The 1-2-3 Magic Method for Disciplining Your Children

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "1-2-3 Magic" by Thomas W. Phelan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How should you help kids redirect their behavior? How should children’s chores change as they get older? What are the benefits of sympathetic listening?

The 1-2-3 Magic Method distills discipline into two tasks—stopping unwanted behavior and initiating productive behavior. This gives you more time and energy to cultivate a warm and loving relationship with your child.

Read on to learn how Thomas W. Phelan’s 1-2-3 Magic Method might work for your family.

Part 1

The first part of the 1-2-3 Magic Method entails a counting strategy both to control your response to your kids’ behavior and to train your kids to redirect when they misbehave. Here’s how it works:

When kids start to misbehave, you say, “That’s one.” Then wait five seconds. If the child stops the behavior, you move on. However, if the behavior continues, the counting continues: “That’s two.” If the behavior continues after two strikes, your child is ‘out.’ They need to take a break for five minutes. So you say, “That’s three, take five.” ‘Take five’ represents a five-minute break where your child removes herself from the situation by going to a break area, and you both get a chance to calm down.

An important part of the counting strategy is that you remain calm and emotionless and offer no further explanations about why your child’s behavior is wrong; it’s up to them to redirect their behavior. In the best-case scenario, you stop undesirable behavior with two words, “That’s one.”

The counting method is simple. But there are several important points to remember for proper execution. Some situations call for a modification of the counting strategy.  You can also add time to the break for particularly egregious offenses.

Timing is an important consideration during the counting strategy. All of the warnings need to happen within a reasonable window of time, say 10 to 15 minutes for a four-year-old, or two hours for a 12-year-old.

The counting strategy should be predictable for children. It’s important that you introduce the counting system to kids before you start implementing it so kids know what to expect. Once you’ve committed to the counting system, consistency is key, so you should stick to it even in public or if you have company over. Additionally, the length of break time should feel consistent to children. If the child is over four years old, the break doesn’t start until any tantrums are over.

Break time can be substituted for other consequences such as the loss of a toy or privilege. However, it’s important that the intention of the consequence is to teach, not to be cruel.

If your child does end up getting to three and needs to take a break, there are a few important details to remember. A break is similar to the classic idea of a time-out, but the execution, and thus the results, are different. Taking a break is meant to serve as a chance for everyone to regroup. Parents don’t act emotionally when they send their children for a break, and kids don’t have to be isolated. Additionally, kids aren’t expected to come up with an explanation or apology while they’re taking their break, and the slate is simply wiped clean when the break is over (no more talking about the incident).

Part 2

Now that we’ve discussed a strategy for getting kids to stop unwanted behaviors, we’ll shift to the next aspect of the 1-2-3 Magic Method. It entails another common parenting battle: getting kids to do the things you need them to do.

Phelan notes that counting generally isn’t an effective strategy for getting kids to initiate tasks because the things we are asking kids to do take longer and require more sustained attention and motivation than simply stopping unwanted behavior. Therefore, he suggests routines as an effective strategy for helping kids get things done. Setting up routines may take more time and effort on your part, just as completing the task takes more effort on your child’s part. However, Phelan’s routine-building tips foster self-sufficiency and responsibility in kids so that, over time, your role in tasks diminishes or, depending on the age of the child, disappears.

Be sure to temper your expectations of toddlers and preschoolers. This age group isn’t developmentally ready to follow through on lengthy and complex tasks without support. As kids get older (perhaps in the third or fourth grade) they become more capable of doing meaningful work around the house. A good rule of thumb for how long you can expect a child to stay on task is 10 minutes for a six-year-old, with an increase of roughly 10 minutes per year thereafter.

Here are a few tools Phelan suggests to help get routines started:

  • Timers
  • Docking system—If your child has money of their own, you can use this parent-payment system to motivate kids to perform routines. If kids don’t do an important job and you need to do it for them, they need to pay you for your work.
  • Charts and other visual aids
  • Positivity—Phelan offers advice for building positivity and avoiding conflict once routines are established:
    • Phelan encourages you to aim for a ratio of three positive comments for every negative comment you make to your children.
    • Keep your directives simple and calm.
    • Embrace natural consequences.

Part 3

The third part of the 1-2-3 Magic Method is where you enjoy the results of the first two parts. Phelan explains that, when you’re able to spend less time on discipline, you’ll have more time to focus on your more enjoyable parental duty: cultivating a warm and loving relationship with your child. He says that having a deep, loving relationship with your children has two main components: being a sympathetic listener and enjoying one-on-one time with your child.

Sympathetic Listening 

Being a sympathetic listener means listening to your child with the intention of trying to see things from their point of view. As Phelan explains, your only jobs are to understand the way they experienced a situation and then to relay your understanding back to them to make sure you got it right

Sympathetic listening often begins with a simple, open-ended question or comment from you. With each comment or question, your goal is to deepen your understanding, not to teach a lesson or draw your own conclusions. As Phelan explains, there’s no place for parental judgment or opinion in sympathetic listening.

There are many benefits of sympathetic listening. One is that it can help kids process and thus let go of negative emotions. Another benefit is that it can help you avoid being an overbearing parent.

Enjoying One-on-One Time

Phelan writes that having quality one-on-one time is integral to a positive relationship with your child and benefits your child’s brain development. Therefore, it’s important to carve out time to simply enjoy each other’s company, showing your kids you not only love them—but you also like them. 

Phelan notes that it’s OK to replace some time spent as a whole family with this quality one-on-one time. While family time is also important and often enjoyable, one-on-one time allows kids to have your undivided attention, eliminating sibling rivalry and other distractions that often detract from larger-group activities.

The 1-2-3 Magic Method for Disciplining Your Children

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Here's what you'll find in our full 1-2-3 Magic summary:

  • A simple countdown approach for disciplining your child
  • How to cultivate a warm and loving relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs are ineffective and don't correct bad behavior

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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