The Problem with Counting 1-2-3

A woman counts to three using hand gestures.

Counting 1-2-3 to get kids to listen is a popular strategy especially among parents of young children.  The problem is, it really doesn’t work long-term—instead, it teaches kids to do the opposite of what we want them to learn. Think about it: counting to three teaches kids that they really don’t have to listen the first time.  They learn that they’ll have several more opportunities before they have to respond. And wouldn’t we rather they listen the first time we make a request?

If you’ve been using the “Counting 1-2-3” strategy in your home, you’ve probably noticed that your kids don’t exactly snap to attention when you first speak to them. Here’s what’s going through their minds:

  • “Okay, I’m good here for a while. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
  • “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’ve got time.”
  • “Oh brother – she’s up to 2 ½. I guess I’m going to have to get moving right before she gets to 3.”

The fact of the matter is, by counting 1-2-3, you’re actually giving them up to 5 or 6 chances to ignore you before they have to respond.  You probably asked them once or twice before you started counting.  Add a “two and a half” and a “two and three-quarters” and you’re up to 6-7 chances before your children respond. You’ve effectively taught them to ignore you, and it’s a tough habit for them to break.

Parents often turn to counting because they mistakenly assume that kids need the “1-2-3” to re-group or refocus their attention.   However, as you consider the effectiveness of “Counting 1-2-3,” consider the following:

Will a teacher ask multiple times before a student agrees to do what is asked?  Can an employee wait until the supervisor asks several times before turning in the assignment?  Not if he wants to keep his job. Your child won’t get that many chances with adults outside the home, so it’s detrimental to give him so many chances inside the home.

And what about your response?

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? Repeat yourself again, this time with an “I’m serious now!” qualifier?

What To Do Instead

When you’d like to request something of your child—whether to pick up his toys or stop splashing in the bath—get down on his level (physically), make eye contact and state the desired behavior in your calm but firm voice, including the consequence if he ignores your request. The calm voice is important to avoid escalating a power struggle.

For example, say, “Jason, please put your toys away now or I will put them away and you will lose the privilege of playing with those toys for the rest of the day/week.” (Adjust the time frame depending on the age of your child.) That gives Jason one chance. If he chooses to comply, then everyone’s happy. If not, calmly and without words, pick up the toys and put them in the closet for the day/week.

As you follow through, your child is likely to pitch quite a fit. As long as no one is in danger, let him. There’s no need to lecture or get angry; just go about your business.

His tantrum will pass and he will learn a valuable lesson that when you say something, you mean it. Remember, parenting is about teaching.

If the tantrum causes you to reverse your decision, Jason wins and the scenario will be repeated again tomorrow.  Your child may “test” you a few times, but will quickly learn that when you say something, you mean it!

Soon, your child will be listening better, and better prepared for the future as well.

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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.