Has anyone had experience with the discipline strategies put forth in the book "1 2 3 Magic" by Thomas W Phelan?

"1-2-3 Magic" involves counting your child for bad behavior. For example, your child talks back to you...you say "That's 1". They do it again, you say "That's 2", and again you say "That's 3, Take 5" (or 1 minute per age of the child). Hitting is an automatic time-out.

My wife and I are experimenting with them, but I'd love to know what the consensus of the group is regarding their effectiveness.

  • 1
    If you provided a brief summary of the advice, those of us who haven't read the book, but have encountered many parenting styles, could offer our opinions. :)
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 5:21
  • The basic idea behind the book is to issue a warning and then begin counting to three. If the child does not listen by 3 they receive some form of punishment. The book goes into greater detail about when it is appropriate to use the count method and when it is not. Such as using it for stop behavior (stop hitting your sister) rather then start behavior (start eating your veggies).
    – Jason
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 12:17

12 Answers 12


My mom counted. My brothers and I took it as permission to continue the undesired behavior until the next to last number. The same thing is true with repeated warnings for bad behavior. The child gets conditioned that Mom doesn't mean it the first few times she says it.

I think it "1 2 3 Magic" is an improvement for some parents because it forces them to issue the command and then shut up and let the child respond.

When you speak, the child should comply promptly. Rather than counting, just wait an appropriate amount of time ... long enough for your command to be processed, a second or so ... then if the child hasn't complied apply punishment. For things that the kid knows from previous discipline are not accepted, go straight to punishment.

  • 4
    For the most part I agree with this answer, except for the "straight to punishment" part. For younger kids (2 or 3), their memories aren't as consistent as older children, and they can legitimately forget being punished for something just a few days earlier. Reminding them they are misbehaving, by counting or otherwise, gives them the benefit of the doubt. After that though, definitely punish them consistently.
    – Sarato
    Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 15:37
  • 1
    The "straight to punishment" part IS THE ENTIRE POINT. If the kid knows you are going to say it twice, there is no reason to listen the first time. If the parent has been repeating and getting angry consistently, it might take 50 cycles of speak, wait, punish for the kid to figure it out and adapt. But believe me, the kid will eventually adapt.
    – tomjedrz
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 5:37
  • 1
    @tomjedrz i think your experience with your mom counting is not so much proof that it doesn't work 'as advertised" or "without tweak" so much as it's proof that somehow your mom "did it wrong" (whatever that may mean). with all 5 of my kids, i RARELY had to get to 2. "ONE" in a bold firm voice is all it takes and they stop straight away. I'll bet your mom was lenient with you in other ways that took the urgency out of 1-2-3.
    – monsto
    Commented Apr 12, 2012 at 23:36
  • 2
    Sure, and I imagine that you were generally strict such that your kids obeyed in general. The OP has a situation of kid not listening, so overly strict seems necessary.
    – tomjedrz
    Commented Apr 14, 2012 at 4:05

We employed the 1 2 3 magic formula for a while. The ideas weren't completely foreign to us, since it's part about controlling your own temper and not having your own tantrum as a form of discipline, and part about rewards and (safe) punishments from behavioral psychology.

What I liked is that for "stopping" behaviors, like "stop jumping on the couch" it works great. Our kids had a lot of clarity as to what they could expect, and they responded like magic. When we told them "that's 1" they would either stop, or slow down whatever it was they were doing. Usually we didn't get to "that's 2," and we almost never had to send them to the corner.

What I didn't from it was a good grasp on how to deal with "starting" behaviors, like "start doing the dishes" or "start cleaning your room." The book talks about both, but maybe I don't remember the specific tactics used.

Also, it's hard to remember to do some things, like not lecturing them on and on. It's just habit. So the book is great, but it takes some self control to implement.


The idea is not simply to count, but to basically make it totally no-nonsense. No begging, pleading, berating. Just count and when you hit 3, they get a timeout or loss of privilege.

We found this very effective, for what it's worth. They key is applying it consistently, and using it as a substitute for the parents getting all riled up.


I am not familiar with the book, however, in therapy, I use a 1-2-3 count with a bit of a twist. I state the desired behavior. If no appropriate response, I begin counting - 1. I restate the desired behavior. If no indication of change, I ask, Do you need help? Then add - 2. When I say 3, I provide immediate even sudden hand over assist to get the job done.

This works best for tasks that I can physically assist in the action - such as come here, sit down, or get the [insert object]. I speak matter of factly giving direct eye contact and attention. I pause several moments between numbers to allow time for compliance. The physical assist is not in a friendly coddling manner, but rather directed and brisk. As soon as the desire action is completed I respond with "thank you" or "good job" and proceed with a smile as if nothing unusual has happened.

For a school aged child who has a better concept of time, a 3 strikes version may be useful. A child is trained that everyone makes mistakes and acts inappropriately at times and this system is explained. Bad or inappropriate behavior is confronted simply in a soft voice with the statement: That's number one. If bad behavior continues or is repeated at anytime during the day, the child is prompted with: That's number two. If the violation occurs once again during the day, the predetermined consequence is enforced. This will be different depending on the child. It may be a loss of privileges or other predetermined actions.

Each day begins with a new opportunity and even if there were 2 strikes the day before, the slate is wiped clean. Three new strikes are allowed every day.


As lgrtitz says, the key is consistency. The parent(s) must by completely dispassionate about announcing the numbers, and they must do it the same way every time.

We use it, but it's hard for me to stay "icy" enough all the time. :7) When we do, though -- and my wife is good about it -- it works pretty well.

They will respond, but yeah, some of them do learn to wait for "2" before responding.


The method works. Only took about a week to work on our children. Our son responded within a few days. Did it on all 3 of our children. After a while we skipped 1 and went straight to 2. When they were older all we had to do was raise up 2 fingers and that's all it took. Very rarely got to 3. Used it until they were 16 or so with no problems. Was great for our family!


I read "1 2 3 Magic" a few years ago. My wife and I have been using a system similar to this with our two children and the results have been mostly positive.

We have a 3 year old and a 1.5 year old. The three year old generally listens before we get to the count of three. With the 1.5 year old, it is more hit and miss. She thinks its more fun to yell two after we start with one.

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    +1 for the 1.5 year-old. Our 3 year-old counts at us when we don't do what she wants :)
    – Benjol
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 10:14

Yes. We use them. With combination with love and logic. Once in 6 months you have to reach 3 and make anaother refresh-punishment. but the method worked fine for us.


i loved this book it worked great for all of our kids. I must say, I was raised with forceful speech accompanying all request for compliance so it was difficult in the beginning for me to keep and even tone without emotion. I realized that some kids misbehave to get an emotional reaction from the parent. When my daughter would scream while in time out, I just left the room or turned on the sweeper or turned up the radio, she really learned quickly that she was not going to get my goat by throwing fits because I just made myself scarce. It took some getting use to but as I told my husband yelling or puffing up your chest to scare kids in to compliance will only work while they are smaller than you and if that's all you got, as soon as they're mid teens they would passed us up in stature, and we would be out of ammo, but luckily we had put 123 magic in place and size didn't come into the equation. Once released from time out/buzzer rang, they would ask to get up and I soon taught them that they need not ask me, if they served their time they could get up and ran along. sometimes we would have a discussion about the offense, but most of the time we didn't or did at a later time they needed to know that I was doing my thing and they learned that their bad behavior was not going to take me off task, or away from enjoying the other children who were complying. Today I have 3 grown children, I can still raise one finger and they laugh that it still works.


I had two sons who were defiant. About the time the oldest turned 12, I went to someone for help and they introduced me to this program. It worked almost immediately, and on my children who were 12, 11, 10, 9 and 7. The middle child is autistic and it even worked for him.

We stuck with the plan and sometimes, when I was not doing what I promised (I'll make supper at 5) they'd say "Mom, that's 1". One thing I did is allow my children to ask what they were getting a 1 for. Usually, though, they'd know what they were doing was wrong. I am eternally grateful for this program and have reminded the children of how well it works so they'll remember to use it on their children when they have them.

  • Welcome to the community Cheryl and thanks for your contribution. Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 14:38

yes,magic 123 works. you have to be totally monotoned when saying 1.2.3.,and consistent with the discipline. I never thought ignoring a tantrum would be so effective. I don't argue with my kids. I find that making my 9 yr old boy write sentences about his offense works for discipline.


Well if they don't do what I want or they won't stop a certain behavior I say "you're on timeout 1". Usually it stops the behavior right there. But if not I say "that's 2". Then at timeout three they are in timeout chair according to their age.They need to write why they put themselves there and what they will do in that situation next time. It's really to help them think about their actions and the consequences.What it comes down to is they need to be able to think. Sometimes if they are arguing with each other, I say "You are both on TO 1." Usually they stop but if they don't I will count them out. They know timeout one and two are just warning. I don't mind giving them a warning to turn their behavior sround but if they don't do the right thing and they make in wrong choice, they will be on timeout. Also, if they dare to physically put their hands on one another or get out out of control that is an automatic timeout.Yes, they would find themselves on TO 3 automatically without a warning. That is not acceptable and I won't tolerate it. If they say something to me th thats two because I want them to just stop think and don't say anything.Answering back and them not thinking about their actions will result in me counting to three :). I don't argue because i'll just keep counting. Take a timeout.If they want to keep going they will pay for it in timeout. Until y hey van control themselves. If they can't relax and know when to take a timeout and calm down I will help them. I will give them a timeout. Every hour I start over and they can then be placed on TO 1 again. When they choose to continue what they are doing and I say " Now you're on TO two. Are you going to stop?" They choose what they want to do. It works outside too because if I say that's three they are on timeout as soon as we get in the house.It really works. I find it effective because on some occasions we get to two but we really don't get to timeout 3 very often. Actually there are many days when we don't even get to 1. It works for my family. I see nothing wrong with a reminder to stop. Some days all I need to tell them is "that's unacceptable behavior and if you do it again you'll be on 1 and if necessary I will start counting you." They seem to know it's three strikes and you're out. In real life they won't even get that many chances. So it's extremely important to take a deep breath, listen to a warning and think about what you do.

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