123 Magic – A Book on Discipline that Will Change Your Life

I’m an avid reader, and as a parent I’ve found a new favorite genre – books on parenting advice.  When I was struggling to keep Bugaboo entertained as an infant, I read Magda Gerber’s book about baby led parenting.  Whenever I would chat with my sister about baby milestones, she would recommend Baby Meets World, so I hit that book up, too.  But I had never experienced anything like the collective adoration and gratitude that the book 123 Magic inspired among my mom’s group.  When our group had the opportunity to listen to a lecture by the book’s author, Dr. Thomas Phelan, I heard testimonials such as, “That book saved my life!”  Of course I grabbed myself a copy.

123 Magic is a book about disciplining your children, ages 2-12.  Although Bugaboo is still under two, I had plenty of experience trying to discipline my two year old twins the year we were foster parents.  We had tried a few of the methods laid out in the book with a little success.  However, reading 123 Magic really outlined effective discipline in a way I just knew would have helped me.  I’m keeping this book handy for when we introduce discipline to Bugaboo.  In the mean time, here is what I learned.

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Controlling Obnoxious Behavior

According to the book, a parent has three roles: controlling obnoxious behavior, encouraging good behavior, and strengthening relationships among the family.  About half of 123 Magic discusses the first role because, in most homes, this is where discipline breaks down.

Use Counting and Time Outs

Although my dad never read this book, he somehow had the presence of mind to use the main disciplinary tactic with us growing up.  What is “counting?”  When my sister and I were refusing to behave, he would say, “That’s 1.”  If we continued to misbehave, he would say, “That’s 2.”  Finally, if we continued to disobey, he would say, “That’s 3.”  At that point, punishment would be swift – generally a time out or lost privilege.  When my husband and I had the twins, we used this method as well – with fairly decent results.  I was happy to see that this method is the nuts and bolts of 123 Magic.

As a form of discipline, this method is easy to implement.  The key is in being consistent and quick.  If you say, “That’s 1,” and the obnoxious behavior doesn’t stop, then you must always move on to “That’s 2…That’s 3….time out.”  As children learn that you are serious, they will begin to stop their poor behavior when you say, “That’s 1.”  I have firsthand knowledge of how successful this strategy is, because growing up we pretty much never let our dad get past “2.”

You must also be quick – make sure the punishment is implemented immediately after reaching “3” so that your child (especially younger children) will associate the punishment with misbehaving.

Time Outs

Time outs are generally recommended to be one minute per year of age for the child, and they begin only after the child has calmed down.  For instance, if you have a seven year old, the time out should be seven minutes.  In 123 Magic, it is recommended the child goes to his or her room.  It doesn’t matter if the child has toys in her room or enjoys being there, the time out can still be effective because it removes the child from the situation causing the obnoxious behavior.

However, you can also have special time out areas – such as sitting on the steps – as long as the child will stay put.  When you choose a time out spot, do not face the child in toward a corner – this is a more severe form of punishment as it hurts their self esteem.  If you are out and about, a time out can be as simple as sitting down in the aisle of the grocery store, but if your child is making a scene you can take him to your car.

Don’t Talk

So much for what I already knew about the counting system.  However, as Dr. Phelan often repeats, the “magic” part of his book is not just in counting.  It’s in doing something that my dad and I never knew about: not talking.

See, we tend to get into binds when we try to rationalize or lecture our children.  If we rationalize with our kids before we discipline them, we are sending the message that they just have to outwit us or come up with a better reason for why they should be able to continue their obnoxious behavior.  And if we lecture children after disciplining them, we are just extending their punishment and beating them down emotionally.  They already went to time out – they get it.

Bribing Your Way Out of a Tantrum

Here’s an example of not talking.  My nieces are incredibly jealous of each other.  If #1 goes out to ice cream with her dad as a special date, when she gets home, #2 says, “I want to go to ice cream, too!”  Her mom says, “This time #1 went out with daddy.  Next time you will go.  Besides, you got to stay home and watch Frozen.”  Suddenly, #1 will cry out, “I want to watch Frozen!”  Then the mother turns to #1 and says, “I’m sorry you missed the movie, but you were at ice cream.  We will watch Frozen tomorrow when your sister is at her play date.”  Then #2 will scream out, “That’s not fair.  You get to watch movies and eat ice cream?”  And so on.  Do you see what happens?  The mom is trying to rationalize and bribe the children, and she can’t win.  In the mean time, they are being greedy and jealous.  No amount of treats and experiences will be enough for these two.

A better way: #1 returns home, and #2 says, “I want to go to ice cream, too!”  Her mom says, “This time #1 went out with daddy.  Next time you will go.”  (No mention of #2’s special treat).  If #2 continues to whine, cry, or stomp her feet, the mom will say, “That’s 1.”  And the counting will begin.

Don’t Get Emotional

Something about being with little children makes you act like a big baby yourself.  I think we’ve all done it, haven’t we?  The incessant whining and crying, the fighting and pouting, disobedience and being slow to move, they all wear on us.  Sooner or later, we are bound to explode.  But exploding parents are dangerous for children and leave us feeling guilty.  We don’t want to work ourselves up to a point where we are yelling or even dangerous towards our children.

When disciplining your children, make sure that you are calm and cool when you start counting.  Say “That’s 1” in an even voice.  If you feel like you are too emotional, give yourself a time out.  No matter what your child’s age, you can always leave her in a safe space and walk away for a few minutes.  Even if your child cries and screams while you are gone, it is safer and better for you to collect yourself than to try to deal with her when you are too emotional.

It’s Ok to Count Minor Infractions

I learned through 123 Magic that I had made mistakes with the twins in talking too much or being too emotional.  However, there was one more “Aha!” moment I got from reading the book.  The key phrase is, “controlling obnoxious behaviors.”

See, with the twins we had so many factors going against us: they couldn’t communicate, they weren’t with us all day long, and they preferred their mom to us because she spoiled them.  As such, I decided that I could only discipline behaviors that were harmful to themselves or others.  For other behaviors, I would try to distract them or remove them from the situation.  Granted, for young two year olds, distraction is still a pretty good method of discipline.  But what I didn’t realize was that, by being inconsistent, I wasn’t doing any good in teaching them obedience.

In other words, I was not teaching them that my word was enough.  Considering that the “punishment” for an infraction was just a time out, it wouldn’t have hurt to give the children a few more time outs.  I was never going to get to the point where the twins behaved on the count of one because I accepted too many obnoxious behaviors from them the rest of the time.

Here’s a list of minor infractions that I didn’t think I should count, but that 123 Magic recommends using counting to control: whining, tantrums, asking for something after mom has already said “no”, arguing, sibling rivalry, yelling, teasing.


One of a parent’s most important jobs is to teach their child responsibility.  When we control obnoxious behaviors, we get a head start on teaching some life skills, for instance respect for authority and polite social skills.  However, there are a lot of things children need to learn to do on their own.  123 Magic calls these “start” behaviors.

Don’t Confuse Motivation With Punishment

Another big “aha” moment for me when reading the 123 Magic book was when it defined “start” vs. “stop” behaviors.  Stop behaviors are obnoxious.  You count them.  The punishment is swift and easy – a time out.  Start behaviors mean that you need for your kid to start doing something.  In general, these things take longer than two minutes to complete.  As such, giving a time out for not doing them is not going to work.

For instance, start behaviors include: eating dinner, cleaning a room, getting ready for bed, getting up in the morning, and doing homework are all start behaviors that require unique motivation.

It’s easy to confuse start and stop behaviors because, after all, aren’t they all just forms of the same behavior: doing what you’re told?  It’s tempting to say, “Go do the dishes” and then count, “That’s 1” when the child doesn’t jump up from his chair.  However, what is the ultimate effect of this strategy?  You can spend a whole evening with your child going in and out of time outs because he is not motivated to do the dishes.  At the end of the day, he hasn’t learned responsibility, and you are stressed up to your ears.

So for start behaviors, you want to motivate your child.

The Best Motivation is Praise

No matter how young your child is, you can start motivation early with praise.  Praise is easy, free, and it is actually the best motivator.  Your child wants to hear you say, “Good job!”  Other forms of praise are one-on-one attention and engaged listening.  Your child will come to associate performing good works with getting a pat on the back, and this may motivate her to do what you tell her to do without being nagged.

With Motivations – Be Creative

In 123 Magic, six additional motivators are mentioned:

  • Simple Requests – Just ask your child to do something
  • Timers – Try to get your child to complete a task before the timer goes off
  • The Docking System – Take away a portion of your child’s allowance when a chore is not completed on time.  Or a toy may go into “toy jail” for a set amount of time.
  • Natural Consequences – Allow your child to suffer the consequences of his actions.  For instance, if your child is not getting up on time, allow him to go to school in his pajamas one day.
  • Charting – Create a chart with the behaviors you would like to see, and give stickers or stars for good completion.  For some children, getting the star and praise is enough motivation.  For other tasks, you may want to work toward a special treat.
  • Counting Variation – If the behavior will take less than two minutes to complete, you may count 1-2-3.

Mix and Match

One thing I noticed about these motivating factors is that many must be used in conjunction with each other.  For instance, what happens when the timer goes off and the task has not been completed?  You probably will have to dock something or let natural consequences take their course.  Be creative in how you mix and match these motivating factors, but also be consistent in how they are applied.  Don’t set up your child with a chore chart and then dock him if he fails to complete the task – he has already been punished by not getting his star for completing the task.

You don’t have to limit yourself to these six motivators.  As the person who knows your children best, you can come up with all kinds of ways to motive them.  The point is that you are motivating them to take responsibility and perform certain tasks rather than doling out random punishments.

Enjoy Your Children

The final point of 123 Magic can really tug at your heartstrings.  You are meant to enjoy your children.  In other words, you want to be around them, and you are happy when you are together.  This is, sadly, a hard concept for some parents, including myself.  If your children are always misbehaving, yelling, and arguing, you may not want to be with them.  Or perhaps you just don’t get your kids – you don’t understand their interests, hobbies, or friends.  You may just be an introvert like myself and want some alone time.

If you can master the first two tasks – controlling obnoxious behavior and motivating good behavior – you shouldn’t have to worry about your children irritating you anymore.  You will be well on your way to enjoying your children.  However, if you don’t enjoy your children for either of the other two reasons, consider the following:

  • Spend one-on-one time with each of your children in turn
  • Find something you both enjoy – it can be something simple like a funny joke, a special food, or a song
  • Find time each day to really listen to your child and understand what is going on in his life
  • Ask your child what fun things she would like to do with you and then do them

There’s More to This Book

In this article, I listed the things I learned most from 123 Magic.  However, there’s a lot more to effective discipline than what I could cover in this short blog post.  Because Bugaboo is not old enough to really use the program, as time goes on, I will have to revisit the book to brush up on: sibling rivalry, discipline in the car, doing homework, and push back.  I recommend you read the book or get it on Audible.

I can see how 123 Magic would be a life changer for some – it is changing my outlook already!

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