1-2-3 Magic

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My husband and I were on a plane once ten or fifteen years ago. What made that flight memorable for me is the two obnoxious boys seated across the two aisles from us on the other side of the plane.


However, we could see and hear everything. “Mister!” they would yell for the stewardess, “We need more soda!” Over and over again, you could hear these children yelling for the stewardesses. I craned my neck to see where their parents were. Two people right behind them were ducking their heads as if to disappear from the scene. If they would have sat straight looking irritated like the rest of us we would have felt some sympathy for the children traveling without their parents. But no, they were busted by the way they were trying to disappear into the plane seats.

Parenting can be H-E-double toothpicks if you aren’t willing to discipline your children and hold them accountable. There is a fine balance to being too rigid and authoritative and too lax.

I was talking about how to discipline children with a friend and she said, “You need to read 1-2-3 Magic. So I did.

The basic premise in 1-2-3 Magic by Dr. Thomas W. Phelan, is that we, as parents, can treat our children as  little adults when we  talk and try to reason with them. They aren’t little adults. They are children that need to be trained and coached on what is acceptable behavior.  Anyone with children knows that reasoning with a tantruming toddler doesn’t work.

Our job is to help our child stop their obnoxious behavior.

The way Dr. Phelan proposes is to say “1” at the first sign of rudeness or hitting to warn them that their behavior is unacceptable. If they do it again, then a “2”—even some time later– and the third time you say, “That’s  3, take 5”. And they go to their room for 5 minutes.

The secret sauce to this method is you don’t talk to them at all. You just count. Dr. Phelan says  sometimes we talk our kids to death and I agree. He talks about this in the first video below.

My mother used a similar method on us. At the first sign of rudeness or obnoxious behavior she would say “5”. That meant we had to go to our rooms for 5 minutes. If we didn’t she would escalate the time rapidly. We would say, “But—” and she would calmly say “10”. We soon learned as teenagers that it didn’t work to argue. We learned the more we argued the more time we would get in our rooms. We knew all privileges stopped until we did that time out. I distinctly remembered a time when my aunt came to visit from out-of-town and we were having dinner at our house. I was mouth-y to my mom, and she said, “5” and I jumped up and went to my room, knowing that it was easier not to argue and I could come back quickly. My aunt couldn’t get over how fast I had jumped up to leave the room. I had finally learned it wasn’t worth it to argue with my mom.

Look at all the decision-making my 13-year-old self had to do at that moment in the above example. Did I want my food to get cold? Did I want to miss out on the interesting conversation with my aunt at the table? Did I want to get back into my mother’s good graces? I self-regulated, my mother did the minimum amount of discipline and I chose to be more mature. My mother also made it easy for me to hit the reset button.

If your toddler won’t go to their room then Dr. Phelan  proposes that you take them there and sit in the doorway with your back to them and not talk to them until the time is over. Again, once they have done their timeout you don’t lecture or punish them verbally. They have done their time. Give them a clean slate.

We had a timeout room at the house where I raised my children.  It was  the laundry room and it had been made very safe from any enraged cyclones.   I would set an egg timer for a few minutes until they had done their time. I had a push lock installed so I could lock it from the outside. That door got kicked a lot but it weathered the attacks. The timeout room  did the job of having a consequence for obnoxious behavior. The timeout room was only for the toddlers who wouldn’t stay in their rooms. And they would stay for a very short time. Older children had learned that it was better to take their timeout so they could come back and participate so they would go to their rooms on their own.

I really enjoyed the chapter in 1-2-3 Magic on how to get your kids into a sleep routine as well. Dr. Phelan really has good suggestions on how to establish routines and to stick with them.

Parenting is only worth it to me if there are firm boundaries. Enabling and giving into bad behavior seems like such  misery. (See parents hunching down in their seats, above.) Who wants to plead, argue, beg or bribe your children?  You aren’t helping your child navigate his future world when they are allowed to be obnoxious.

Here are three 3 minute videos with about different aspects of 1-2-3 Magic. I highly recommend the book!






One thought on “1-2-3 Magic

  1. Pingback: Discipline – "Peace Like A River…"

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