Respectful Discipline | Stay Calm and Effectively Discipline Children With 1-2-3 Magic

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I want to share an incredible discipline method with you that you may have heard of. It’s especially great to use with young children as it is so simple and clear. The 1-2-3 Magic method of discipline helps you stay calm and continue to treat your kids respectfully even when they struggle to listen. 

This method also helps us avoid treating our children as “little adults” as the book refers to. When we see our children as little adults we aren’t seeing them with the limitations and challenges that are unique to children. 

We then have unrealistic expectations and try to get them to change through methods that can’t work or are harmful. 

These methods include lectures, long explanations, and getting emotional. The book refers to this as the “talk-persuade-argue-yell and sometimes hit syndrome” that we want to avoid.

1-2-3 Magic is a book that was written many years ago and has been helping countless families ever since. 

If you think you know what it’s all about but haven’t read it, chances are you may have heard a skewed version of the method. This system which involves counting has been adapted and changed over the years to a point where it’s unrecognizable to the original method.

Read on to see exactly how this 1-2-3 Magic works and how it can help you.

Why Discipline?

“Discipline” simply means, to teach, and that is the job of every parent. To teach our kids from the earliest age into adulthood. 

“To let a child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”
Maria Montessori 

Sometimes discipline looks like loving patience, sometimes it can look like consequences. To truly teach and discipline, we must be kind and patient. 

That being said, discipline is a test of parental endurance. Do we care enough about our kids to keep teaching them when it seems fruitless or hopeless?

Please keep in mind that a child’s behavior often gets worse before it gets better when we introduce discipline. If this happens it doesn’t signify that your method won’t work. When you expect pushback from your child before beginning, you can press on past that bad behavior spike to the breakthrough! 

Children make it hard to discipline them. They won’t humbly and wholeheartedly thank you for teaching them limits and giving them consequences. But we know why we do it and one day they will know why too. If we can keep the method of discipline healthy, they might even thank us.

Discipline In My Home

“Setting boundaries isn’t an alternative to loving your child. It is a means of loving them.”Boundaries With Kids

Discipline is my least favorite part of parenting. Instinctively, I am terrible at it. I want to yell and be tough and dish out punishments. I want to demand respect and decent behavior in my firmest voice with my firmest glare. Basically have a temper tantrum of my own. 

Or, I want to ignore all bad behavior and stick my head under a pillow.

Not long into parenting, I realized these methods (not really methods at all) don’t work. Every time I overreact or am the “tough guy” I feel terrible, they feel terrible, and everyone feels terrible. Behaviors I don’t address properly increase over time.

I really had to (and still have to) reset all my discipline instincts.

For parents who yell, but don’t want to, read my post on 6 Steps To Stop Being A Parent Who Yells | The Forgiveness Method.

Not long ago I had one of those weeks where it seemed like my children were doing everything they could to cause chaos and wouldn’t listen to a thing I asked of them. Ever had a week like that? 

Although, I do believe that despite their behavior, our children’s hearts are filled with the desire to please us and be affirmed by us.

Many books I had read up until this point had given me de-escalation strategies, reparation strategies, and all sorts of good things. The problem was to be found in my discipline method. 

Or an abundance of methods. Or lack of method, however, you want to look at it.

Sometimes I would give warnings. or take things away. Sometimes I would bribe them but most often I would lecture and yell like I was paid per word and decibel. As you can imagine (and I can now see in hindsight) it’s obvious why none of that was helping. 

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The Discipline Method That Finally Helped

1-2-3 Magic was recommended to me previously and at the end of that week, I was desperate. I thought I knew what it would be about but I had heard a wrong interpretation of counting.

I noticed there was even a version written for Christian parents. I read the whole thing in 1 night and started implementing it the next day. 

Finally, I felt like I had a strategy to discipline my young kids that would allow me to stay calm but effectively correct their behavior.

When we have a plan we believe in and can implement, it frees us to stay calm and have hope.

I’m going to tell you exactly what I got from the book that worked for me.

The Keys To Unlock The Method


If we knew that it would take 13 time-outs before the behavior ended, then it would be much easier to push forward with that strategy. Unfortunately, God doesn’t let us in on those secrets. 

Poor parenting often shows up when we fail to have a discipline strategy in which we are fully confident. 

We can give our child time-outs for poor behavior and then think, “Are time-outs possibly harmful?”. Then maybe we abandon the method of time-outs for a few days until we feel like nothing else is working so we give time-outs another go.

Or we yell out of frustration and after committing again to never yell. Then our child rips a massive chunk of hair out of their younger siblings’ head. True story. The yell returned because I didn’t know what else to do and I was horrified.

As parents, we need to stick to our boundaries and implement the consequences just one more time than our child is willing to misbehave. The day will come when the offensive behavior is gone, over, finished! 

Consistency in our response to their misbehavior is the absolute key to making our discipline effective. Well, once we have the right method to stand behind.

Stay the course.


We want to only focus on discipline strategies that show our children respect. Shame, embarrassment, and physical harm may feel effective in the moment but can have harmful lasting effects on a child’s development. Let’s not take the risk when there are better ways. 

“Lesson number one in parenting is ‘Growth involves pain.’ Lesson number two is ‘Not all pain produces growth.’” 
Boundaries With Kids

We want to practice positive, respectful parenting which for me means unlearning everything that comes naturally to me and asking for a lot of forgiveness. 

This 1-2-3 method is a positive discipline method that helps parents stay in control of themselves and the situation, while still correcting our children. 

Children are not adults

“The Little Adult Assumption is the belief that kids are basically reasonable and unselfish. In other words, they’re just smaller versions of grown-ups.”
1-2-3 Magic

Treating our children as little adults when they are not, can give us unrealistic expectations and increase our frustration. Children are still developing and do not have the capacity adults do to listen and respond appropriately. Quite frankly many adults don’t have that discipline either.

Our children require grace that can feel like we are allowing them to “get away with it” but that’s not the case. They need to learn how to behave in a safe place with an adult who believes in them and who offers forgiveness generously.

The Method

The main goal of 1-2-3 Magic is to stop a child’s irritating or destructive behavior. It is not meant to get them to do what you’re asking unless the task can be accomplished very quickly (as in under a minute). 

The book refers to these behaviors as “stop behaviors” (those things you wish the child would stop) and “start behaviors” (those things you wish they would do).

Methods for encouraging “start behaviors” are discussed at length in the book if that’s what you need! Also, you can read my post on Healthy Cooperation Strategies to help encourage your child to do something you need them to. 

The Count

The Count

The method is so simple and yet so awesomely effective. It may seem too easy but give it a try for a few weeks and you’ll see how effective it is. Not because of the count but because of the no emotion or talking rules.

As you complete the following steps you cannot get emotional or talk more than the necessary counting and consequence delivery. 

So, when our child misbehaves we give them a “count”.

  1. The first time they have poor behavior you give them a count simply by saying “That’s 1.”
  2. If they continue or don’t stop after about 5 seconds you give them a second count by saying “That’s 2.”
  3. If they still don’t quit, you give them the final count with the consequence saying something like “That’s 3, go sit in time-out” and proceed to (without talking) apply the consequence. 

Here’s a play-by-play example:
You’re making dinner and your child asks what it will be.
“I’m making chicken curry.”
“Ugh, I hate chicken curry, can I have cookies instead?”
“That’s 1.”
“But please? We just had chicken curry last week!”
“That’s 2.”
“Can I just have the cookie, if I already have to eat chicken curry?”
“That’s 3, go take 5.”

What you don’t want to do is this:
You’re making dinner and your child asks what it will be.
“I’m making chicken curry.”
“Ugh I hate chicken curry, can I have cookies instead?”
“That’s 1. Cookies are not dinner. I am making chicken curry.”
“But please? We just had chicken curry last week!”
“That’s 2. I am working so hard to make dinner and you come over here complaining. You never like what I have to make for dinner!”
“Can I just have the cookie, if I already have to eat chicken curry?”
“You’re already at 2, do you really want to keep going?”
“That’s it! That’s 3, get out of here before you go to bed without any dinner at all!”

See the adult temper tantrum I was talking about? Instead of setting a boundary, you put up a fight. Our children are built to test fights because it gives them a chance.

Over time your children will learn that counting is serious and negotiations are not on the table. 

When a behavior is new, dangerous, or unusual, we should explain things to our child. Once that has been done and the counting begins we need to stay calm, quiet, and emotionless. Be prepared to deliver the consequence as soon as you get to “3”.

A firm tone is permitted but intimidation and threatening tones will kill the method over time. 

“You stay calmer, you feel better.” Thomas Phelan 1-2-3 Magic

Now, for dangerous behavior, such as hitting or throwing things we don’t count. Instead, we gently intervene by stopping the harmful hands and saying “That’s a 3,” and deliver the consequence.

The goal is to be so consistent in our response, that it becomes so predictable, that our children will stop at 1 or 2 and avoid the consequence. That’s the best kind of discipline if you ask me. 

After counting

When the consequence is over or has been communicated, the matter should be dropped. 

We want our homes to return to normal and move on as quickly as possible so we can actually enjoy our kids and not bury them in shame.

Intentional Forgiveness

For our homes to return to normal, it may mean you have to forgive your child in your heart for their offense. This is a part of parenting that is not often spoken about.

Parents are not bulletproof. It hurts when the child we love and pour ourselves out for attacks us in one way or another or shows a lack of gratitude or even disgust at what we have to offer. 

Our immense love can make it seem as though everything should simply roll off our backs. Sometimes though, we need to sit on our own, pause, and actively forgive them in our hearts for the way that they hurt us. 

We must be intentional about forgiving them, choose to believe the best about them, and cling to hope for their futures.

Without intentional forgiveness, bitterness or resentment can build up like in any relationship. Offenses can hurt no matter how small the mouth or hands are that deliver them.

Take time for forgiveness in your own heart.

Why this Method Is Terrific

Counting gives our children grace to choose their fate by giving them time to stop

The struggle for our children comes in implementing their self-control and this is where I think the method is fantastic, especially for young children. They are incapable of performing perfectly and controlling themselves always. Counting sets up limits and expectations while always giving our children a real chance at avoiding a consequence. 

You don’t even have to have the consequence explained or prepared as you begin to count

 The consequence can be a simple time-out (1 minute per year of age. e.g. 5 minutes for a 5-year-old) or something creative and related. Read on for more consequence suggestions. 

Counting is extremely clear as even very young children can count to 3

Instead of saying:

“Please stop jumping on the couch. Stop now. If you don’t stop now you have to come off. I said now! Come on I am serious stop jumping. Did you just jump again? How many times do I have to tell you?” 

We give them a “now” they can depend on. 1-2-3, done.

The method is so structured that it helps the parent stay calm and confident

Instead of trying all the various tactics to get that child to stop those disruptive behaviors we have one go-to method that we can use every time. 


Logical or Natural Consequences

Whenever we can give a creative consequence that is connected to the offense we should. 

Here are some examples:

If your child is potty training and refuses to use the bathroom before bed
> they must sleep in pull-ups or a diaper. 

If the child needs to get dressed and is refusing to choose one of the options you have given
> you choose for them. 

If your child makes a mess
> they clean it up (with your help, but don’t do everything!)

If your child gets out of bed 5 times every night
> their bedtime is moved to be earlier.

If your children are fighting over a toy and can’t play together kindly
> that particular toy gets taken away for the day. 

In these cases and many more, we can give a consequence that is directly related to the offense and makes sense. As you can see there are many offenses where a time-out would not be a helpful consequence. 

Logical or natural consequences are by far the best teachers because the child can deduce the outcome of disobedience or wasting time and this is a better picture of life. 

You don’t pay your electric bill, you don’t have electricity. If you don’t put gas in your car it won’t run. If you don’t show up to work, you lose your job. 

We never, don’t show up to work and our boss takes our TV time away. That would be weird. 

Get creative

I love thinking of creative consequences that can even bring some humor to the situation. 

If my kid drops their fork or spoon on the floor more than once > they eat with their hands.
If they take too long to get dressed or put shoes on > they have to start 15 minutes before everyone else.

Sometimes the consequence is not painful but it makes a point and communicates an expectation. 

1-2-3 Magic gives a much more in-depth explanation of this discipline method and creative consequences to help train our children. There are also in-depth descriptions of various methods to encourage “start behaviors” as well.

If you feel like what I shared here could be helpful to you or your family then I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and read it all. 

A thought on time-outs or “rest periods”

In 1-2-3 Magic they mainly suggest a time-out as the standard consequence of reaching three, but they do encourage creativity as well.

The idea of “time-outs” has become controversial over the past few years. It seems as though if you enforce time-outs, you are starving your child of love and affectionate help and making them feel isolated and evil. 

Well, I understand that children don’t like being isolated, obviously. When we use time-outs as our go-to method for every misbehavior, I too believe it will be harmful and not teach them properly.

That being said, as an adult, I often need a time-out. I frequently need a moment where I step away from an issue that I’m struggling to see clearly and calm down on my own. This is actually a healthy practice to teach children coping. 

When they are hitting, screaming, or throwing toys, a rest period can be very helpful. 

On the same note, if our children grow up continuing poor behaviors, they can find themselves isolated or lonely.

Also, you can be very loving and caring through the entire time-out process. Their place of time out doesn’t need to be a dark hallway with an uncomfortable bench. It can be in their room with toys. The consequence is found in being removed from the place or activity of which they would rather be apart.

A 1-2-3 Magic Time-Out

The way time-outs are meant to work is the child is assigned 1 minute per year of age starting around 2 years old. So, a 2-year-old receives 2 minutes in time-out, a 5-year-old receives 5 minutes, and so on. 

The child is either told to go or escorted to a safe place where they can rest for those minutes. 

It is not meant to be more than that, but whenever it’s possible, logical or natural consequences are ideal. 

At the end of the day…

The goal is to raise children who enjoy their wonderful childhood and are ready for adulthood. That is a goal worth doing whatever it takes to achieve. 

We need to start again and show up every day with that goal in mind and keep at it. 

Remember, behavior often gets worse, sometimes much worse, before it gets better. A child’s behavior is not always an indicator of a good or bad strategy. 

We need to see the method through and give it time to take effect. If after a few weeks, or even months of being truly drill-sergeant consistent with counting and consequences (and keeping your cool!!) then it may be time to try something else.

Keep privileges and trust the focus of your conversation. Explain to your children why they want your trust and how to get it. Trust leads to privileges and freedom. Those concepts are something even our young ones can appreciate and understand, so give them the chance to.

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