Have a Question? Need Parenting Advice? Ask Michael Hawton

Children are just mini-versions of ourselves and if we present the right reasons for changing their behaviour they will do so willingly. Right?

Wrong! Most parents spend too much time trying to persuade their kids to do the right thing. What they try to do is coax good behaviour with words and reasons which more often than not results in arguments, shouting and sometimes hitting as well as general dissatisfaction all round.

While children need a positive family environment, they also need practise at responding to boundaries if they are to learn how engage their emotional ‘clutch’. IN developmental terms, it’s the repeated opportunity at successfully pulling back from a reasonable boundary that helps kids become more flexible.

The counting method used in 1-2-3 Magic gives children a signal that establishes with them first, that the behaviour that is being counted is not okay and, second, that they have the opportunity to pull back from that behaviour. It allows parents to indicate the boundaries to children without endless talk.

But more than drawing a line in the sand with kids around obnoxious behaviour the between the counts, the 1-2-3 magic method puts the onus back on the child to choose to stop the unwanted behaviour. Part of the good the counting method provides for children is that in between the counts the child has to make a choice to either behave pro-socially or poorly. When children are able to, even begrudgingly, stop themselves from behaving obnoxiously, they are learning an important lesson about life.

On a positive note, there is a growing body of evidence that children need practise ‘pulling back’ from obnoxious behaviour in order to develop response flexibility. Response flexibility means a child learns to shift gears and choose a more appropriate behaviour when someone, a parent or a teacher, indicates his behaviour is not appropriate. A child who does not develop an emotional ‘clutch’ has trouble applying the brakes when told not to do something. Their lack of flexibility results in frustration when their behaviour is curtailed by external forces and sometimes this frustration erupts in an emotional tantrum.

When parents talk, reason and try to persuade their child to do the right thing in discipline situations, the implied message is that the child doesn’t have to behave unless the parent provides three, four or five reasons and those reasons had better be sound or the more verbally skilled child is going to take issue with each one.

While in some parenting circles saying ‘no’ to kids has become unpopular, even politically incorrect, in fact learning to deal with ‘no’ is part of preparing children for the real world. If a child does not learn how to deal with the frustration of not getting what she wants, if she cannot redirect her energies in a more socially acceptable way, that child may eventually develop more serious antisocial behaviour.

Dr Phelan’s approach is to limit talk and emotion around day-to-day discipline to allow more time for encouraging good behaviour, building the child’s self esteem and developing a positive relationship between the child and the parents. When parents regain some order in their families, they often say they have more time and energy for the positive aspects of parenting. ‘1-2-3 Magic’ is easy to learn and gives parents practical strategies for dealing with their children’s difficult behaviour.

Some parents worry that ‘1-2-3 Magic’ suggests talking less to kids. In fact, this is not the case. Less talk around discipline means more time for enjoyable interactions. Phelan suggest that too much talk at the time of disciplining swamps kids and they can’t focus on what they are being asked to do. Not only that, too much talk can often lead to too much emotion and if children’s emotions escalate too high they cannot calm themselves, they are beyond reason and they are not able to comply with the requested behaviour.

1-2-3 Magic is a way for parents to set boundaries and for kids to learn that there are limits to their behaviour. Parents can feel calm and in control and kids are secure in the knowledge that their parents can enforce limits with firmness and a cool head. The feedback from kids is that once parents start using 1-2-3 Magic they say ‘Mum and dad don’t yell at me as much’. Parents report they feel less angry and less stressed by their parenting responsibilities. (See research at www.parentshop.com.au)

Sound too good to be true? That’s because it’s magic!

-Article by Michael Hawton, MAPS, Child & Family Psychologist

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