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Encouraging good behaviour: ‘The only parenting book that has truly made a difference’

by Amanda Cassidy
12th Jan 2020

Bringing your first child home is a jolt – a huge jolt. Whatever thoughts you had about becoming a parent goes out of the window. Raising a child is guaranteed to be more challenging and more rewarding than expected. Amanda Cassidy shares one parenting book that changed her life

No one wants to have THAT child — you know the one who grabs at parties and pushes in yard and whines about well, everything. But besides patience (and swearing under your breath when they call your name) how are you supposed to prepare a small human for putting their best foot forward in this world without totally losing your mind?

The power of magic

I’d read every parenting book you can imagine on my first pregnancy. I was an information junkie — I read about Ferberizing, potty-training, snot-sucking (yeah, that’s a thing now), weaning, scabies, self-esteem and I still felt unprepared for the part when they have to do as you ask. Thirty-seven episodes of Supernanny showed me that using a naughty step might be a good start. I knew you had to have patience, but I was in seriously short supply — especially when my second child arrived.

So I did what all desperate parents do…I gate-crashed the forums — I stalked the chat rooms and lurked amongst the parenting threads. That’s how I discovered the only parenting book that has ever truly made a difference — 123 Magic.

Related: Peaceful parenting: Who has time for that?

I was sceptical. How could any book prepare you for the world’s most important job? Why hadn’t I heard of it before? But I persevered. My children were 5 and 6 and I was ready to try pretty much anything to get some semblance of ground rules in our lives — yes, even magic. Especially magic.

Ground rules

123 Magic is written by Thomas W. Phelan PhD and is a book about effective discipline for children aged from 2-12 years of age. It’s won all sorts of parenting publication awards and 1.8 million copies have been sold. Best of all, it doesn’t speak to you like you are a complete moron. It bases its advice on the idea that parenting should be looked at as a profession — that even some training will make the job much easier. Dr Phelan recommends that you start with your basic parenting philosophy — your ground rules.

Our job as parents can be broken down into three strategies — controlling obnoxious behaviour, encouraging good behaviour and strengthening your relationship with your children. We all know this, of course. But being reminded of it is useful. When it comes to discipline, children tend to either do things we want them to stop (whining, teasing, fighting, shouting) or not do things we want them to start (like getting dressed, coming to the table, homework, bedtime).

This is called Stop and Start behaviour. The 123 method is for the stop behaviour but start behaviour requires more motivation from your child.  One way of trying to get your children to start doing something is by using the kitchen timer. This way you are not the bad guy — you are getting your children to beat the clock to do what is asked of them, rather than you being Nag-in-chief. If they haven’t started their task in the allotted time (give them a chance to think about what happens if they don’t) you can give them a natural consequence (take away a privilege like TV or a weekend treat and make sure you follow through).

Related: How to raise happy confident kids

Kids are not mini-adults

“We cannot rely on words and reasons when dealing with young kids”

Now, for the best part — the part where you ask them to stop doing something and they do, straight away. This book talks about how many parents have a naive assumption that children are reasonable, small versions of grown-ups. Dr Phelan says that this is one of the biggest causes of discipline failure. We wrongly believe that if we reason with children and explain all the reasons why they need to behave, they will miraculously turn around and say ‘oh mummy, you are so right, I didn’t realise how my behaviour has upset you and I’ll never annoy my sister again’ and then they leave their sibling alone for the rest of their lives.

How nice would that be! But any and every parent knows this is pretty much unheard of. Kids are not little adults. We cannot rely on words and reasons when dealing with young kids. In fact, unless it is a real learning moment, sometimes explanations will have absolutely no impact at all.

Training as well as explaining

Years ago, one writer said “Childhood is a period of transitory psychosis,” meaning that when they are little, children are unreasonable and want what they want… when they want it. It is our job to help children gradually learn frustration tolerance. To achieve this, we need to be gentle, consistent, decisive and calm.

Repeated explanations simply irritate and distract children. In fact, the author of 123 Magic goes as far as to suggest we use a method that is largely nonverbal (like a wild animal trainer!) and repeat it until the ‘trainee’ does what the trainer wants. The trainer (parent) is patient, gentle and consistent.

Dr Phelan explains “when your kids are little, your house should be pretty much a benign dictatorship where you are the judge and jury. Your four-year-old, for example, cannot unilaterally choose — at 7.30 in the morning on Wednesday — to skip school because she wants to stay home and play with her new birthday toys. When the children are in their mid-teens, however, your house should be more of a democracy.

Teens should have more of a say about the rules that affect them. You should have family meetings to iron out differences once they get older (and wiser!).

Big splash

So, how do you do the 123 Magic method? Dr Phelan believes that when they are young, children feel inferior to adults. They are smaller, less privileged, less skilful, less responsible. They don’t like that. They like to feel that they are powerful and capable of making their mark on the world in the form of tantrums, commotion or exercising their will. They want to have an impact and your emotional outburst is a big impact for them and makes them feel powerful. So what is required is less talking and less emotion when it comes to discipline.

The counting method is surprisingly powerful and deceptively simple. Remember only to use it for stop behaviour. Imagine your six-year-old is having a major tantrum on the kitchen floor because you wouldn’t let him use his favourite electronic device at the dinner table. He is screaming blue murder and you don’t know how calm you can remain for much longer. You remember your counting method.

Keep calm and parent on…

You hold up one finger, look down at your little screamer and calmly say ‘That’s 1”. He doesn’t care. You let five seconds go by. Hold up two fingers and say “that’s 2”. That’s all you say. Still no reaction, so after five more seconds, you hold up three fingers and say “that’s 3. Take five.”

This means your son was given two chances to change his behaviour. In this case, he wasn’t able to. As a result, there is a consequence — one minute per year of the child’s life in their room. The next part is key. After the timeout is served, you will say nothing. No talking, no apologies, no lectures, no discussions. Nothing is said at all (unless the behaviour is dangerous or new).

You do not say, “now, are you going to be a good boy, do you realise how naughty that was?” As tempting as this is, you simply keep quiet. If your child behaves, praise him. If not, count him. You will soon start to see some good control and if you get to my stage, you only have to hold up one finger (sometimes only from a distance) and they stop. I shout less, get frustrated less, and once you stick to the plan, the children know what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour to you. Don’t let minor misbehaviour interfere either — that niggly naughtiness that isn’t too serious and that us parents have to shake off using endless patience. Reserve the 123 Magic method for things that you feel are truly unacceptable.

Related: The best parenting secrets from around the globe

Don’t also get caught up in the common mistakes people make with this method. ‘That’s 1. Come on now, I’m getting tired of this, look at me when I’m talking to you. Ok, that’s two. One more and you are going to your room. Do you hear me? Ok, two and a half. FINE! Enough, that’s three — take five. And NO FRIDAY TREAT!”

A better way

This is a parental tantrum and you’ve lost the point. All your child hears is ‘let’s fight’. With all the counting and chatting and discussions, your child can’t process what you actually want them to do. The benefits of 123 Magic is that it saves energy (and aggravation) and lets your children know that your authority is not negotiable. The punishment is short and sweet and handy for other people (childminders, grandparents) to learn.

“It is out job to help show them the way”

If you want to use other time-out alternatives you can give them things like an earlier bedtime, no treat, no playdate, removal of video games, loss of TV for the evening etc. Of course, there is always the fear that if you give your child a 7-minute consequence for not changing behaviour during counts, they will laugh in your face and refuse to go to their room. I’ve been that soldier. If they are little enough, you carry them there.

If they are older, don’t be tempted to give them the fight that they want. Explain in as few words possible that they will be getting another consequence and then stick to it. If they thrash their room. Ignore it. If they pee on the floor, move them to the bathroom and ignore it. You are the grown-up. Stay calm and don’t speak. If they hit or hurt then you obviously don’t need to count. It is straight to a consequence. Don’t be tempted to lengthen the time-out. If you are out and about and the children start to misbehave, pick a time-out spot and stick with it.

Your children will test you at the start but keep your cool. Before you start the 123 Magic plan — simply explain what the method will be. Don’t let them dictate methodology and don’t waiver ‘two and a half, two and three quarters…’.

Don’t forget — your children are still learning how to be and how to behave. It is your job to help show them the way. All this drama doesn’t have to exist. There is a better way! Remember, you are doing this as a sound investment in your children’s emotional future and in your peace of mind. Good luck in those parenting trenches!

123 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 years by Thomas W. Phelan PhD.



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