How to use 1-2-3 Magic counting technique to get your kids to listen the first time
Ever feel like you ask your kids a gazillion times to stop doing something, and they just completely ignore you? That is until you become so incredibly frustrated that you finally YELL at them to stop. Only then do they listen!
What if I told you that it doesn’t always have to get the point of seeing-red anger for your kids to stop misbehaving?
And what if I told you it’s as simple as 1-2-3?
Well, that’s what I’m telling you, mama friend. There is something called the 1-2-3 Magic counting technique that eliminates the yelling and power struggles between you and your kids when you’re trying to get them to stop engaging in an undesired behavior.
The more you use it, the more effective it becomes. Let’s dive into what this method actually is, why you’ll want to use it, and how to use it.
Common Discipline Pitfalls
Before we get into what 1-2-3 Magic is and how you can use this as part of your parenting toolbox, I want to highlight some very common mistakes that parents make when trying to discipline their kids.
1. Talking too much
We often try to explain to a child when they are upset why we don’t want them behaving a certain way or why we are implementing a certain consequence.
The problem with this is that when our kids are upset, crying, tantruming, or yelling, they aren’t really hearing us. It’s not necessarily intentional. They are emotional and they aren’t capable in that moment of understanding what we’re saying.
It’s best to wait on your explanation until your child has calmed down and you can have an interactive conversation with them.
2. Too much emotion
Life is hectic and when our kids misbehave or push our buttons, it’s really easy for us to react with yelling or anger.
But when we react this way, nothing good comes of it. Our child either becomes afraid or they continue with the undesired behavior because they see it gets them attention. Granted, it’s negative attention, but to our kids, any attention is good attention!
3. Empty Threats
How many times have you threatened to cancel a sleepover or take a favorite toy away if your child doesn’t stop doing something that you asked them to stop? And then how many times have you actually carried through with that threat?
I’ll be honest – empty threats were a common practice for me! Either I didn’t want to deal with the tantrum that would ensue after carrying out the consequence, or I made a “threat” that was unrealistic and that I would never carry out.
When we do this, our kids learn to not listen to us because they know nothing is going to happen anyway.
Maybe you do carry through with consequences, but not all the time. On days when you have an abundance of patience, you’re great at seeing them through. But on the crazy days when you just don’t have it in you, you let it slide.
I know how hard it is to consistently carry out consequences. I struggle with this, too. But remember that you are working towards a longer-term goal of raising happy, well-adjusted adults, and being consistent is key.
It’s hard, but it will be so worth it in the long run. And listen, we’re human – we’re not likely going to be consistent 100% of the time, and that’s ok. As long as you are carry out the consequence most of the time, then you’re doing great.
What is 1-2-3 Magic?
So what is 1-2-3 Magic and how can it help you parent?
I first learned about this method from a brief parenting class video. It seemed like an excellent tool to add to my parenting repertoire, so I decided to do a bit more research on where it came from.
1-2-3 Magic is not only a parenting tool, but it’s a book that was written in the mid 1990s by Dr. Thomas Phelan, a clinical psychologist. Since then, a few more editions have been published.
The book covers a lot of great points that should be considered when you’re trying to either stop a beavior from happening (like hitting) or start a good behavior (like cleaning their room).
The book also teaches the 1-2-3 Magic counting technique which can be a solid tool to prevent a situation with your child from escalating to a tantrum.
How Does 1-2-3 Magic Work?
The purpose of the 1-2-3 Magic counting technique is to interrupt and stop an undesired behavior.
The thought is that parents tend to either talk too much and/or use too much emotion when disciplining their kids. When we do this, our kids become irritated and shut us out. The 1-2-3 Magic counting technique addresses this.
Instead of overexplaining, we should calmly state our expecations to our child (“please stop throwing your cheerios”), tell the child that they have 3 seconds (“I am going to count to 3”), and state the consequence if the behavior does not stop by the count of 3 (“If you don’t stop, you will get a “time-out”).
Make sure that when you are counting, you are:
- Counting calmly, but firmly
- Using your fingers to count (hold 1 finger up for 1, 2 fingers for 2, 3 fingers for 3)
- Putting about 5 seconds between each count.
Quick note – While the book recommends using a time-out, if you are practicing positive parenting, you will want to use something else (we will talk about this more a little later in this post).
What happens when I count to 3?
There are three very important things you have to do for this method to work!
- Make sure you clearly state the behavior that you want to stop, and what the consequence is if the behavior does not stop.
- If the behavior does not stop, you MUST carry out the consequence that you set forth. We do not negotiate with our kids on consequences!
- Don’t get angry or upset (I know this is incredibly hard sometimes, but you can do it). If you get upset, your child is holding the power in this situation. This is not what either one of you want – not even your kid despite how they are acting.
Bottom line – if your child is engaging in a behavior that you want to stop, you ask them stop, and calmly tell them they have 3 seconds to stop or xyz consequence will happen. Then they have 3 strikes. After 3 strikes, that is it. The consequence happens. End of discussion.
What do I do if my child tantrums?
If you get to 3 and need to carry out the consequence, there’s a pretty good chance your child will begin throwing a temper tantrum. This is more likely to happen the first few times you are putting this technique into practice with your child. Fun times!
If this happens, first and foremost, stay calm. Your child is feeling out of control of their emotions and they need you to help them regain control. If you’re freaking out too, that just ain’t gonna happen.
How you handle the tantrum is going to largely depend upon your child.
Start out by getting down to your child’s level and empathizing with them (“you are so angry!” or “you are so frustrated!”). Then ask them if they would like a hug or cuddle to calm down. Both of my boys say no this, so I’ll usually skip this question. However, it may be just what your child needs so definitely give it a shot to find out.
Then you can let your child know that you are there for her if she needs you, and give her space to work through it. Remind her every so often that you are there if she needs you. This is the only way I can help my son to calm down from a tantrum.
For my younger son, however, it works better if I offer him an alternative. For instance, the other night he was tantruming. I empathized with him and then asked him if he wanted to hit a pillow with me. He paused for a brief moment, looking at me, and then whimpered, “yesh”. So I grabbed a pillow off the couch, put it on the floor, and began hitting it. He joined in very seriously at first, and then he started giggling. Before I knew it, we were both laughing and able to move on with our evening.
You may have to experiment a few times to figure out what helps your child to calm down.
Is It Effective?
I have found this technique to be effective with my toddler, and many other parents have as well.
Once you’ve done this a few times, and carried out the promised consequence each time, your child will know you mean business. Soon enough, they’ll stop the behavior before you get to 3, or the first time you ask them.
What age is 1-2-3 Magic appropriate for?
This method works best on kids ages 1-3. Once your child hits 4 or 5, there are more effective ways to teach them to stop a negative behavior.
Continuing to use the counting technique with a child older than 3 may actually teach them that they don’t have to listen to you the first time you ask them to do something, or stop doing something.
In my personal experience, this method works wonderfully with my 2.5 year old. It does not work at all with my 5 year old. I find that with my toddler, the 3 seconds give him time to process what’s going on and what will happen if the behavior doesn’t stop.
My 5 year old, on the other hand, usually knows when he shouldn’t be doing something, and giving him 3 seconds to decide if he wants to stop just gives him 3 seconds more of stalling. It’s much more effective to just ask him to stop and state the consequence. If he doesn’t listen, the consequence happens immediately.
For instance, I may say, “Hey, please draw on paper, not the table, or I’ll need to take the markers away”. Sometimes he’ll listen right away. If he doesn’t, I immediately take the markers away.
Should you use a time out?
As with lots of things, there are aspects of this method that I really like, and other aspects that I’m steering clear of, specifically the use of time-outs. Studies show time and time again that traditional time-outs are ineffective. They stop the behavior in that moment, but not in the long run.
Alas, there is no one “right” way to successfully parent, so you should always go with what you’re comfortable with. That being said, if you are implementing positive parenting, I suggest using a logical consequence or a “time-in” in lieu of a time-out.
I think it’s really important to remember that no matter what consequence you choose, your kids deserve to be heard and know it’s ok to feel upset. This isn’t a free pass for them to be rude or disrespectful, but they should be given the opportunity to work through their emotions with your help.
Sending them to a corner or another area of the house by themselves to think about what they’ve done is going to cause them to be resentful. And do you really think that they’re thinking about what they’ve done? Probably not.
A time-in is different from a time-out in that the intent behind it is non-punitive. Traditional time-outs are often carried out in anger or frustration (understandably so) and cause your child to feel shame or hurt. Is that really your goal? I’d venture to say it’s not. Your goal is probably to teach your kid what’s acceptable behavior in our society and what isn’t.
Time-ins aim to teach. If your child is acting up, you can tell him that if he doesn’t act calm, you will need to take him to his room. If he doesn’t heed your warning, take him to his room without saying a word (no lecturing) and stay quietly in his room until he is calm.
Once he is calm, acknowledge how he was feeling (“you were really angry with your sister, huh?”) and follow up with a question of what he’s supposed to do in these situations (“what are you supposed to do when you’re upset with your sister?”).
He might say, “Ask Mommy or Daddy for help” in which case you can tell him, “That’s right! All you have to do is ask me for help and I will help you”.
He might say he doesn’t know when you ask him this question. If he doesn’t know, you can coach him along.
What Should the Consequence Be?
Time-out is one of the most commonly used discipline tools by parents. If you don’t want to use time-out as a consequence with the 1-2-3 Magic method, what are your options?
Logical consequences are consequences that are directly related to your child’s behavior. This article by responsiveclassroom.org gives a wonderful explanation of logical consequences and how they differ from punishment.
Logical consequences are structured by the 3 R’s and the big E. Here they are (as outlined by Conscious Discipline):
Related: The logical consequence should have a cause-and-effect relationship to the child’s behavior. It should be related back to safety or helpfulness. For instance, a logical consequence for a child who chooses to run with scissors would be losing the privilege to use scissors. Missing recess, calling his parents, or getting a time-out would be illogical and ineffective.
Respectful: Deliver logical consequences in the assertive voice of “no doubt.” (This is the voice you would use to state a fact, like, “The ceiling is above us.”) Verbal and nonverbal cues should reveal that your intent is to teach, not punish.
Reasonable: Logical consequences should be doable and make sense in terms of severity and duration. These should not be empty threats; you must follow through on the logical consequence.
Empathy: When the child chooses to persist in hurtful behavior, it becomes necessary to enforce the prearranged logical consequence. Children may respond with back-talk, begging, or even threats. Instead of engaging in a power struggle, we must offer empathy to help the child reflect.
Examples of Logical Consequences
Logical consequences fall into 3 buckets: fixing what’s broken, loss of privelage, and time to calm down.
- Fixing what’s broken could be your child cleaning up the juice that they spilled after you told him not to play with his cup.
- Loss of privelege could be taking away scissors from your child for the day after you asked her to stop running with them, yet she continues to do so.
- Time to calm down could be time with you in your child’s bedroom where they can cool off if they were beginning to tantrum.
Loss of privilege is usually the most effective logical consequence to implement with the 1-2-3 Magic counting technique.
For example, if your preschooler is incessantly poking her little brother and he’s upset, a logical consequence could be separating them. The scenario would go something like this:
“Gabby, please keep your hands to yourself. If you do not keep your hands to yourself by the time I count to 3, then you will have to go play in the family room while your brother plays in the toy room. That’s 1… That’s 2… That’s 3. Ok, it’s time to play in the family room for a bit until you are able to keep your hands to yourself.”
Where can I use 1-2-3 Magic?
Anywhere! The trick is figuring out a consequence that you can carry out wherever you happen to be at the time.
If you’re anything like me though, it’s really tough to think of a consequence on the spot, especially when you’re not at home. I hate to say it, but knowing that other people may be watching this unfold puts pressure on me, and I buckle!
A tip for these scenarios is to think of consequences beforehand. You know your child inside and out and you have a good idea of how they behave in certain environments. If you’re going to the grocery store, are they going to throw things off the shelves? Maybe your consequence will then be that they have to sit in the cart instead of walk, or that you have to leave the store and go home.
Planning for these situations in advance will take a lot of the stress out of the process, and it will help you stay calm.
At the end of the day, kids are still kids and there will be times when they just don’t listen. But by using this simple technique, you can teach your kids to listen more often. Remember to stay calm, cool, and collected, and enforce the consequences when needed consistently. Before you know it, you’ll only need to ask your kids to stop doing something once (most of the time!).