasons. Well said.

  • Kristen

    We used to use a timer too when M was about 3-4 years old (she’s 6 now). Specifically for the amount of time she had to play between dinner and going up to bed, and for watching 30 minutes of TV. At first it worked, primarily because it was “the clock” telling her time was up, not mean old me (which is why we started it). But then, after a while, we noticed it provoked some anxiety and it eventually immobilized her. She became so fixated on how much time was left that she forgot to enjoy it, didn’t end up playing and then massive amounts of tears ensued. We stopped using it. It is her personality, it seems, that gets in the way. Now, especially that she is older and has a better concept of time, we don’t need it. Instead, we’ve found that concrete things (2 shows instead of 30 minutes) or 5 minute warnings that it will be time to wrap it up for things like longer periods of open ended time have worked far better for her so that she doesn’t preoccupy herself with “how much is left”. I only mention this in case the timer thing backfires for those who want to try it. As for me, I think the timer idea is GREAT, and I’m going to try it to limit my own screen time. I am not disciplined enough to self-regulate, I’m finding.

  • Shana Norris

    I’m still fascinated by the fact that you put your wireless on a timer. I haven’t taken that step yet, but I’m thinking and thinking about it.

    I use a timer with my kids at bedtime, when it’s time to turn off the television, or put away the Kindle and have a bath. It DOES work so well. This article has inspired me to try it in other areas and at other times throughout the day.

  • Julie Luek

    Oh my goodness, when my kids were little, we used the timer ALL THE TIME. It was helpful for both of us to have an objective limit on whatever it is we were doing. It wasn’t just about me saying, “enough”, but there was this time that would ding. Non-judging. Just done.

    I still use a timer on myself, for internet time, as an example. It’s still a nice objective way to make sure I don’t linger longer than needed.

  • Zsofi

    I am so going to try this!!! Brilliant.

  • http://practicalhomeschooling Martha

    I use the timer on my cellphone in the store when the kids want to visit the toy dept or electronics aisle. A simple 5 or 10 minutes there can make the entire shopping trip much more enjoyable. And like you said, it’s the timer beeping “Times up”, not me. I do tend to watch the timer and give the boys a “heads up – 2 minutes left” sort of warning. I learned that trick at the park and places like McDonald’s playplace. The warning gave them time to mentally prepare and made leaving conflict free.

    • Nina

      Great idea to use it at stores!

  • Heather Stover

    I am a homeschool mom and use the timer a with my 10 yr. old son. I also used it a lot with my 3 older daughters but at 21,18,and 15 they really don’t need it any more. However,when I give Josiah a school task I give him a certain amount of time to complete it. Usually from 20-40 minutes depending on the subject. He also starts out each day with 40 minutes of electronics time for computer play or the wii. If he has time left over when he completes his assignment that can be added to his original 40 minutes. For instance if he has 5 minutes left over he then has 45 minutes to play. However, if he takes longer than the allotted time to complete an assignment then he looses that amount of time from the original 40 minutes. For instance if it takes him 10 minutes longer then his allotted time he looses that 10 minutes and only has 30 minutes to play. This is fairly effective with him and is helpful in keeping him focused. Early on he would often go into negative numbers. He would loose all his time for that day and some of his time for the next day as well. I loved using the timer with my girls too when they were younger. We would even take it to the library and when it went off it would be time to go home. Did the same with the park, playing at a friends house, etc. I think we went through several timers!

    • Nina

      Thank goodness for the timers on phones so we can use them anywhere, right? Really like your ideas here, Heather!

  • Leslie Kendall Dye

    JUST today I mentioned a timer and its possible usefulness to my husband. (Before I saw this article.) My child is only two and used to love going outdoors but suddenly has 800 reasons why it’s simply not possible. She has to paint! She has to build a house! She has to bake an apple pie! Really it is inertia. And anxiety about the cold. So I thought, would the ticking clock be stressful? I know you mentioned this as a possibility, so I thought, maybe if it is in the other room and only the DING! is heard, not the ticking, that would be less anxiety-provoking? It isn’t that I mind relenting and painting instead of leaving the house sometimes. But I KNOW that she needs fresh air and it has become a real challenge to manage this without tears. I don’t want to be a bully about it. And anyway, I REALLY want an excuse to get a beautiful faux-vintage style kitchen timer I was admiring in a shop the other day. So much more romantic than the microwave timer. Thanks for the great post, it’s a big help!

    • Nina

      You will have to come back and report on how it goes!

  • Jean

    I’ve clicked on this link three times now because I just knew it was going to be good (kids are the best distractions). I haven’t used a timer with my children yet but it was practically my coteacher in the classroom. I wore a stopwatch around my neck and also used a timer on our smartboard. It completely changed the dynamic of the classroom. Why haven’t I thought about using this with my son (and husband)? I’m starting this on Tuesday when we go to preschool. Thank you Nina!

    • Nina

      I want to hear how it goes!

  • Jolina Petersheim

    Great tips, Nina! My husband and I have just started using the timer for our toddler’s Time Out sessions. Five minutes, and then we give her hugs and kisses and she’s welcomed back into our world. I don’t know what I’d do without that contraption!

  • Marta

    Um, I think its time for me to fall in love with my iphone timer. I NEED THIS!