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What Is 1 2 3 Magic Parenting?

How to Count to 3 — the Right Way

I was blessed to grow up with a mom who was a preschool teacher for over 25 years. I got to watch her interacting with little kids all of the time. She was skilled at keeping the classroom running in an orderly fashion, while at the same time creating a rich environment for the kids to explore.

When I started having my own children, I found myself automatically implementing her strategies without even realizing what I was doing. It just came second nature to me, since I had spent so much time watching her.

I think her way of interacting with young kids was much like the 1-2-3 Magic discipline method of today.


What Is 1-2-3 Magic?

The basic principle is that adults talk way too much. We also make the common error of thinking that kids are mini adults. We assume that kids think about things in the same way that we do, so it makes sense to us to try to explain things in great detail. After all, once they understand why they can't have two cupcakes, surely they will calm down and start being reasonable again!

Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who published the first edition of his wildly popular book, 1-2-3 Magic: 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting back in 1995. Since the sixth edition of the self-proclaimed No. 1 child-discipline book in America came out last year, Dr. Phelan's strategies have seen a resurgence in the parenting world.

Maybe that's why you feel like everywhere you go, you keep overhearing other moms say to their misbehaving children, "That's one. That's two. That's three." And then you watch in disbelief as their kid actually stops!

You may have been wondering, "Why doesn't that work for my kid when I count to three?!"

Well, I'm personally not one to believe that there is one magical way to parent kids that works across the board.

However, I do think that the 1-2-3 Magic discipline idea has a few merits.

How Does It Work?

When your child is doing something that you don't want them to be doing, you say, "That's one." You wait five seconds. If they have not stopped yet, you say, "That's two." You wait five more seconds, and if they still have not stopped, then you say, "That's three." And you immediately give them a consequence (usually a time out).

The key to this method is that except for the words — "That's one. That's two. That's Three." — you are silent. Not only are you silent, but you are also showing no emotion. After the time out is over, you do not engage in a conversation with your child. They are simply allowed to continue playing as they were before the misbehavior started. The only caveat to this rule is that a short explanation is appropriate when the behavior is new, unusual, or dangerous.

The idea with less talking and little emotion is that parents will avoid having their own outbursts, won't give empty threats, and don't get excited or yell at their children.

Is It Effective?

Child psychologist Dr. Don Williams says, "This can be a good format to train the parents to not overstimulate their kids when there is already a stressful situation. Minimizing the words and staying neutral can prevent pouring gasoline on the flames."

Luckily, the signs are pretty clear when I've taken a wrong parenting turn into overarticulating myself. When this happens, I get one of two responses from my child. I either get a pair of eyes looking back at me that have become completely glazed over, or I get a geyser of oversize emotions coming out of my child in every possible direction!

When I see either of these two signs, I know that it's time to re-evaluate my parenting strategy. And especially with 1-2-3 Magic, consistency is key. According to Dr. Phelan, "The kids respond positively at '1' or '2' most of the time."

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