Taming the Wild Child

The 1–2–3 Magic Approach to Consistent Parenting of Young Ones

Twelve years ago, I had just accepted a job as a family support worker. I was supposed to teach life and parenting skills to families in the DCS system. I was assessing, advocating, and helping these parents work toward reunification.

Imposter syndrome set in. How could I teach people to be parents when my almost-three-year-old was running around like a wild beast and my seven year old was constantly arguing with me?

At work, our program utilized a method called 1–2–3 Magicby Thomas Phelan. It was easy to teach my clients, but it changed how I parented, too.

It was a lifesaver.

Where I was Making Mistakes

1. I Was Taking it Personally

Children are going to be children.

They have their own ideas about how things should be done.

Sometimes, they’re on automatic and they really aren’t thinking at all, and you caught them at it.

They have very low impulse control.

They have their own temperaments.

Children’s brains think differently than grown-up brains. They aren’t ready for some concepts yet

(I overuse the story about how my three-year-old son would see the freeway sign “Pasadena — 9 more exits” and have a temper tantrum EVERY. SINGLE. TIME, because that was too long. Only thing is, we were getting off at the first exit — and he couldn’t “get” that. Yes, he could read. No, I don’t recommend having that as a goal for a three-year-old).

It wasn’t about me. Sometimes, it really felt like it was.

2. I didn’t respect the journey

Discipline means “to teach.” To disciple someone means to teach them, not just punish them.

Parenting is about raising children to be adults, but it’s an eighteen year journey. Punishment — a negative consequence for an unacceptable behavior — has a role in discipline and an important one, but it is a backup tool that refocuses everyone so that teaching can happen.

As a parent, it’s my job to teach my kids various life skills including things like obedience, good habits, delayed gratification, kindness, and good judgment. How these things are lived out in different families can look very different, but raising a good adult is the goal of parenting kids.

It’s my job to establish rules and routines so that my kids do things like put away the dishes in the dishwasher in the morning (still working on that one), look out for others and focus on helping (my kids are good at this), show respect to us (generally good), have good judgment (often better than mine), and pick up their stuff (a family failing — sorry future people who marry my kids).

…and a whole host of other things.

Sometimes, I want to wave the magic wand and have my three year old become complacent and eager to please, but that’s not what three-year-olds do. They are learning how to exercise their own will and also how to express that will with passion.

That’s a skill, too — a skill that needs guided.

3. Consistency is hard

In Los Angeles in the 90’s, it was pretty trendy for parents to go to weekly parenting classes. It was an excuse to give our kids a place to be wild and play with a whole bunch of other kids while we ignored them under the guise of learning parenting hacks (only this was before “hacks” became a thing).

One time my husband asked a relative what was the main thing he got out of these classes, and he answered “When you tell them something, you’ve got to back it up — always.”

We’ve all been around that one parent who half whines at their kids “No…don’t do that,” but proceeds to ignore them while their kids continue to do “that” for the next fifteen minutes before they utter another warning that they aren’t going to follow through on…again.

Some of us, maybe even most of us, have been that parent from time to time.

Kids learn that if Mom and Dad are in a good mood, the levels of what they will tolerate are different than if they are in a bad mood or in a tired mood or busy. But they are still too young to interpret those moods, and that’s not fair to them. Rules are rules.

They like knowing what to expect, and if they don’t know what to expect, they make it a habit to push boundaries, and they rather resent it when those boundaries are in different places all the time.

Kids like consistency. Adults — not always.

If we are consistent, the kids learn where those boundaries are, and they get used to that, and life gets easier.

What is 1–2–3 Magic?

The author will tell you that it is a wild animal training method. Wild animals need consistency to be tamed and you don’t argue with them or talk to them a lot while doing it. However, don’t worry, there are no cages involved or electric cattle prods.

1–2–3 Magic is a counting program that utilizes time outs.

Been there, done that, right? Just wait. This is different. I promise.

First I am going to go through the method, and then I will address the typical questions and protests, so just read with an open mind.

It goes like this:

  1. Sit down with them and explain the rules. And here are the rules.

— When a child does something wrong, you say “That’s one.” No long-winded explanations, no “see, you did this and I counted you, you should have done this.” Nope. “That’s one.” Hold one finger up for emphasis. Stop there.

— If, in the course of the next fifteen minutes or so, they do something else, it doesn’t even have to be the same thing, you say “That’s two.” Again, no explanations. I guarantee, they are smarter than you give them credit for. If they don’t already know, they can figure it out.

— If they argue about it, that’s countable. If you’ve just said “That’s one” then you say, “That’s two.” If you just said “That’s two” then if they argue, you say “That’s three.” You got it.

— When in the course of those fifteen minutes you end up saying, “That’s three,” you follow it with the words “Time out.” You lead them to their room or another quiet place where they don’t get a lot of motion and stuff to do, and you give them a time out.

The length of the time out is 1 minute per year of life — if they are three years old, they get three minutes, if they are ten years old, they get ten minutes.

— When the time out is over, it’s as if it never happened. You know your kids. If they want to ignore it, move on. If they need a hug, give them a hug.

Questions/Objections

  1. What if my son is hitting my daughter (or my daughter is hitting my son?) I don’t want to give 3 chances! That’s not right. Good point. There are some things that are an instant “Three — time out.” If someone is making someone else not safe, then it’s an instant time out.
  2. What age should I start this? A toddler is too young and most toddler issues really are just impulse control and getting tired. When your child is approaching age three, she might be ready for it. Twelve is probably the outer limits for this system.
  3. What if my kid has a temper tantrum in his room? My daughter did that. She liked her drama. The rule is “time out starts when you can be quiet.” Now, she was only three-years-old. She had to be quiet for three minutes. But a time out hit her hard, and so for a little while, she would bawl. But she also was used to my not doing anything until I was really mad at her, so she had to learn that things were still okay. She eventually stopped crying and I made sure it was a quick three minutes, and then we read a book or something so she knew I wasn’t still mad. If you have a more destructive kid you might need to secure the environment so that everyone is safe and your stuff doesn’t get destroyed. The book has recommendations for situations like that.

I think kids should learn to listen the first time. I agree. But that’s a skill that they need to learn. It takes a while for them to learn the impulse control to stop what they are doing right away and change course.

Counting isn’t you neglecting them, it’s giving them a chance to think and to learn to put on the brakes.

Over time, they get better at that, and a “That’s one” is all that is needed — IF you consistently follow through and teach them that you mean it on “that’s three.”

My kids were seven and three when I started this. By the time they were nine and five, I wasn’t counting anymore…at all. Somewhere along the way…”that’s one” became enough, and not long after that, all I had to do was give a look or tell them what I expected.

My kids are 21 and 15 now and while I don’t attribute it entirely to “1–2–3 Magic,” I know it helped give us the good, low-conflict relationships we have now. We haven’t spent the last twelve years testing limits and arguing with each other. And I’m not so sure that it was what 1–2–3 Magic taught them as much as what it taught me.

5. What about public places? Those can be more of a challenge, and while you’re family is learning to do this, you need to have a strategy. Can you go out to the car? Can you just stand on the sidewalk outside the store with them for the time-out period? With older kids, you could probably say “Time-out when we get home,” once they know the drill.

After a couple of months, when I was at church with my daughter, I could hold up three fingers, point to a wall she could stand at in the hallway where she could see me and I could see her. After three minutes, I waved her back to our pew. That was after a few months of walking to that spot and standing with her for her time out.

6. What about spanking? I’m not completely anti-spanking, but after starting 1–2–3 Magic, I had no need for it — and who really LIKES to spank?

I am very much against taking out your anger on your kids’ backside, but I don’t think the occasional pat on the rear is going to scar a child. Even a gentle pat can leave an impression, especially in a serious situation like running out in traffic.

No method works without consistency, and the more consistent and fair a consequence is, the better it works. In most cases, spanking a child doesn’t result in a scarred child, but it also doesn’t end up working the way people think say it should because no parent in their right mind likes to do it.

7. I want them to learn to think for themselves and express themselves. I get you. That’s a priority for me, too. But kids can get into the habit of arguing over everything because they just might win — or exhaust the parent. My son was great at that and it drove me up the wall.

Stopping that process meant that he learned when it was worth it and when it wasn’t. I was ready to listen once that habit was broken, too. I probably issued a time-out unjustly a few times. But in those cases, it was only 7 minutes of his life “lost” instead of long bouts of frustration, hurt feelings, and emotional exhaustion.

Learning when to argue is a skill, too.

Over time, they get better at how they respond, and a “That’s one” is all that is needed IF you consistently follow through and teach them that you mean it on “three.”

Why This Worked

I could follow this method without getting angry. It was so frustrating to constantly have my limits tested, to be argued against, and to have those behaviors magnified when I was already having a bad day.

1–2–3 Magic takes the anger out of it, and if all I have to say is “That’s one,” then I know how the process goes after that. I don’t have to get angry.

Because lecturing, arguing, and explaining stopped, it put the onus on the kids to figure out how to correct bad behaviors. And they did.

I could enjoy the journey again. Once “that’s one” was implemented, I knew what was coming next should I need to use it, or I could enjoy that things were calming down. My kids didn’t test limits as much, and so I enjoyed being with them more and teaching them the things they needed for life.

Somewhere along the line, I just stopped counting them. I didn’t need it anymore. It took a while to notice it had stopped. As they were relating to me in a more grown-up way, we left it behind.

I could be consistent. Once we got through the period of learning what to do and testing these new boundaries, it didn’t take much thought on my part to follow this through.

I did have to recognize some behaviors were just them being kids, and to figure out on my own what was okay in our family.

Even when I was tired or cranky, I could follow the method. It also protected them from unreasonable limits and reactions when I was in a bad mood.

1–2–3 Magic was simple enough that it didn’t ruin my good moods, either.

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If you’re struggling with boundaries and your kids, I heartily recommend taking a look at this book or seeing if your library has the video. 1–2–3 Magic helped give a discipline framework to my clients, but more than that, it helped me enjoy being a mom to young kids again.

Have you had any experience with 1–2–3 Magic or anything similar? I’d love to hear about your experience. Share your thoughts below in the comments.

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