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Book Review: 1-2-3 Magic

Our son is generally well behaved, but sometimes exhibits behavior that is unacceptable. Being young parents, we didn’t have extensive experience to draw upon, and often found ourselves simply threatening (and making good the promise) to take away toys when he misbehaved.

Wanting to enjoy our kids more led us to solicit recommendations from family and friends. That’s how we came across 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. From what I’m told, it’s not all that dissimilar from the techniques in SOS: Help For Parents which we also own, but have not yet read. I apologize in advance for the extensive quoting, but some thoughts were tough to paraphrase.

The book is divided into five parts:

  1. Straight Thinking (chapters 1-4)
  2. Controlling Obnoxious Behavior (chapters 5-9)
  3. No Child Will Thank You (chapters 10-12)
  4. Encouraging Good Behavior (chapters 13-20)
  5. Strengthening Your Relationship (chapters 21-26)

So far I’ve only made it through the first three parts of the book. We’re anxious to get this started in our house with the hope that we’ll curb the misbehavior that we’re currently experiencing. I expect to post an update at some point, and I’ll need to provide a synopsis of the remaining chapters.

The book begins by outlining two types of behavior:

  1. Stop behavior: when your child is “doing something you want them to Stop” (e.g., whining, teasing, arguing, pouting, yelling, tantrums, etc.)
  2. Start behavior: when your child is “not doing something you would like [him/her] to Start” (e.g., picking up, eating, homework, bedtime, up and out, etc.)

One quote from Chapter 10 accurately summarizes the approach for Stop behavior: “No Talking, No Emotion, be gentle but [firm] and when in doubt, count.”

The book describes and advocates a form of discipline that keep the parent in charge, but it includes “no arguing, yelling, or spanking.” Dr. Phelan attempts to keep the steps simple so they’re easily implemented, even in moments of frustration and stress. A “consistent, decisive, and calm” approach is easier for the parents and the kids; the parents know how to respond, and the kids know what to expect.

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Showing no emotion was a new idea to me because I had previously thought that it was an effective way of demonstrating to him when we didn’t approve of his behavior. Unfortunately, his behavior didn’t ever improve the way that we thought it should. We have never spanked or yelled abusively, but the book interestingly points out that most displays of emotion on the part of the parents are simply adult temper tantrums.

Though the author doesn’t specifically mention it, I think refraining from laughter is an important part of not showing emotion. Children will (reasonably) misinterpret that response as at least partially condoning their bad behavior or sassy response.

I am also one of the people Dr. Phelan describes in Chapter 3 as operating with the “Little Adult Assumption.” That is the name for the tendency of some parents to believe “that kids have hearts of gold and that they are basically reasonable and unselfish.” The assumption also makes people think “that [the kids] don’t have enough information at their disposal to be able to do the right thing.”

This particular misconception was evident in our post-timeout conversations with our son that involved detailed descriptions of good and bad behavior, culminating in his promising to never do that same thing again. We mistakenly thought that appealing to our son’s logic and reason were the surest way to proper discipline, a myth that the book dispels (and our experience has sadly disproved). The book encourages the use of a single explanation, if necessary. It also warns, “It’s the attempts at repeated explanations that get adults and children in trouble.” He considers this approach parental begging.

Dr. Phelan also describes how kids feel inferior, primarily because they are inferior in virtually every way to adults. “They don’t like it. They do like to feel that they are powerful and capable of making some mark on the world.” In that sense children are not all that different from adults, though they are usually less capable of making their mark.

He goes on to describe how small children love throwing rocks into water because they can see a visible response to their action, something my son demonstrated just a day or two after I read that chapter. Dr. Phelan likens the ripples on the water to the emotional waves that children sometimes cause in their parents. Even though the parental emotion isn’t usually the best kind, it is a result that kids can directly attribute to their behavior. “If you have a child who is doing something you don’t like, get real upset about it on a regular basis and, sure enough, she’ll repeat it for you.”

You’ll need to read the book for the details of his approach and his great examples, but I especially liked this paragraph in Chapter 5:

After the time out is served, you will not believe what happens next. Nothing! No talking, no emotion, no apologies, no lectures, no discussions. Nothing is said unless it is absolutely necessary, which is usually not the case.

We have long recognized our difficulty handling undesirable behavior at times when others are watching such as when we’re in public, on the phone, or at home with guests. Children are amazingly perceptive and can easily sense that mom and dad are more susceptible (easily taken advantage of) in such moments. Fortunately the book outlines some tactics (more than a full chapter, in fact!) for dealing with just such situations.

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Basically, you’ll either be consistent, decisive, and calm, or you won’t. Especially when first starting the method, you must show your children that you’re both dedicated and serious. There will be trying times and the kids will learn whether or not you’ll break under pressure. Sometimes you’ll need to decide between one of the three correct courses of action: “Gut it out and finish your shopping (you will feel foolish), [or] take the child out to the car until he does stop screaming, or go home.”

So far we’re really enjoying the book, and we’re hopeful that Dr. Phelan’s method will be effective in restoring a bit more peace and quiet in our home. Here’s hoping that it goes well; nobody ever said that properly disciplining your children would be convenient (or easy)!

16 comments to Book Review: 1-2-3 Magic

  • [...] He had trouble sharing a plastic car (the kind you sit on and use your feet to propel) with his little sister, so he was sent to time out following the plan outlined in 1-2-3 Magic. Unfortunately, instead of calming down like usual, he began kicking his door which he knows is a no-no. I warned him that if he didn’t quit, I would have to take away the plastic car. He continued and lost the car. [...]

  • Tavon…

    kinda makes you wonder….

  • Tyshawn…

    once again you outdid myself…

  • Garett…

    this is why i always pick my nose….

  • Kelsey…

    an interesting take on a boring subject….

  • Rohan…

    an interesting take on a interesting topic….

  • Caitlin…

    an interesting take on a interesting topic….

  • lisa

    I have just enrolled my children in a Montessori school. I LOVE the Montessori theory and will keep my children in this environment, for the first couple years (the foundation) of their education. I went to a seminar and asked one of the teachers to recommend a few books. One of the books that she recommended was 1-2-3 MAGIC. She said that she had not read it, but it was referred to her by another teacher.

    This was one of the WORST parenting books that I ever read. It was filled with silly common sense and actually took approximately 50 pages until I worked my way past the “fluff” of what to expect when I read the book! There was zero substance and this book was complete gibberish! It was so unclear and I felt like I was reading the same verbiage over and over again!

    I NEVER write reviews about anything. Quite frankly, I don’t have the time to do it. Bad or good. Yet I felt so compelled to write this one. I am guessing because I felt completely ripped off and I am seriously concerned that another parent will be suckered into not only buying it but also trying to implement these silly steps to parenting! It will cost more (including the value of my time) to return this book, so I am forced to throw it away! I loaned it to three of my friends, who were very fast to return it with the same unfavorable review!

    I have read so many parenting books and some that were clear in their beliefs and their tactics, yet I just did not agree or like the books. I have read MANY that are brilliant and I feel contribute to my quest towards great parenting! Whatever the reason, I felt that I had read something…even if I didn’t agree or put it to use!

    This book was a ripoff!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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