1-2-3 Magic. Is it really?


It’s been a quiet blogging season. The demands of early pregnancy (now in its 24th week), toddler twins and work have essentially squeezed writing time right out of my schedule. In my few writing moments, I struggle to find inspiration. The topics abound but my writing rings hollow. I have ideas that I struggle to put in order. I have half-started posts on a range of subjects, from teenagers to sleep training to sibling rivalry, with nothing to add. But a recent post in a Facebook parenting group had me reflecting and my reflection lead me to a few ideas I would like to share.

A parent asked for thoughts and opinions on the discipline book “I-2-3 Magic” by Thomas W. Phelan. It was all the rage when my older children (born between 1996 and 2002) were younger. Her questions led me to revisit the 1-2-3 Magic method of discipline and reflect on my own experience. Like most disciplinary methods, the 1-2-3 Magic approach to discipline is rooted in an equal mix of sound psychological information, half-baked assumptions and a one-size-fits-all solution. As with most parenting books, it is very difficult to accept it or discredit it on the whole.

**** As usual with all my discipline posts, this only applies to children who are mentally and physically healthy. Parents of children with special needs such as mental health issues, brain injuries or autism spectrum disorder, or parents who themselves struggle with these issues, may define successful discipline differently and achieve great success with methods that are otherwise problematic for “conventional” children. I am not an expert, just a mom with opinions. *****

The 1-2-3 Magic approach is based on the observation that parents talk too damn much. And this is true. Whether you are a screamer, a ranter, a lecturer or a cajoler, even if you engage in endless explaining in the hope that your child will understand the logic of your position and concede your victory, chances are your discipline involves way too much talking. Studies have repeatedly shown that children (and teenagers!) tune out after a very short period of talking. With the 1-2-3 Magic approach, you let a negative outcome, a time-out period, do the talking. A short explanation may be given, followed by a count to 3. If by 3 the behaviour has not stopped, the child is put in a time-out. The book’s subtitle “Effective Discipline for Children 2 to 12” infers that this method is appropriate for children older than 6. My educated opinion as a mother of almost 9 is that if you are still counting your child past Senior Kindergarten (5 years-old), you have a much bigger issue on your hands than day-to-day discipline. The fact that you may still count a 12 year-old illustrates my main concern with the method: it teaches the children to be compliant without allowing them to develop inner discipline and compliance born of trust in their parents’ lead. If you wonder why this matters, you will find out the hard way when you have teenagers.

My own experience with the 1-2-3 Magic Method (and its acolytes) is that it made my children manipulative and self-centered. When you put children in the driver’s seat of deciding whether they prefer complying or taking the time-out, you get children who become extraordinarily efficient at figuring out what is good for them in less than 3 seconds. I was discussing this with my husband while doing dishes the other evening and I said: “If you give children the choice between ‘stop hitting your brother’ and ‘go to your room’, some will choose the room 100% of the time, as long as they can shove one last time… and come out to hit again” and my 14 year-old chimed-in “That’s me!”  Her observation was only half-accurate: she never had an aggression problem but her explosive temperament means that her frustration is expressed impulsively without thinking about the consequences. Sending her to her room after the fact still allowed the release of anger in inadequate ways and the memory of previous time-outs was never motivation enough to check her angry outbursts at the door.

This example illustrates two of my main concerns with the method. First, this one-size-fits-all approach to behaviour modification doesn’t consider the importance of knowing your child’s individual temperament in finding effective discipline. Temperament, also known as our natural pattern of reactions, not only determines whether a discipline approach will be effective in modifying the behaviour but also in determining what will motivate our child to do the right thing. My second issue is that it doesn’t emphasize the importance of attachment in ensuring some compliance from our children or, at the very least, explain the absence of compliance, especially as the children grow-out of the preschool years and approach the challenging 6-10 years of age. As Gordon Neufeld so aptly writes it in his excellent book “Hold On to your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers”:

“When we focus so narrowly on what we should be doing, we become blind to our attachment relationship with our children and its inadequacies. Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired. Attachment is not a behavior to be learned but a connection to be sought.”

The simplicity of methods like 1-2-3 Magic is what appeals to parents who have a tendency to loose themselves in explanations or rants. But the same simplicity can hide the appearance of attachment voids and the growth of attachment-related issues that are often harder to address during the teenage years, when our children are well beyond the reach of time-outs and punishments. For parents who are inclined to fall within what Dr. Phelan calls the Talk-Persuade-Argue-Yell-Hit Syndrome, 1-2-3 Magic can prevent the constant attacks on attachment caused by age-inappropriate verbal diarrhea. But what we need to remember most of all is that if you need to talk-persuade-argue-yell-hit (even if you only make it to argue and yell) every time you ask something, you are more likely dealing with a relationship problem rather than a behaviour problem.

As parents, we can’t help but notice when our grip on our children is slipping. We get caught in endless arguments, tantrums, and crisis. We are unable to ensure compliance, ever. Parents who rely on coercive methods of discipline, also known under the euphemisms of “consequences” and including time-outs and isolation, watch themselves get caught in a “consequence rut” or in a “last man standing” contest. I often recall a grocery store trip on December 23rd when two active little boys would not leave the candy display alone while their mother waited in line at the cash register. “At 3, if you haven’t stopped, we’re not going to Florida!” and I was dying to reply: “As if!!” But here is the utter powerlessness of a parent who cannot simply ask her boys not to play with the candies.

As with any relationship, the parent-child relationship needs to be nurtured and built-up. Often, our children’s misbehaviours are warning bells we better not ignore. The constant resort to time-outs can prevent us from listening to our child and improve our game. To be effective teachers, we need to first discipline ourselves. How many tantrums could be avoided if we simply provided our children with a calmer, more structured environment? How much aggression could be prevented if we simply took time to reconnect and empathize with an overwhelmed child? How many meltdowns could be nipped in the bud if we simply respected our child’s shyness and reluctance to embrace new situations? Those are all “discipline” problems that are within us as parents to solve, if we would only discipline ourselves and put order in our environment.  When we punish our children for responding in an age-appropriate manner to our own lack of structure and discipline, we effectively demand more maturity from our children than we are able to display ourselves.

Does it mean that we must put-up with anything?  What about strong-willed children? In the words of Gordon Neufeld (because I couldn’t write it better):

“We may believe that our child is stubborn or willful and that we have to break him of his defiant ways. Yet young children can hardly be said to have a will at all, if by that is meant a person’s capacity to know what he wants and to stick to that goal despite setbacks or distractions. “But my child is strong-willed,” many parents insist. “When he decides that he wants something he just keeps at it until I cannot say no, or until I get very angry.” What is really being described here is not will but a rigid, obsessive clinging to this or that desire. An obsession may resemble will in its persistence but has nothing in common with it. Its power comes from the unconscious and it rules the individual, whereas a person with true will is in command of his intentions. The child’s oppositionality is not an expression of will. What it denotes is the absence of will, which allows a person only to react, but not to act from a free and conscious process of choosing.”

As parents, we need to be able to demand compliance from our children. We may not always be able to connect and empathize with our children first, especially in dangerous situations. The work of building a strong relationship of trust, whereby a child will follow our lead most of the time, happens in the little moments between the meltdowns and the impulsive behaviour. Our power to discipline is not built through coercion as the meltdowns happen. In fact, the opposite is true: by the time we are locked in a power struggle or facing a temper tantrum, our power to teach is all but gone.  We need to think ahead and own-up to our share of responsibility in causing our children’s misbehaviours.

I often wonder how often my children would send me off to my room if they could…

Preventing meltdowns, one snuggle at a time. (photo by Jenna Sparks Photography http://jsparksphotography.zenfolio.com/)

Preventing meltdowns, one snuggle at a time. (photo by Jenna Sparks Photography http://jsparksphotography.zenfolio.com/)

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6 thoughts on “1-2-3 Magic. Is it really?

  1. Tessin

    Have you read “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” by Laura Markham? A few of your posts have reminded me of her advice. I think it is the best parenting book I have read, but very difficult to get a grasp on implementing sometimes. I am a novice, though – I just had my second child six weeks ago. My daughter turns four next month, so I have only been really challenged to the point of losing my mind in the last year.

    • I never read her book but I have looked at her website “Aha Parenting” a couple of times. I find that she has good insight but it’s often very inpractical and assumes that the parents and children already have a strong attachment relationship based on trust. Whereas some more traditional discipline approaches assume that are children are manipulative brats and parenting is a war to be won, she approaches every discipline problem as if the children were all sweet angels eager to please and only having a bad day.

      When your attachment relationship with your children is tenuous (for a variety of reasons), you can’t simply stop and empathise and talk about big feelings. The trust just isn’t there. Also, some children, by their temperaments, are not inclined to share their big feelings and get over it. Some children are born eager to please and some children are born more defiant or manipulative.

      But on the whole, assuming the relationship is there to start with, her advice is sound. Or at the very least, unlikely to damage the attachment relationship.

      So you are right on when you write that it’s difficult to get a grasp of implementing. I remember her post about an 8 year-old trowing a tamper tantrum (yes, they still do that at that age sometimes) over some marshmallows at a campfire and throwing the bag in the dirt so her sister wouldn’t have it. Her whole approach assumes that (a) you can talk some sense into an 8 year-old in the middle of a meltdown; and (b) that she will see how wrong she was…. And says nothing about the rest of the family, whose marshmallow roast is now ruined. All the focus is on the big feelings of the offender with no reparation or apologies expected. In a nutshell, the child who had a meltdown gets all the attention and she still got what she wanted, ie her sister didn’t get the marshmallows. I think this sends a very strong message to both the offender and the offended.

  2. Thanks for this great post. Gordon Neufeld’s attachment theory makes so much sense and I love it. I am a “late convert” because until I discovered Neufeld, we did the usual “cry it out” sleep training with our children. But over the past few months, armed with a new understanding of attachment theory, I have changed tracks. The two youngest now sleep in our bedroom (on their own beds) and they love it! It has made for a much happier bedtime, and no more screaming at night. I hope our earlier approach didn’t cause too much damage but so far our children seem well attached.

    Though keeping children attached to parents/ adults through the teenage years is a whole different art! Peer orientation is so strong in our society, and pressure to peer orient comes from so many places because most people consider it “normal.” Thanks for your seasoned advice!

    • I could write an entire post about being a late convert to attachment theory and wondering how it affected my older children! (Maybe I will…)

      Thankfully, attachment doesn’t only hinge on one thing. And that probably explains why our children — and our friends’ children — are reasonably well attached despite the bouts of “cry it out” sleep training. I was recently chatting with two long time friends and when I mentioned that I would never let a baby cry it out again, they took it quite personally (it’s common). They told me “Are you saying that I don’t love my children?” I think that we all love our children, and that’s our saving grace: we missed out on a few attachment-building practices (like nighttime parenting) but on the whole, we were always loving and responsive parents.

      With regard to peer orientation, you are right. It’s everywhere. If I recall correctly, you are homeschooling so it may not be as obvious. But with children in the mainstream system I can tell you that peer orientation is now the norm. Teens who are not peer oriented (and parents who don’t foster and support peer orientation) are upstream swimmers. It’s a battle. And that’s where attachment parenting on the early years comes home to roost. Peer orientation is born in attachment voids and we can’t see where they are. So my friend tell me about letting their babies cry it our for up to 12h for weeks. And my other friend tells her “It’s great that you were so firm, imagine if you had given-up!” Yes, it eventually worked and her child eventually slept through the night. And her child is not messed-up. But how can you assume that her child doesn’t carry any scars or voids from that experience? You simply can’t. So my wager on attachment parenting is along the lines of Pascal’s wager: if attachment theory makes no difference, then I will have lost some sleep but my loss will be finite. I’ll have slept less than my friends, and kept my babies close in carriers. But if attachment theory is real, then my children will have gained everything.

  3. Tessin

    Hello,
    I know you are super busy with a new little one, so hopefully this question has a quick answer. If you don’t get to it, I understand!
    I am really struggling with my now four year old daughter (I have a 7 mo old son now as well, which I am sure doesn’t help my daughter’s behavior). As I mentioned above in a earlier comment, I have read Dr. Laura’s book and blog. That is the approach I have hoped to apply, but have not be able to do so well. I am beyond frustrated and am starting to resent her smug advice and my relationship with my daughter is rocky to say the least. Is there a more balanced approach you would recommend, online or in book form? Should I just start by picking up a Neufeld book?
    Thanks!
    -Tess

    • Hi Tess!

      I completely understand what you mean by Dr. Laura’s advice: looks great in theory and isn’t it what we all aspire to, but light on practice. I also find that her advice assumes that you have a great relationship with your child and that your child is very verbal. For parents who have a relationship that needs work or, like me, have children who have a language delay, her advice falls flat. When I tell my barely verbal 3 year-old to tell me about his big feelings, he just flips out even more! But even when you have a great relationship, sometimes you just need compliance when children are not willing to humour you. Know what I mean?

      I don’t know what are your specific issues with your 4 year-old but I have a very spirited daughter who is 5 so my recommendations will be based on her and the challenges with have with her. For me, the biggest game-changer with regard to getting compliance from my daughter was to work on understanding her. It sounds like more smug advice but believe me, my biggest break-throughs with that child were all related to changes I made in *me*: my understanding of her personality and her needs, and why she was so intense. I learned to manage my expectations and accept her the way she was.

      The first book I would recommend is “Raising your spirited child”. I didn’t think my child was “spirited” because I thought it meant “hyper” and defiant. Yes, spirited children can be hyper and defiant but there is more to it. If you are always locking horns with your daughter, have a look at this book.

      Another thing I would recommend reading-up on is counter-will. Gordon Neufeld is the authority on the matter but here’s a good blog post I send to people regularly: http://transformativeparenting.com/why-children-say-no/

      Understanding counterwill has helped tremendously, not because it has made my child more compliant but because it has helped me to let go of situations where all I was doing was triggering a counterwill response. Understanding counterwill has helped me parent my toddlers, preschoolers and teenagers better, not because it has changed them but because it has made *me* more peaceful. When I realize that I am facing a counterwill response, I just let go as much as I can.

      Do pick-up a Neufeld book but be aware that he doesn’t give hands-on practical advice (like, how to get your preschooler in the car or to eat is supper). His advice is mostly directed at parenting in a way that does not damage your relationship. He is not so much interested in exactly how you get your children to finish their vegetables but he wants you to make sure you do it without causing rifts in your relationship. His advice will be more along the lines of “Don’t belittle the child”, “why isolation (time outs) back fire” etc.

      One decision I made late in my parenting game was to stop yelling at my children. It’s one of those things… Nobody wants to yell, right? And yet, we get carried away, children push our buttons, we’re tired. One day, I decided to stop yelling at my children. If I am in a situation where I feel so helpless that yelling is the only thing I can do, I give-up. Like getting to school on time. We’ve been late countless times this year but being on time, while an important skill, is not worth sacrificing my relationship with my kids. I found this blog post really inspiring: http://theorangerhino.com/10-things-i-learned-when-i-stopped-yelling-at-my-kids/ Once again, it’s not a hands-on discipline tip but believe me, if you can get that under control, your relationship and your discipline will improve.

      I hope this helps! Please let me know!

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