Motivate Your Child Without Counting “1-2-3”

Editor’s Note: I’ve been a parent for 18 years. And I’m STILL learning! So as a fan, supporter, and subscriber to Amy McCready’s Positive Parenting Course, I was happy to get a gem of an email from her last week. I think it was directed at me – a mom who has done a lot of “counting to 3”, waiting for a child’s good behavior to kick in. After reading her email, I can tell you I won’t be using this counter-productive parenting tactic again. What a valuable lesson this is! So, with Amy’s permission, I’m sharing it with you.  Below is the unedited text Amy sent to me and other parents who are learning and using her proven parenting strategies.

After repeated requests to get your children to do something, do you ever say, “I’m going to give you to the count of “3”? Then, start the long, drawn out, OOOOONNNNEEE. TWWWWOOOOO. THRRREEEE. And, not until you are about to say “three” do your kids begin to move?

This popular method of counting 1-2-3 is counter-productive for long-term results. Why should we have to count to 3 for our kids to listen? Don’t we want them to listen the FIRST time we make a request? Counting 1-2-3 TRAINS children that they don’t have to listen/respond UNTIL you get to three.

Using the 1-2-3 Method doesn't workSimilar to “Time Out”, “1-2-3” is a commonly used parenting technique. However, (also like “Time Out”) just because it’s commonly used does not mean it’s effective for long term behavior change.

As you think about the effectiveness of “1-2-3”, consider the following questions…

  • Can an employee wait until the supervisor asks several times before turning in the assignment?
  • Will a teacher ask multiple times before a student agrees to do what is asked?

Your child won’t get that many chances with adults outside the home, so why should he get so many chances inside the home? (In most cases, you’ve already asked or reminded him a few times before you started counting.)

Two more questions:

During the slow, drawn-out counting process, is your blood pressure going up? What will you do if your child doesn’t respond when you get to 3?

Parents often think of “Time Out” and “1-2-3” as the go-to tactics for correcting behavior. But the reality is, these strategies are not effective for long-term behavior change and that’s why parents find themselves using them over and over again!

When I talk to parents on an airplane or at the soccer field and they learn about what I do, they always ask, “So how do I get my child to stop doing (fill in misbehavior here.)” And my answer is always the same:

There is no magic wand! There is no one-minute fix.

Correcting misbehavior in children requires a layered approach and an understanding of:

  • the psychology behind the child’s behavior
  • why our reprimands aren’t working,
  • how we contribute to the behavior, and
  • specific tools to correct behavior in the moment and to prevent the behavior in the future.

Attempts at “magic wand” strategies such as “time out” and counting “1-2-3” don’t work for long-term behavior change. In the case of 1-2-3 – it trains our children that we’re not serious until we get to 3. It trains kids that they have 2 chances (in addition to the times you may have asked before counting) before they really have to listen.

Why should we have to give three (or more) chances? Don’t we want them to listen the first time?

But – what should we do instead?

As I said earlier, correcting misbehavior is a multi-faceted approach, but here is a place to start:

Get down on the child’s level (physically) and look him/her in the eyes and state the desired behavior in your calm but firm voice – including the consequence if he does not listen. The calm voice is important to avoid escalating a power struggle.

For example, say, “Jason, please put your toys away now – or, if I have to put them away you’ll lose the privilege of playing with those toys for the rest of the day/week.” (Depending on the age of the child). That gives Jason ONE chance. If he chooses to comply – great – everyone’s happy. If not – calmly and WITHOUT words, go and pick up the toys and put them in the closet for the day/week. If he has a tantrum – that’s fine. Don’t get angry; don’t give a lecture; just go about your business. (Assuming the child is not in danger of hurting himself or others.) His tantrum will pass and he will learn a valuable lesson that when you say something, you mean it. (If the tantrum causes you to reverse your decision, Jason wins and the scenario will be repeated again tomorrow.)

Kids are much smarter than we realize. If you’ve been using the “1-2-3” strategy in your home, here is what the child is thinking after your first request…

  • “okay, I’m good here for a while. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
  • “oh man – this is a drag. I know she’s going to start counting soon, but I know I don’t have to do anything quite yet. I still have a bit more time.”
  • “oh brother – she’s up to 2 – I guess I’m going to have to do what she asked when she gets to 3.

When we use the “1-2-3” count, we mistakenly train children that they don’t have to listen the first time and they actually have three or MORE chances before they have to listen.

Instead – say it once, be clear about the consequence, and follow through with the consequence if necessary. Your child may “test” you a few times, but will quickly learn that when you say something, you mean it!

I hope this helps.

Amy McCready

Amy McCready is a wife and mom of two teenage boys. She founded Positive Parenting Solutions, Inc. in 2004 and developed the popular and successful Breakthrough Course that has changed the lives of thousands of parents through in-person seminars, speeches and online parenting training webinars. For more parenting articles and tips like the one above, visit Amy’s blog.