March 2, 2018

I stood on the side of the playground chatting away with other parents while our young kids roamed freely about the playground. Church service had just let out and we were enjoying the enclosed play space which allowed us to watch our kids while catching up with each other. I kept an eye on my daughter as she climbed about the play structure in all the “wrong” ways. She had recently started imitating the daring moves of an adventurous 5-year old girl at church, which included finding… creative ways to climb about the playground.

While I was okay with her pushing the limits a bit, I could tell it made other parents (who mostly had even younger kids) a bit uneasy. And… maybe it wasn’t the best example for the toddlers who were apt to imitate without having the same strength or command of their limbs. I kept a close eye as she began to proceed over the high tunnel instead of through it like she probably should.

The father I was chatting with watched with growing alarm as she started to climb up and over. When it was apparent that she meant to cross the tunnel by climbing over it, he hesitated, “Uh, Jo, I think she’s going to climb over…!”

“Sweetie, please come down,” I called out to her. She froze for a moment. I imagine she was trying to decide whether to come down or pretend that she didn’t hear me. She started forward again- it appears she chose the latter.

“That’s one,” I called out, matter of factly.

She scampered down in a flash.

I turned to pick up our conversation again but the father looked at me, wide-eyed, “Is that from… 1-2-3 Magic?” he asked, a little wonderingly.

“Yeah! Have you tried it?”

“I’ve read some of it, but we haven’t really gotten too far in it,” he said, “It seems to be working really well for you!”

And thus began yet another animated conversation about the “1-2-3 Magic” program which we had been using for the last couple of years with great success. I figure it’s about time I shared it with you, too!

What is the 1-2-3 Magic? 

It’s a discipline system where all you have to say is, “That’s one,” and your kid will stop doing an unwanted action.


Okay there’s a little more to it than that, but that’s what the DVD is for. I’m mostly here to tell you it’s working for us, and to offer a glimpse of how we’ve used it. I know the feeling of desperation that comes with a tantruming child or a defiant child. A lot of people seem to think my kids were born obedient, but trust me, they were not. They still aren’t sometimes, and I am all too familiar with the frustration and helplessness that comes with an unreasonable toddler that seems bent on ruining your life. I remember feeling so overwhelmed, frustrated, and angry all at the same time, and wishing I had something- anything… anyone- to guide me and help me figure out how to address these seemingly impossible behaviors in my very young child.

I read a lot of books and scoured the Internet for ideas, and finally came across one that resonated with me, called 1-2-3 Magic: Managing Difficult Behavior in Children 2-12. It’s a simple enough system, but there is a specific method and some key guidelines included that make the DVD worth watching. I highly recommend it, and we have used it with both my little ones so far.

Didn’t you already have a system of consequences as a teacher?

I did, and it worked well in a classroom of fourth graders. However, my two year old didn’t understand the abstract idea of a “warning,” and I needed something more concrete. The 1-2-3 Magic system is actually very similar to the system I had used as a teacher, but simpler. If you’ve been following my blog from the beginning, you’d see a lot of similarities between my thoughts on shaping children’s behavior and the 1-2-3 Magic system. For example, there is an emphasis on consistency. Both systems also basically give three warnings before an actual consequence happens (but eventually, the warning itself becomes enough of a consequence to stop unwanted behavior). We both make it a point to keep emotions at bay, and we both are familiar with the ways kids try to test the system.

One major takeaway I got from the DVD was don’t talk so much. Dr. Phelan shows how parents tend to talk too much when they’re giving the count (“That’s two. Didn’t I just ask you to stop kicking the chair? How many times do I need to tell you that? It’s loud and it bothers other people and…”). Turns out, this actually decreases its effectiveness. This was a key point for me, and it has really kept things clean and simple to just give a count and move on. We still have discussions on matters of the heart, but I am more thoughtful about when those conversations need to happen.

Why did it take you so long to share this?!

People tell me that my daughter seems to be so obedient and that she was just born an “easy” kid. I think there is a lot more to her development than that, but I knew I’d have more credibility with any parenting suggestions if it worked on two kids instead of just one. So I waited until I saw results with my son before writing this up.

It happened sooner than I expected. One afternoon last year, when he wasn’t even officially in his “terrible twos” yet, I heard myself say to him, “That’s one.” I hadn’t even explained it to him yet or anything.

I remember he looked at me, as if to say, “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?”

When he got to “That’s three, timeout,” I picked him up and sat him down in a chair for his timeout. He seemed strangely familiar with this routine- I guess he’d observed his sister doing this before. He seemed to get the idea pretty quickly, and by the third time he had a timeout, he walked right on over to the chair himself. I was super surprised (and extremely pleased) that he went so willingly.

It hasn’t always been that way (especially lately… full blown two’s, you guys!!), but it was a nice start. Since then, we have used this system to work him out of behaviors as annoying as throwing food on the floor and as serious as biting. It feels really good to even know we have some sort of structure in place to help during the frustrating moments!

Sounds nice, but I don’t have time to read a book

This is like saying, “I don’t have time to learn how to use this dishwasher, so I’ll just keep washing dishes by hand.” Seriously guys, investing a couple hours to learn the basics of this system can be life-changing and save so much work in the long term! I have had so many people tell me the various versions of a “1-2-3ish system” they’re implementing, thinking it’s probably close enough, but it’s usually missing key components (if not entirely different) that make the whole thing much less effective. I’ve never read the book either, but my husband and I both watched the DVD (borrowed from the library) and it was probably two of the most useful parenting education hours we’ve ever spent.

We even borrowed it again when it was my son’s turn to start the system and watched it at 2x speed with subtitles, just for review. Still time well spent. The DVD feels kind of dated at first, but the speaker is engaging and the shenanigans of disobedient children are pretty timeless. Besides being free, borrowing from the library is also good because it kind of forces you to finally sit down and watch it before it’s due.

Maybe it worked for you, but my kids are tough

He talks about this in the DVD, and it sounds like he has really dealt with some difficult children (including one of his own!). Parenting can be such a struggle, but I think this is one of the best tools I’ve ever come across to shape my kids and improve our quality of life. I appreciate not getting emotionally worked up about their behaviors, and I love when I look back and realize that a “problem” we were so bothered by a few months ago has been worked out.

In the end, it has truly helped us to enjoy our kids and our time with our kids more, and I hope it can be a great help for more parents out there!

6 responses to “1-2-3 Magic: The Simple Discipline System that Works”

  1. Amy E says:

    I love this book. I recommend it to patients all the time

    • joellen says:

      Yes! I’m sure a lot of parents ask about how to deal with this kinda stuff haha. I also get a kick out of telling people your face is on a huge billboard :D. You’re famous!

  2. Kathryn says:

    Hmm. I will check that out. Our younger son is almost two; he is constantly testing the boundaries to see what they are and what will happen when he crosses them. Please picture my eye twitching constantly.

    (Our older son is autistic. Not severely, but nothing that anyone has ever suggested has ever worked for him. We’ve had to invent new approaches for everything. Not just discipline but any interaction. Thankfully, after a little over a year in a school specifically for kids like him (high-functioning autism), he is doing infinitely better. They are miracle workers at that school.)

    • joellen says:

      Oh, I’m right there with you with the two year old! But at least I feel like I have a tool to use instead of hoping I can grow in patience all the time… haha. Even though it feels a little hopeless at times, I often find that if I target a very specific behavior and am consistent with it, I’ll see improvement very quickly! Unfortunately, new (undesirable) behaviors often crop up and it’s easy for me to forget the progress he HAS made =). Hope it is helpful!

  3. Anonymous says:

    What do you do when you say, “That’s one,” and your kid immediately does the same thing again because he knows he has three chances? Then he stops after two? Just count it as a win because the behavior stopped, or give a three for him being a little sh*t about the two? 🙂

    • joellen says:

      Haha yay kids =P. I think it depends on what the behavior is. For example, let’s say he pokes his sister to bother her. You say, “That’s one.” He pokes her again because he knows he has three chances, so you say, “That’s two. And then that’s three for being mean and trying to abuse the system.” (or, however you’d like to phrase it ;)). “Being a jerk” is a totally legitimate reason to give a count, so I’m all for the latter idea you had. However, if he kicks her I would just give an automatic three. Hope it’s been working!