Counting 123 – What you need to know

I made a post on Facebook late Thursday night in which several people asked for more information about the counting 123 discipline method.

My Facebook post regarding the counting 123 method was as follows:

counting 123

COUNTING 123. Are you doing the “count” with your kids? Are you counting 123 when they misbehave or are not listening? This 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 123 TRAINS children that they don’t have to listen/respond UNTIL you get to three.

It is not uncommon to think “counting 123” is necessary for kids to have time to re-group. Or that “counting 123” is an appropriate tactic to get kids to respond. Similar to “Time Out”, “counting 123” is a commonly used parenting technique. However, (also like “Time Out”) just because it’s commonly used does not mean it is effective for long term behavior change.

As you think about the effectiveness of “counting 123”, 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 him asked 1 or 2 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 “counting 123” as the go-to tactics for correcting behavior. But they’re just not very effective with most children.

When I talk to parents on an airplane or 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 1 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 123” 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 I’ll have to put them away and you will 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.

a little boy unhappy after counting 123

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 “counting 123” 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 comply when she gets to 3.

When we use the counting 123, 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!

About the Author

Amy McCready

Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic – A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.