Parenting pointers: “1-2-3 Magic”

Parenting: n. the raising of a child by its parents

Pointer: n. helpful information, tip

I’m visiting my daughter’s family in California this week and having a blast hanging out with my two grandsons, Alexander – 7, and Elliott – 4.

The boys have always been adorable, brilliant, charming, of course – whose grandkids aren’t? – but there was a time when their behavior was less than delightful. Each had their own particular way of expressing displeasure with reality. Alexander’s specialty was extended whining and wailing; Elliott’s was throwing things and biting plus very loud crying.

Heather responded to these bad behaviors just the way I responded to hers and her brothers when they were little (though she is much more patient than I was). She tried to use reason

She would explain patiently why it was a bad idea to climb on the table, or toss food onto the floor. In a calm soothing voice she would say such things as, “I hear that you really want another piece of candy, but it’s bad for your teeth.” Or, “I know you really want to play with that truck, but it belongs to Sammy and he isn’t ready to share right now.”

Trouble is that when rage takes over these little bodies, reason only infuriates them and the parent either caves in, figures out an intriguing diversion or throttles the kid. In Heather’s case, she could maintain her outward cool for an admirably long time before caving or finding a rabbit to pull from a hat. (Throttling was the option I frequently considered in my parenting days…)

Meanwhile the kid has calculated that if he keeps up the shit-fit for 4 more minutes, something better will happen.

If my son-in-law was around, he would try to help out, by further exercises in sympathetic reasoning. Needless to say, this only fueled the flames.

A couple of years ago everything changed. The pediatrician recommended a book called 1-2-3 Magic, by Thomas Whelan.  As I understand it, the technique does away with the reasoning and the rage.

In a nutshell (but read the book, don’t take it from me) the first time the kid does the unwanted behavior, the rule is explained: “Biting is not allowed. This is your first warning.”

The kid attempts another bite. “No! If you do that one more time I’ll put you in your room.”

He tries again. “That’s THREE.” and you swoop the kid up (no yelling, no reasoning) and put him in his room (or crib) for as many minutes as the kid is years old.

Because the kid knows perfectly well what’s acceptable behavior, you can very soon skip to simply warning: “That’s ONE!”

It really is magical.  It saves so much emotional energy for the parent – no anger, no need to act patient – just swift action like gravity if the behavior continues past the first warning.

Amazingly the behavior usually just stops at “That’s ONE.”  And if the count gets up to THREE and bedroom banishment happens, the little dear usually emerges a few minutes later all sunshine, apparently forgetting any upset.

After a couple of months of consistent application of the 1-2-3 Magic rules by my daughter and her husband, everyone in the house was calmer and happier, young un’s included. Meltdowns still occur when the boys are tired, but they are usually brief, and because the child is removed to his room, his behavior doesn’t infect the rest of the family.

Man oh man, I wish I’d had this knowledge when I was a young parent.

9 responses to “Parenting pointers: “1-2-3 Magic”

  1. Are there variants of this suggested for times when the bedroom/crib isn’t handy? Such as in the car or grocery store?

  2. Good question, Susan. As I’ve not read the book, and only witnessed its results at my daughter’s house, I don’t know.

    I’d want to read that chapter before I ventured out to the store where some of the worst behavior can be observed every day. (And some of the worst parenting responses…).

    Parents need all the help they can get!

  3. When I and my brothers were growing up, in the 50s and 60s, I heard many times my parents count “1…., 2…” I don’t believe they ever would have thought of it as magic. Rather, it was discipline.

    Over time, discipline became a dirty word in child rearing. It was replaced by the egalitarian notion that children are the parents’ equal and should be treated as such.

    By discipline I don’t mean cruelty or an arbitrary demand for respect and submission by the parent. These are extremes to be avoided just as all extremes should be.

    I think the past 50 years of child rearing has been a disaster given the pervasive lack of respect and civility so many people show one another. It begins with how a parent treats a child and how a parent lets a child treat them.

    I once overheard my daughter’s 15-year-old friend chew out her mother for not returning her library book as she (the daughter) had instructed.

    The basic guide a young parent has is that of his or her parents – which will vary from one extreme to another. Those guides are influenced strongly by societal forces imposed by people like Dr. Spock, James Dobson, and Thomas Whelan with his “1-2-3 Magic.”

    Being a (good) parent is the most difficult and challenging enterprise a person can go though. All we can do is try to do the best we can with the resources we have. Unfortunately, sometimes those resources aren’t very good.

  4. Paul – you’re right. In the old days, a parent just laid down the rule, and then 1-2-3 you obeyed or paid the consequences. Some time in the ’70’s, parents began trying to reason with their little ones, as if they understood on an adult level.

    This technique is a return to common sense ways of dealing with young kids whose emotions have taken over.

    What I think is different is that it also removes parental rage from the equation – which can be so damaging to the child, and parent as well.
    No yelling, no swatting, just “1-2-3 and into your room”.

  5. All of which reminds me of the story about the Mail Order Bride, her Farmer Husband and the Mule.
    After picking up his bride from the train station they boarded his wagon to go home to his ranch. The mule balked and the farmer hit him between the eyes with a stick. “That’s, once.” said the farmer. The second time the mule balked the farmer hit him between they eyes with a two-by-four which staggered the mule. “That’s twice” said the farmer. The third time the mule balked the farmer knocked him dead.
    “What did you do that for?” says the bride.
    “That’s once.” says the farmer.
    Life was tough in the Old West.

  6. Sorry, but that last story needs to be buried deep and never dug up again. It’s so very much not the same as the ‘1-2-3 in to your room you go’; and so very much misogynistic and abusive.

  7. Oh Susan/Mary… that story is so old – my ex used to tell it (or start it anyway) when I did something he didn’t like. He thought it was hilarious, which may explain why we’re no longer together. I’ve gone numb to its cruelty.

  8. My parents used it with me and I with my teenager.

    It still works as I never get past ‘one’ even though he’s fifteen.

  9. Welcome back June! I’m going over to see what you’re up to.