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Discipline Tip- Stop Counting to Three!

parents counting to three
When I was pregnant, my husband and I went to the beach a lot. I decided to make good use of my time there and observe families enjoying the beautiful Florida coast. One of the things that consistently stood out to me over the course of the weeks is that kids can be very stubborn! Another observation, maybe more important, was that parents encourage their kids to be stubborn by counting to three. I know that there are thousands of parents who count and it is a part of their routine. A child is told to do something, the child ignores it or complains or argues, the parent resorts to “You have until the count of three to obey”. The logic behind that scenario from a discipline standpoint is that the child learns that when a parents gets to three, there is a consequence that follows, thus compelling them to respond. However, that only works in an adult’s world. Let me explain what goes on in a child’s mind when a parent counts to three.

A child is a sponge that learns, models and observes every second of the day. Without getting into Pavlov and Skinner, children are also conditioned by experiences, patterns, and routine. So, when you repeat an action, behavior, phrase, etc. a child learns to respond consistently because they come to expect the stimulus.

Expand that to discipline. You tell a child to do something (“Go put your shoes on so we can leave”). They are right in the middle of playing or are tired or just don’t want to. So, they don’t obey. You get frustrated, expecting them to obey the first time you ask. So, you tell them again (or six more times). Finally, out of sheer exhaustion, you begin to count, knowing that they will get up and get their shoes by the time you hit three, or else.

Essentially, you have done a few things. One – you have conditioned them to listen to you only when you begin to count. Ideally, you want your child to listen to you the first time, so that is not meeting your goals. Two – they have learned through experience that they don’t have to respond until you get to 2 1/2. They operate under the assumption that they have from the time that you tell them to do the task until you get to three. Finally, when you count, you take away their responsibility of choosing to obey. You are forcing them to do it, because you are the authority figure, rather than a parent helping them to make a choice to obey or not.

So, now that you know that counting to three is not nearly as effective as you thought (or knew all along that it wasn’t very effective, but didn’t know what else to do), what is the alternative? Give your child a choice that allows them to feel in control of some part of the situation. “You can choose to put your shoes on yourself or you can choose to have me help you”. The underlying assumption is that they are choosing to put their shoes on either way, which is what you want. For an older child, you can say, “If you choose to put your shoes on now, you choose to watch your movie tonight. If you choose not to put your shoes on right now, you choose not to watch your movie tonight”. Notice that the child gets to make the decision on his own, rather than being forced to by your count.

To read more about the effectiveness and technique of choice giving, click here and scroll down to Choice Giving. You can also watch the video on Choice Theory under Articles. The more you use this new approach, the more you will notice your child responding without having to be told multiple times and without you having to get frustrated. I wish you the freedom that comes from giving choices rather than the burden on counting to three!

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  • Christine

    Let’s say the child in the above example chooses not to put on his shoes, therefore choosing not to watch the movie later. Now what? Presumably you will still need him to put his shoes on and get out the door! Which will mean you have to resort to something else. Do you continue to offer choices until the stakes are too high and he (hopefully) chooses to put on the shoes and stop losing privileges, do you go with his choice and the shoes are not put on, or do you resort to another means of getting the shoes on? (when I was a kid, I went to a hockey game barefoot because I refused to wear shoes in an attempt to avoid going, but my parents refused to miss the game.)

    • Gazel_le

      Mine would go without shoes … but it looks like you already knew the answer 🙂

  • Gazel_le

    “probably works pretty well with older kids” not as easy as you seem to think if the relevant past history has NOT been having choices.
    I have dealt with numerous children and families over the years and choices DO work with younger children (and actually lays the groundwork for when they are older) but a child MUST know his “3rd option” is NOT an option; redirect them to the 2 choices given and your final option is “if you do not choose to put your shoes on, I will know you are choosing for me to do it for you”. I personally have NEVER had this technique fail… but you must be prepared for them to challenge the boundary that has been set and be aware that parents that have an ineffective discipline history will be TESTED by the child to make certain a boundary really does exist; sadly, it appears you failed the test 🙁
    If children do not experience having choices with related consequence when they are young, it will generally be a much harder lesson the older they become.
    There is no better day to start giving choices than TODAY.