Over the last few weeks, I have discovered something quite magical. No, not a calorie-free Kit-Kat or a diaper changing robot, even though, believe me— I HAVE LOOKED.
I have discovered numbers.
Not just any old numbers. I'm talking about the numbers 1-5.
Somehow these numbers can make my stubborn two-year-old do just about anything.
I even used my newfound numerical powers this weekend to show a thing or two to my mother, who previously had me beat in every parenting related category. (The categories include: coming up with ways to entertain a child, preparing food they will eat, and cleaning crumbs from the car, in case you were curious.)
I pulled these magical numbers out of my ass, Mazzy turned into the picture of obedience and my mother stared at me with a look that said, "I AM ASTONISHED BY YOUR GREATNESS." And I must admit, I was astonished by myself, as well.
Want to know my secret?
It all started one evening when I was trying to get Mazzy to brush her teeth before bed.
"No! I don't want to brush my teeth."
"You have to brush your teeth."
Followed by scampering all around the apartment, yelling her new favorite phrase, "Don't catch me! Don't catch me!"
And then I did something totally instinctual, with no inclination of what would happen if it didn't work.
I caught her, held her in place with both arms and said in a slow soft voice, "I'm going to count to five. After I count to five, you are going to brush to your teeth. One. Two. Three. Four. Five."
Then I let go and I KID YOU NOT, the girl beelined straight for the bathroom sink.
"What just happened?" my husband asked.
"I have no idea."
The next day I tried it again. I told Mazzy we were going out and I needed to put on her shoes.
"No! I don't want to put on my shoes!"
"You need to put on your shoes so we can go outside."
"No! I don't want to go outside!"
Scampering, "Don't catch me!", etc.
So I tried it again. I caught her, held her close and said in a slow, soft voice. "I am going to count to five. After I count to five, you are going to sit on the couch and I am going to put on your shoes. One. Two. Three. Four. Five."
Then I let go and Mazzy ran over to the couch, climbed up and awaited my shoe assistance.
WHAT WAS GOING ON????
Over the last few weeks, I have continued to press my luck. Whenever Mazzy doesn't want to cooperate, I try my magical countdown (I guess it's not technically a countdown but WHATEVER).
Each time, I think— this is the time it's not going to work. But so far, it hasn't failed me (knock on wood five hundred times).
On Sunday, I had dinner with Dr. B and I told her about my discovery.
"Yes, that's a thing. There's a whole parenting book called 1-2-3 Magic about doing that."
"What the hell do they teach in the book? How to count to five?"
"There's more to it than that."
Later I emailed Dr. B to ask why a simple countdown is so magical. Here's what she wrote back…
Countdowns are effective because they:
1. Give your child additional time to process and follow through on what you expect them to do
2. Provide clear limits on how much time your child has to follow your request
3. Are usually paired with other effective strategies such as being in close proximity to your child when you give them a direction, using a firm tone of voice, and being there to make sure they follow through.
If you always follow through on your countdown, then the countdown becomes a verbal signal that mom or dad is serious, meaning “I better listen or there will be a consequence.”
When it comes to getting children to listen, most parents make the mistake of asking their child to do something repeatedly or from across the room and don’t consistently follow through. This teaches children that they don’t have to listen until the fifth time mom asks or until mom starts to get angry.
In other words, countdowns are a way of training both the child to behave appropriately and the parent to make demands effectively. It helps children by clarifying the expectation and giving them time to comply and helps parents be more consistent in following through on consequences.
The truth is that most children don’t need the countdown and will respond within 5 seconds if you make your request in close proximity, at eye level, and wait 5 seconds for the child to comply.
In fact, one flaw of this method is that your child will probably begin to wait for you to start counting before they follow through on what you ask because this cue will become associated with consequences, while other ways you ask them to do things may not be.
To avoid this, give the warning with a consequence (e.g. "Please put that toy away or mommy will put it away for you", count to 5 in your head, and then follow through on the positive or negative consequence (e.g., either by taking the toy away as you said or by giving positive praise such as "great job listening the first time I asked").
Alright, so I still have some things to learn. And I haven't had to follow through on any consequences yet, because Mazzy has inexplicably responded positively every time I've tried the countdown.
Now, I really hope writing this post doesn't jinx myself.
For more strategies like this one, Dr. B recommends checking out 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 .
Dr. B has a PHD in school psychology and specializes in early childhood development (ages 0-5). She is also my sister. Which is why I get to take advantage of her brilliance for free.