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…