Review of 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan

Here’s something my loyal readers already know: I believe in always learning. I believe that nobody has all the answers. There are lots of other smart people on the planet. We should always be reading, absorbing, and learning.

One parenting book that I’ve come to enjoy is 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Thomas W. Phelan. He has a doctorate in child psychology, but his writing is very down to earth. That’s what “sold” me on his book and the main reason I recommend it.

1-2-3 Magic is a very easy read. There are lots of short chapters. Each one has simple bite-sized nuggets of advice to make your parenting life easier.

You can get this book at Amazon, or you can probably find it in your local library to borrow for free. Since it’s not expensive, I recommend owning a copy so you can refer back to it later.

What’s 1-2-3 Magic all about?

The first half of the book teaches a technique that Phelan calls “counting”. The core of 1-2-3 Magic is about counting. When your child is doing something you want to stop, you count.

One – First warning that you want them to stop.
Two – Second and final warning.
Three – Timeout. No negotiation, no discussion. (See my comments below)

Counting is used for what Phelan calls “stop behaviors”. These are the things you want your children to stop doing. Examples might include whining, begging, yelling, jumping on the sofa.

You do not use this method for “start behaviors”, such as asking a child to clean his room or do his homework. Instead, Phelan teaches multiple other methods to deal with start behaviors.

YES, counting does work. I’m a fan of this tool.

When you implement this tool, explain it to your kids. Do this once and only once. You tell them you’ll be giving them two warnings (the one and two counts) to fall into line. If you get to three, it’s time for a consequence.  Phelan really focuses on the concept of a timeout.  But I encourage parents to cast a wider net and consider all sorts of other logical consequences.

When you are going to use a timeout, there are a few simple rules to make this work. The timeout isn’t a punishment. It’s a timeout. It’s a time for the child to calm down. You need to adopt this view for it to work.

If your child is jumping on the couch, and won’t stop, a timeout is a good option.  It’s a time for the child to calm down, and essentially be kicked out of the room, unable to enjoy company of the family for a while.  But let’s say you’re asking your child to turn off the TV.  First of all, I don’t think you should just spontaneously tell a child to turn off the TV.  You should have established family rules (during a family meeting) about appropriate TV use.  Then if the time for the TV to go off is approaching, you can give the child a polite reminder.  Then, say the time comes that the TV should be off – you can implement 1-2-3 Magic for counting.  But if you get to 3, there is no timeout.  There is a logical consequence instead.  In this case, the consequence that fits would be for the child to lose TV privileges for a  certain amount of time (the rest of the day, perhaps).

Also, when counting, you ONLY count. You do not get emotional, nor do you repeat your request for the child to stop doing whatever you want them to stop. You ask once, then you count without emotion. When you have to implement the timeout, again, you keep emotion out of it. Phelan calls this the “no talking, no emotion” rule. Without this, 1-2-3 Magic will fail miserably.

I’ve been using the counting method in my family for quite some time. I can personally attest to the fact that it works. It’s super simple, and it is just one of those tools that all parents should have.

I’m a big fan of this method because I have been teaching parents to stay unemotional for a long time! It’s a core part of my teaching in “Talking to Toddlers”. Thomas Phelan has done a great job of making this concept simple to understand.

What’s missing or “bad” about the book?

Just like ANY parenting book, 1-2-3 Magic isn’t a total solution to every problem you will ever have. I say the same thing about my Talking to Toddlers audio course. Parenting books (good ones, at least), give you frameworks to help you fix problems. They give you a model to follow. They give you lots of examples. They give you choice.

I think Thomas Phelan teaches some wonderful tools. That said, like with most parenting books I’ve read, there is no section on how to talk to a child. He does not talk about the reasons that kids behave the way they do.

I really think parents need to understand that emotions drive behavior. Discover how to change your child’s emotional state. Then you have fewer behavior issues to solve. Pretty simple.

That’s why my course is so important for parents. It adds a set of tools that most other parenting experts completely ignore.

But regardless, 1-2-3 Magic is a fantastic book and you should own a copy.

The Bottom Line

I highly recommend this book. Learn the counting technique and use it. It will make a huge difference to you. But keep your mind open to using other tools. Counting should not become your only way of dealing with “bad” behavior.

On top of dealing with “stop behaviors”, Phelan has great tips on how to get kids to start doing things (homework, cleanup, etc).

I also enjoyed (and agreed with) his comments on topics such as getting kids to stay in bed at night, and holding family meetings.

If you get this book and read it, I think you’ll be way ahead of most other parents. Combine it with my course, Talking to Toddlers, and you’ll be an expert in no time.

Enjoy your children, (Click to tweet this message)
Chris Thompson

SEE ALSO: This audio lesson will forever change the way you interact with your kids

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4 Responses to Review of 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan

  1. Kelly September 1, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    Great recommendation.

    I have used this with some success already, but am at a loss on doing it in public. For example, yesterday my four year old was waiting for his teacher to talk to me after preschool (another child had packed peanut butter, and my son is allergic). While talking to her my son was climbing and diving across the hall floor. I asked him to stop but was also trying to keep up this important conversation, so he ignored me (embarassingly).

  2. Chris Thompson October 6, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Kelly – The book recommends (and I agree with) just using the tool as you’d normally use in public. Count the behavior with a 1, 2, followed by timeout. You may have to interrupt the flow of the conversation but it’s worth doing to reinforce the lesson that you mean business.

    That said – let me also address the behavior itself. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “diving across the hall floor”, so maybe it was dangerous or disruptive. But if it wasn’t hurting anyone ask yourself why you wanted him to stop. Was it something you considered embarrassing? Just something to think about.

  3. Sharon Lively January 18, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    How do you stop a two year old from throwing toys. There is a baby in the house.

    • Chris Thompson February 1, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

      Hi Sharon – this one is really easy to handle if you can stay calm and completely keep emotion out of the equation.

      Child throws toys … toys are gone.

      “It’s dangerous to throw toys. You can have your toy back later, when you are ready to stop throwing toys”.

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