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/)

Warts and all


I had a moment the other morning. You know the kind? A “Mother of the Year” moment.

I’m telling you this because I used to think that mothers of large families were different. I used to think they had a special gift, a special patience, a special temperament. That they were “good with children,” whereas I wasn’t.  I used to think that mothers of large families found joy in the little aggravations of motherhood, whereas I found exasperation. I used to think that they had boundless patience and energy, whereas I ran out of both shortly after getting up in the morning.

I am now one of those mothers. I have 8 children including a pair of twins. I am expecting my 9th child in the spring of 2014. I am a member of the large family club although I expect someone to knock at my door and revoke my membership any day. Mothers of large family are inspirations. They make people think they can do it too. I don’t think anyone looks at me that way. Or maybe they look at me and think: “Yeah… let’s not and say we did.”

Mothers of large families have moments too. Moments like the other morning, when my 4 year-old woke-up just a little too early. I dragged my sorry behind to the kitchen to help her with breakfast before she could wake-up the twins. No luck: I heard one baby stir and thought that I may be able to nurse him back to sleep for another hour or two. I hurried to prepare my daughter’s bowl of cereal before the crying twin could wake-up his sister. Doing so, I inadvertently poured the milk instead of letting her do it. We’ve all done this right? Except that the difference between you and I is that you only have two children: I’ve had 17 years to learn these lessons and I still screw-up.

I am nursing one baby to the sound of a major melt down in the kitchen. She is screaming like her arm has been chewed-off by a shark. The second baby starts waking-up. I return the first baby to his bed and leave the room. Return to the kitchen and that’s when I had my “moment”. I grabbed my daughter by the arms, sat her down a little too firmly in front of her bowl of cereal and told her to stop screaming. Actually, I may have told her to shut-up. I did not threaten to tape her mouth shut with duct tape although the fleeting though may have crossed my mind. My entire day was going up in smoke: the twins up before 6 am meant that they would certainly fall asleep in the car when I left for errands at 9; the short car nap would certainly knee-cap the afternoon nap; no afternoon nap means no work in the afternoon; no afternoon nap means a hellish supper time; a hellish supper time makes everybody cranky and uncooperative. And I dumped all this squarely on my 4 year-old’s shoulders. Because yeah, she should know, right?

By now, I was back nursing my second twin back to sleep but my daughter was no longer screaming: she was wailing and sobbing for a hug. And from upstairs, stuck nursing in the dark, my heart sank. My child is only 4 and her need for affection and affirmation is gigantic. Not that my other children’s needs are less significant. But this particular child feels everything keenly. The frustration of having the milk poured for her but also her mother’s disapproval and anger. The firm arm grab, the harsh tone of voice, they just broke her apart. And now, I was at a loss to understand how after parenting so many children for so many years, I could still let a 4 year-old get the best of me.

I did give her a big hug. And I did apologize. Later that evening, as we were reading bedtime stories and cuddling in bed, I still felt the sting of failure but she didn’t seem to remember. We read about the wolf and the seven kids, naming each kid after her siblings, puzzling as always over who would be left out (all the kids are swallowed whole by the wolf so it’s a blessing really.) My little tantrum of the morning seemed all but forgotten.

In the balance of our parenting, we all hope that the happy, cozy, moments, the ones that we share around a bedtime story or a family walk in the park will outweigh the moments when we lose it. That’s why we need to love and cherish our children at every opportunity. So that on the whole, they’ll remember their childhood as a happy one, and their parents as loving. I don’t know yet how my children will remember me: a loving mom or a tired old hag with a short fuse? Maybe it will be a bit of both.

I used to parent with very clear goals and expectations in mind. I still parent with vision. But the minute expectations about my children’s table manners and church etiquette have given way to a broader vision of happiness and respect for themselves and others. If I can’t be a perfect parent, I will cover my imperfections with an extra layer of love and forgiveness. I hope that my children will remember the love over the imperfections. Warts and all.

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Action de Grâce


Par une belle journée d’automne, nous avons passé de bien beaux moments sur notre propriété en campagne. Pour l’instant, il ne s’agit que de champs et de forêts. Mais un jour, nous y construirons une maison. Si vous cliquez sur la première photo, vous pourrez toutes les voir en pleine grandeur.

If my blogging is any indication…


I would say that life gets busier as the twins hit toddlerhood. I used to have time to blog but now, I take 30 minutes to check Facebook before I go to bed and that’s the extent of my online presence. I’m not sure where time went. It seems to run through my fingers like water, one day after the next.

Here’s what a day looks like when I work. I work 3 days a week.

5:15 Wake-up. That’s an hour earlier than the children. I need the hour to wake-up before the children descend on the kitchen. Believe me, this makes me a better person. During this hour, I drink my coffee and maybe do a bit of non-demanding work like formatting my writing portfolio. Most of the time, I read the paper and check what happened on Facebook overnight.

Blogging: early in the morning or late at night
Blogging: early in the morning or late at night

6:00 My three teenagers wake-up. No, scratch that. My two oldest teenagers wake-up. Their sister sleeps through the alarm, the pots and pans, and a nuclear apocalypse.

During the weekend, I make cookie dough that I roll into logs and refrigerate, kind of like a homemade Pillsbury cookie thing. As the kids get-up, I bake cookies for their lunches. It makes them better people.

6:15 The teenagers descend on the kitchen and start making breakfast and putting their lunches together. If they are in a good mood, this can be a pleasant time. When the grocery is running low, it is very unpleasant.

6:30 I realize that the youngest of the three teenagers is missing-in-action. I send someone, usually me, to wake her up.  She looks at me with eyes wide open, she may even answer me. It doesn’t mean that she is awake.

6:45 The younger four start waking-up in no set order. This is when the fun begins. Except that it’s not always fun. I may or may not have a series of temper tantrums over this or that. I may wonder why they didn’t stay in bed, as I would if I was still tired. Mystery.

Between 6:30 and 7:20, I start harassing my teenagers to do their morning chores. They need to empty the dishwasher (so I can fill it), feed the dog (so it can go out to poop) and take the dog out to poop (so she can go in her crate for the day). This is the part where they start complaining about the unfairness of life: what, you mean that our meals are cooked, our bills are paid, and we have to empty the clean dishwasher?? What’s next? Put away the laundry that is washed for us??

If the twins are still sleeping, I have time to have a shower. If not, it will have to wait until everybody is off to school.

7:00 My spider-sense alerts me to the fact that I have not yet seen my youngest teenager. If we’re lucky, she’s up and getting dressed. If not watch-out because the bus comes in 20 minutes. She will touch down in the kitchen like a tornado and in a whirlwind of orders, barked and otherwise, will get ready to go to school. She may accusingly declare that since I made her in such a way that she doesn’t wake-up at the sound of the alarm, it is my responsibility to ensure that she is up and dressed at a reasonable time. Yeah, my kids say funny stuff like that all the time. The problem is that they believe it.

Unhappy camper, up 8 minutes before the bus.
Unhappy camper, up 8 minutes before the bus.

The twins are getting up. I nurse them and give them breakfast. Oatmeal with fruits or cold cereals with fruits and yogourt.

7:30 The first batch of children is off to school. I realize that my elementary school kids are still snoozing. Crap. I keep promising myself to get them up at 7:00.

My 4 year-old demands a “giant hug”. This means that I must sit on the couch with her for as long as her Hugness desires. It’s a pit stop for physical affection: when the tank is full, she drives away.

Giant hugs. Sometimes I sub-contract them. "You! Sit on the couch with your sister and give her a hug!"
Giant hugs. Sometimes I sub-contract them. “You! Sit on the couch with your sister and give her a hug!”

I rotate between helping the younger children with their breakfast and making 3 lunches. Our lunches consist of a main meal (sandwich, pizza made on naan bread, pasta with cheese…), a fruit, cookies, juice or water in a bottle and a snack like yogourt, apple sauce or popcorn (we have a corn popper. My neighbour wasn’t able to sell it at her garage sale 15 years ago so she gave it to me. Best money I never spent: we use it daily).

By now, the twins are done with breakfast and covered in yogourt or oatmeal. _MG_9284

Once a week, I make a giant batch of crepe batter. The older kids make their own crepes in the morning. It makes them better people.
Once a week, I make a giant batch of crepe batter. The older kids make their own crepes in the morning. It makes them better people.

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8:00 I start giving my kids the final bus countdown. “20 minutes until you walk away!” I busy myself with a game of kids-whack-a-mole: lunch! socks! uniforms! Baby in the dishwasher! Lunch! _MG_9281

8:20 I shoo my elementary school kids off to school. This usually involve a mad rush for matching shoes  and a desperate cry for “Did you sign my tests?” followed by a flurry of papers being pulled out of the bag as I am trying to push stuff into the bag. Chaos ensues.

8:21 The second batch of kids are gone. I take a deep breath and feel like a deserve a drink. I have a condescending thought for all the people who think that 8:30 am is early. Normally, I should be getting in the car to go to work. More likely though, I am still un-showered and in my pjs. My husband comes out of his home office and asks: “Aren’t you going to work?” I reply: “Of course I am, why are you asking?”

8:30 Showered, sort of dressed, hair…. bah. Whatever. I look for my daughter’s socks. I pick the first two. They never match. One day, I gave her matching socks and she laughed. She doesn’t even know that socks come in matching pairs, this child of the Hand-Me-Downs. Manage expectations People, this will keep you sane. I look at what my daughter is wearing. It usually involves layers, textures and patterns. Lots of patterns. I tell my husband that the Montessori teachers must appreciate the fact that she dresses entirely on her own. He doubts it. IMG_2783

8:40 The “You’re late” school bus drives by my house. That’s the bus I’m never supposed to see because I’m supposed to be long gone, driving my daughter to preschool. We get in the van and drive away.

8:50 Drop-off at preschool.

9:30 I get to work. I write correspondence for a federal Member of Parliament. What this means is that when people write to their MP, I answer. My boss reads my replies and edits them as needed. I can tell how his week is going by the amount of edits. He can probably do the same. I work 3 days a week. On the days I am not at work, I would be going for a run with the twins and my dog.

2:30 I get off work, pick-up a few food items on my way to preschool, pick-up my daughter and possibly other people too. There is a graph that explains when and where I am to pick up which child on any given day. It was trained into me. “This is not a drill, soldier. This is a live project. You’re a go.” (Except that Matt Damon  is not in the van with me).

4:00 I get home with my daughter. The teens are already home. The twins are crazy cranky and initiate the whole whine-and-cheese fest for mom. I nurse one while the other has a complete meltdown. I nurse the other. If I am lucky, I still have some frozen meals prepared. If not, I have to make supper while my three younger children compete to see who can drive mom nuts the fastest to the most spectacular effect. I play a game of kids-whack-a-mole involving serving 4 different snacks while trying to keep the twins from doing what twins do best: induce chaos. With one hand, I make supper while keeping the kids from raiding the fridge with the other hand, and closing the cupboard doors with the other hand, while retrieving the hand-mixer with the other hand, while getting a twin out of the (stored) deep-fryer with the other hand, while grabbing a juice bottle just before the other twin pours it on his face with the other hand. Twin whack-a-mole is a fun game except that my sense of humour is deficient.

I usually end-up with a cranky kid on my back. IMG_2776

5:15 I fix myself a double cappuccino. For the second half of the day.

5:30 or 6:30 We eat. And by “eat” I mean that I stuff my face with one hand while feeding the twins with the other. My husband and teenagers are trying to have an intelligent conversation about world events while the younger children exercise their right to free expression. My husband tries to tell me something. It usually ends with “….nevermind, I’ll tell you in 25 years.”

6:30 The twins have their baths and get ready for bed. I get the 4 younger children cleaned and ready for bed while my husband cleans the kitchen. On any given day, there is a waltz of activities and teens comings-and-goings. By 7:00 pm, the twins are down and we get bedtime routines started for the next 2. My husband and 7 year-old son are reading The Chronicles of Narnia together. I go lie down with my 4 year-old until she settles enough to fall asleep. This may require a few stories and more songs. I may go a little nuts as I sit there with her, mentally running through my to-do list like an endless reel.

8:30 By now, the four youngest children are asleep for sure. We cycle laundry, finish cleaning the kitchen. My husband and I often go for coffee or ice cream in the evening if the house is somewhat under control. Or we may go on a grocery date. I know, so hot!

10:00 pm Ideally, we would go to bed now. In reality, we can still be found chatting with our teenagers or wasting time watching a movie (him) or checking social media (me). This is when, in theory, I would be blogging but I’m not.

11:00 pm One of the twins wakes-up. Usually Lucas. I nurse him back to sleep for the night and go to bed.

3:00-4:00 am The other twin wakes-up.  I nurse her back to sleep. Return to bed. Find the 4 year-old curled-up in my place. Return her back to her bed (located right at the foot of mine, it’s a short push and a shove).

5:15 am The next day….

Reflection: A face-to-face with Facebook


During my maternity leave, I plugged into several parenting groups on Facebook. I joined groups I eventually left and others I quickly forgot.  Over the year, I reached-out of my close-friends-and-family circle and connected with acquaintances and like-minded parents. Some Facebook friends became acquaintances, others became friends. I even have a Facebook friend who was accidentally friended by my toddler.

I use Facebook as a platform for connecting with people I know.  I generally hope that Facebook doesn’t replace real-life interactions although I am lucid enough to know that it has. I was never great with birthdays and now I am positively dreadful. On the other hand, Facebook has allowed me to stay in contact with people I would not otherwise know anymore. Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s not: there is a natural wisdom in the ebb and flow of adult friendships and acquaintances. There are many people on my Facebook page with whom I would never discuss faith, politics or philosophy; and yet I am treated to a steady diet of their best and brightest online — which rarely is either.

Continue reading “Reflection: A face-to-face with Facebook”