An overview of the 1-2-3 Magic approach to disciplining your kids. Actually, it's more about disciplining yourself to be predictable, which results in better behavior from the kids.

How the 1-2-3 Magic Approach Supports Parental Consistency

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Categories Books, Discipline, Parenting, Preschoolers, School-Age, Toddlers

I’m a huge believer in parental consistency. When the parent is consistent, it gives each child a feeling of security. In a world in which they have little power and even less context, they can trust that their parents will always follow through on what they say and can be relied on implicitly. By demonstrating self control, we teach them lessons that will last their whole lives. Yes, I know. It doesn’t much seem like they’re learning any self control at all at ages 2 and 3, but they are.

The challenge is that consistency is hard. Being sleep-deprived and pulled in eleven directions at once as a new parent makes it even harder. 1-2-3 Magic is a book by Thomas W. Phelan that provides parents with a practical approach to achieving consistency.

An overview of the 1-2-3 Magic approach to disciplining your kids. Actually, it's more about disciplining yourself to be predictable, which results in better behavior from the kids.

MandyE wrote a review of 1-2-3 Magic that is a good counterpoint to the summary I provide below.

I have to confess that I came to the book late, when my kids were at the tail end of the Terrible Awful Horrible Threes.  What I discovered was that I’d been practicing its tenets already. I had a leg up, though. My baby sister is 10.5 years my junior so got some parental practice as a pre-teen and teen. I also spent a lot of time in therapy before getting pregnant talking through exactly how I wanted to parent, in my attempt to break harmful family patterns. As my former husband put it, 1-2-3 Magic is just a matter of common sense, but it’s common sense spelled out with practical steps for application.

Premise

The basic premise of 1-2-3 Magic is that structure can help parents achieve consistency.

Phelan’s approach also assumes something that child psychologists know well: the ultimate reward any child seeks is attention. If a kiddo gets attention from her parent for bad behaviour, then she’ll continue it. If you withdraw attention for bad and give attention for good, you’ll quickly retrain his expectations.

That’s where time out comes in. Time out is simply the withdrawal of parental attention. It doesn’t have to have special chair, unless that’s what works for you. It certainly doesn’t involve talking or eye contact.

Goal

So, what is consistency? It boils down to two things:

  1. Parents do what we say.
  2. Parents are predictable.

Technique

The 1-2-3 Magic approach is a combination of counting and time out.

First, you set expectations. Tell your children that you are going to count 1, 2, 3 if they’re naughty. At 3, they’ll go to time out. Don’t worry if they don’t understand. They’ll pick it up.

When they do something against the rules, say 1. The next time they do something inappropriate, or if they don’t stop the original behaviour, say 2. At the next infraction, you say 3 and put them in time out.

If they come out of time out, don’t make eye contact. Don’t try to reason with them. Just gently pick them up and place them back in time out. The total time for time out should be one minute per year of age for neurotypical children.

When the time out is over, don’t try to reason with them or tell them what they did wrong. You can go over basic rules at a point when they’re not already upset. Don’t go back over examples of early indiscretions. They’ve already paid for the rule they broke, and listening to a lecture is a second punishment that accomplishes very little.

I’d recommend waiting a few hours, maybe until the next day.

My personal approach — I can’t remember if this is in the book — is to talk about rules when we’re happy and having a good time together. I don’t even bother trying to reason with the kids when they’re upset. I just say to my 9-year-olds, “I love you, but we can’t have a discussion like this. When you feel calm, we can talk if you want to.” What cracks me up is that my girls now use that on each other!

If you stick with the 1-2-3 Magic approach, your kids will know that you’re serious. Don’t let them get away with someone one day and punish them the next (except the day you start implementing 1-2-3 Magic). It gives them a feeling of safety to know what the rules are, and this is far more effective than talking it through. Yes, there’ll be a lot of screaming at first, but they’ll figure out you’re serious.

Personal Example

An overview of the 1-2-3 Magic approach to disciplining your kids. Actually, it's more about disciplining yourself to be predictable, which results in better behavior from the kids.

I haven’t had to count past 1 with my girls in at least 3 years. Seriously. I don’t think they have any idea what would happen if I got to 3. I don’t even know what would happen. My daughters are 9 and are generally reasonable human beings. But when they hear me say, “One,” in an I-am-not-messing-around tone, they straighten right up.

An even better example of effective use of the 1-2-3 Magic philosophy occurred with my nephew. By the time he was two years old, he hadn’t had consistent nutrition, much less consistent discipline. I had to go to London to take care of him for a week while his custody was being determined.

It took 6 hours for him to figure out the system. Six hours.

Sure, I had to pick him up and place him on the chair I designated for timeout 26 times the first time, but he got it. I just picked him up and placed him in a chair, saying the word “time out”. I avoided eye contact. Every time he slipped out of the chair, I gently picked him up and placed back on it. When the fifth time out came around, he didn’t try to escape. He sat there, crying, for 120 seconds. When the time was up, I picked up him up, hugged him, and told him that I loved him. We returned to playing with cars.

At the end of the week, when he saw his mom, he begged to stay with me (which broke my heart, because I couldn’t bring him to the US to live with me because of immigration laws). He didn’t see me as Mean Auntie. He knew that I was predictable, and that predictability made him feel safe.

If you want a much more well written explanation of the whole thing, buy the book. It’s a very quick read.

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Sadia

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 10-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. They live in the Austin, TX suburbs, where Sadia works full time in information technology. She contributes to a number of parenting websites and magazines and also runs The Mommy Blogging Guide, where she answers mommy bloggers' technical questions.

44 thoughts on “How the 1-2-3 Magic Approach Supports Parental Consistency”

  1. I’ve been doing this with my 2.9 year old twin boys for at least 6 months and it works wonders. When I say “one,” they scramble to comply. They know I mean business but they’re not afraid. My mom did this with me and my siblings too, and I swear if she started counting now, I would hop to!

    I have one question though…sometimes (yes, this is inconsistent, which is why I ask) I’ll give a different consequence than a time out. For instance, if a child is banging a spoon on the table and doesn’t stop at a warning, I’ll take the spoon away. Is this sending a confusing message though?

    Also, are some infractions automatic time outs? Like smashing someone’s carefully crafted Lego house (which is pretty devastating around here)?

    1. Rebecca, to answer your second question first, yes, some infractions merit an immediate 3. Lego house smashery definitely qualifies! As far as whether a consequence other than timeout is sometimes appropriate, my personal opinion is YES! If there’s a natural or logical consequence, use that. The time out is a great default solution for a situation where an obvious consequence doesn’t rise up. Also, as kids get older, time outs become less effective. For instance, my 9-year-olds will occasionally be docked part or all of their weekly allowance for behaviour they know is unacceptable. As I’ve explained it to them, their allowance is the salary they earn for doing what they should. Mistakes don’t cost them monetarily, but active decisions to do the wrong thing sometimes do.

  2. Thankyou for sharing, great review. We have always strived for concistency however have moved away from ‘time out’ in favour of ‘time in’ We have found that whilst consequences need to been predictable and meaningful, isolating our children sends a message out of kilter with our other parenting practices. #TwinklyTuesday
    Claire recently posted Summer Snail Mail ProjectMy Profile

  3. Consistency is key, my children have never been smacked and rarely do I need to raise my voice and if I do it’s usually because I’ve had a bad day and that’s on me. They know the rules because I have set them up from the get go, it is so important to follow through with consequences (so make them reasonable). Great Post #Twinkly Tuesday

  4. I have been wondering when a ‘time out’ can be introduced, Arthur has just turned two and it sounds like things could work now!! I’ll probably wait until baby arrives now though as his world is already about to change so much, seems crazy to try and throw something else in there now as well!
    Seychellesmama recently posted Getting organised for baby 2My Profile

  5. My son is 13m old and I know as he gets older I’m going to have to start with some discipline. I already plan to use the “time out” but this 1-2-3 strategy sounds great and I’ll definitely be trying it! Thanks for hosting #twinkletuesdays

  6. We have the naughty step in full swing here and it works a treat cause she hates it and learns her lesson every time but I find myself throwing empty threats for pure laziness.
    The baby on the other hand is way to young to introduce any type of discipline except from an ah-ah or no. I do believe consistency in the key to a good routine and discipline.
    Great read, thanks for sharing and hosting!
    Kellie Kearney recently posted Pregnancy Update : Week 35My Profile

  7. Totally agree with the idea behind this book…consistency is the key. S loves routine and consistency and I find if we have a good routine going for certain things then his behaviour is generally better. Although I don’t tend to use time out (only because I haven’t gotten to counting to 3 yet), it’s something I will consider as he gets older. #TwinklyTuesday
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  8. This made me have a little guilty cry as I have been far from consistent of late. Tired mummy must try harder! Good reminders. #twinklytuesday

    1. Oh Helen. I’m sorry you’re having a rough time. I have a little date with myself every few months to see where I’ve been letting myself slip so I can gear up to be the best Mum I can be. Take a moment. Forgive yourself. Move on. Hugs from Texas!

  9. This post is a good reminder. It made me have a little guilty cry as overtired mummy hasn’t been very consistent this week at all. A good nudge I. The right direction. Xxx #twinklytuesdays
    Helen recently posted Hello world!My Profile

  10. I cannot agree more on consistency – that and routine is something my children crave. It isn’t always easy but I really try to always be consistent in my approach to eating, bedtime, getting ready – they know what to expect and when and in the long run it makes life much easier :) Mim x #twinklytuesday
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  11. This is interesting. We do time out with toddler and it has always worked so far. Don’t count to 3 though. Agree that children need consistency, and giving bad behaviour attention should be avoided. #twinklytuesday
    Silly Mummy recently posted In Search of PicnicMy Profile

  12. Such a great post and I totally agree with you. Consistency is definitely key and making sure we follow through with what we say. All children need rules and boundaries and generally respond well to them. It will really help them settle into school too. I like the idea of the 1-2-3. Thanks for sharing and hosting #TwinklyTuesday

  13. I think this is so important. My little girl is only 13 months so I think its a bit soon to introduce this yet, but some days I really wish I could. I find it impossible for her to understand that chucking food all over the floor at meal times is not acceptable. I think she is probably too young, but I can’t wait until I can teach her this and save my floor and my sanity! #twinklytuesday
    Lucy @ bottlefor2 recently posted Lucy Loves #7: Holidays, Weddings & WineMy Profile

    1. Lucy, for our family, timeout was effective right around the first birthday. However, my girls were VERY early talkers, so I knew that they understood. Even if you can’t start timeout yet, you can establish consistency. For instance, there’s the very natural withdrawal of your attention that comes from having the clean up the mess once she’s done! My favourite example was M, around 18 months telling me, “No no brush teeth. My go timeout.” Well then! I suppose she knew her options!

  14. This book really does work. We used it on our’s from about the age of 2 and a half and really helped us through some sticky patches. You’re right: children thrive on consistency and fairness. Following the pattern in the book helps you do this. Now my two are order we very rarely get to 3. We were never die-hard followers – but we applied it as much as we could and it worked for us. #TwinklyTuesday

    1. Megan – my girls are 9, and honestly, I think we’ve outgrown the specifics of 1-2-3 Magic. The platform of consistency that we’ve set, though, I hope to maintain throughout my lifetime. Consequences are far more directly associated with the infraction these days. Do I still count? Rarely and the girls KNOW that they’re being perceived as acting immaturely if I do. Sending a child to stare at a wall for 9 minutes doesn’t make much sense in our home. Instead, a child will lose a privilege related to the poor choice she made, whether it’s being trusted unmonitored with paper scissors or the cancellation of a planned playdate.

  15. Your other half is right, it is common sense but it helps to hear it from experts. I’ve always wanted to be consistent with my children after seeing the damage it can do when children don’t know where they stand. Thanks for outlining this technique. I’ve been doing most of it with my eldest but it’s handy to get a reminder of how this type of approach works #twinklytuesday
    Claire at Tin Box Traveller recently posted My blog makeover on a budgetMy Profile

  16. I totally agree with predictability & children thriving with positive attention. I could never get into counting though, it’s just not for me. Thank you so much for hosting #TwinklyTuesday x

  17. I have started to do this with my 26 month old daughter and it does help. But I do need to be more consistent with it. It is so hard to know what to do when they do something that is bad or dangerous. This seems to be a brilliant technique to help the children learn the difference between right and wrong without harsh punishments or discipline. I am in favour. Thanks for sharing this review and thanks for hosting #TwinklyTuesday. Hugs Mrs H xxxx
    Mrs H recently posted UncertaintyMy Profile

  18. This sounds like a book I need in my life. I’ll admit that consistency is not mine or my husbands strong points and we’ve suffered the consequences of this. I am however, getting better and I really try to focus the time on trying to be consistent and seeing things through. I’m always in a rush, but I’m more aware now that I need to slow down and put the time in to make this happen. I enjoyed reading your post and has given me further motivation! :) #TwinklyTuesday
    Michelle Bailey (A Family Chatter) recently posted Walking boots designed for children in mind – Giz Gaz Kids Walking Boots – A REVIEWMy Profile

  19. Very interesting. We don’t implement ‘time out’ as such, although we do ‘removal from the situation’ if needs be but always with warning and always with us. I suppose that is a form of time out! I completely agree that consistency is key and so worth remembering. I really love the point that predictability is safe. That’s lovely. #twinklytuesday
    Lucy at occupation: (m)other recently posted Sleep regressions and meMy Profile

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