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.
Guess who’ll be trying this method?
I like it! I’m trying it now before my 2 year old drives me insane with her negotiating and stalling and “I don’t want to”s.
We bought that visual countdown timer from your earlier post and it changed our lives !!!
I use the method except I start with 5 then go to 1. Another parent gave me that advice and it works like a charm. It lends a sense of urgency without overwhelming my kids and it gives them time to process the request. I am not constantly telling them what to do.
1-2-3 magic, another parenting trend?! I can’t keep up. But you did it so naturally, so good for you! YOU ARE AMAZING! My husband hates when I count down. He says it’s like prison. What the heck is he talking about?! Anyways, I love B’s advice to be in close proximity, try to eliminate the outloud-countdown, and follow-thru.
It worked with my oldest – and to this day if I want to cut a convo short I can say, Chelsea, 1 …
(she is 14)
My youngest would continue counting to ten, shout hooray and run away 😉
That’s funny — I was doing something similar this week. I used to be able to get Rebecca to do most anything by saying “Are you going to do X or am I going to do it for you?” and she’d go “MYSELF!” and run and do it.
That stopped working when she realized she could insert option 3 — throw herself on the floor and whine.
But i’ve started counting… and she has been doing it! Just this morning, it was time to go downstairs and get our shoes on, and she threw herself on the floor of her room. I left to throw away her diaper, etc… she came out into the hallway where I could see her, threw herself on the floor again (e.g. “Mommy, look at me NOT doing what you told me to do”). Then I started counting, and she got up and ran to the stairs… I don’t really get it to be honest… maybe I should read that book 🙂
I’m a 1-2-3 Magic fan, though I find I have to flex their rules. (They say if you get to saying ‘three’ then it’s too late. My kids need to hear that three to know time is up.) Maybe I should try five. Mine are on the spectrum and they might just need the extra processing time
I’m always surprised that just the threat of counting will usually work with Ella. It just freaks her out to hear me count!
I do that with Danielle, but I do it in a different language each time and I only have to count to trois.
I have been doing the counting to three thing for a while, I think I remember it from being little myself. My method is for 1 2 3 to be the opportunity for Bebe to comply on her own, if I get to 3 I will ‘make’ her do whatever. For example, ‘please go sit at the table. 1 … 2 … thank you for sitting at the table!’ If I got to 3 I would physically carry her to her chair.
One key is to not do the counting for things you can’t enforce. Like no ‘eat your sandwich 1 .. 2 .. 3’
I wish I knew about that technique when you were growing up
This also works great in my classroom. I start at 10 though for a whole class and I’ve only had to follow through ONCE in EIGHT YEARS on a consequence when I reached zero. I’ve always wondered what they really think will happen if I get to zero… 🙂 When my kiddo gets a little bigger, I will use it on him too!
Isn’t the Time Timer amazing? We use it mainly in limiting TV and iPad time but it works in almost every situation- leading up to bedtime or dinner for example. As soon as the bell rings, Mazzy yells, “The time is over!” and hands me the iPad herself.
Here’s the link to the post about it if anybody is interested: https://www.mommyshorts.com/2012/03/time-timer-useful-toddler-tool.html
I find the countdown works when you are already in the midst of the moment.
1-2-3 parenting is nothing new. Grandma used it on her kids in the 40’s and 50’s, and mom used on my brother and I in the 70’s and 80’s. I have been using it for 27 years myself. I find it extremely useful in public areas where kids can, and will, go into full tantrum mode.
I never heard of this so thanks. I’ll keeping it for reference to use when my kids are older!
The Or Method works too …as in “do you want me to carry you to your crib OR do you want to walk?” he always says “WALK!”
Not a new trend! That’s what my parents would do. They’d count to 3, but then it back fired when we inserted a 2 1/2! I clearly remember saying one day after Mom or Dad had started at 1, “Hmm, you still have 2 more to go,” and didn’t budge. Not sure what I’ll do when my angels do that. Probably be just as stunned as my parents were. I do the 1-2-3 countdown and I have to confess that I rarely know what I’ll do if she makes me get to 3. But it does work. I have also told her that I’m going to count to 20 and she needs to be dressed by the time I get to 20. I’ll go do stuff and be counting out loud and she always tries to beat me. she’s competitive and turns it into a race. I have to remember to use these proven methods and not lose it. maybe she needs to count to 3 for mommy to calm down.
I remember buying my sister (who was a terrible parent) and my mum (parent to an as yet undiagnosed autistic child) the book 1-2-3 Magic. My mum used it to great effect. I think my sister used the book to beat her children. Both methods work.
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