Don't bluff!

Counting to three as a disciplinary tool is fine, says Dr. Diller, but you have to be ready to act when the counting is over.

By Salon Staff

Published October 16, 2002 7:20PM (EDT)

Dear Dr. Diller,

My husband does this thing with our kids (a boy, 3, and a girl, 5) where he starts counting to three to get a certain thing done (put on shoes, turn off TV, etc.). Sometimes he does get to three and there is a consequence (time out, loss of a treat), but most often, he counts like this: "one ... two ... Alexander, I'm talking to you ... one ... two ... Alexander, if you don't ...." and on and on. How can parents effectively use a warning system without delivering false threats?

-- KMR

KMR's letter jogged my memory of a scene between a mother and her son -- a 5-year-old, I'd guess -- whom I'll call Joseph. I was about to enter the post office when I spotted this woman, obviously exasperated, speaking to a bush.

"Joseph, get out of the bush. Joseph, come out. I mean now! Joseph, that's one. I'm not kidding, Joseph. That's two."

At that point, I must admit, I was really rooting for the mom. I'm not against kids' mischief or independence, but so many of the behavioral and emotional problems of children referred to my office reflect some problem with the effectiveness of parental discipline. I like to see a take-charge mother from time to time.

"That's two, Joseph," the mom said. "You better come out! Two, Joseph! We're going to be late. If I get to three, you'll be sorry. Two, OK -- if I get to three, you'll lose your computer time for the rest of the day when we get home. OK, I'm not joking, Joseph, two ... I said 'two,' Joseph. Do you hear me?"

The mom sounded tense and insistent, but her voice was laced with resignation, even helplessness.

I could see Joseph -- he was crouching within his mother's grasp if she were to plunge a couple of feet into the foliage, which wasn't too thick. But I had business to attend to and couldn't wait to see the denouement of this painful (at least to me) power struggle.

When I left the post office about 10 minutes later, I was surprised to find the pair still locked into their drama. I hurried on. I really couldn't watch them anymore. I was too distressed, and they weren't my patients, so I couldn't readily share with them my reaction or advice.

Had she come to me for help, I would have told Joseph's mother (and KMR's husband) that consistent, even-tempered discipline is important and good for children. Why that is so, and why is it so hard for so many parents to take effective action with their children, are subjects for subsequent columns. For the moment, I would ask readers to take my word -- much like that of Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., author of the classic parenting book, "One, Two, Three: Magic!" -- that decisive and committed discipline is critical for the emotional health of children and their families.

You, too, may have seen and heard parents "counting," or you might have used the technique yourself. It can work -- but only if applied with resolve. This is where KMR's husband, and Joseph's mother, appear to have missed the point. To make your words more effective with your children, you must use them less. The idea behind counting is to give children only two chances before ending talk and taking an immediate action. (In Phelan's book, the prototypic action is the parental bottom line currently in fashion in America -- the timeout.)

Giving children only two verbal warnings and then taking an action is critical if the ultimate goal is to have children comply with a verbal warning. Virtually all parents I know wouldn't mind raising a child who listens after only one or two verbal reminders. And most children can learn to do that -- but not by getting repeated chances to get it right.

The obvious reluctance of some parents to take effective action with their kids seriously undermines their effectiveness and authority. The action they take doesn't have to be a timeout, but something should happen after the count of two. When my boys were little, they used to fight or become too rowdy in the evenings, usually because they were tired. I'd be sitting in the living room down the hall, also tired after a long day (with other people's children). I'd yell down the hall for them to settle down. Sometimes that was enough, but often it wasn't, and if I had to call out more than twice, I'd force myself to get up (Doctor, heal thyself) and go down the hall and do something -- remove a toy, give them each a timeout, send them to bed early -- something. Over time, when my verbal warnings didn't work, all I had to do was get up and the boys would stop. This is what happens if you can take an action without offering too many chances.

Even parents who worry about being "mean" and avoid confronting their children can usually summon the resolve to take an action when they've been provoked repeatedly and have gotten angry. But actions stemming from anger are often overly punitive and unrealistic ("You're grounded for the next year"). They are also unlikely to be carried out.

Motivated by anger, parents unnecessarily frighten their children into temporary submission, but such action doesn't give the children the sense of security and comfort that an in-control parent delivers when setting limits. Angry parents are likely to feel so guilty about their loss of control that they will avoid repeating the situation by failing to respond at all, which leads to inconsistency -- precisely the reason that children continue to test a parent who acts only when angry.

What about public situations like the one faced by Joseph's mother in front of the post office? The fear of judgment sometimes further inhibits a parent's willingness to act. In reality, the public is most uncomfortable with out-of-control parents screaming at or physically disciplining their children. That kind of behavior could bring a visit from a local police officer or child protective service worker. But the public is also quite uncomfortable with an out-of-control child paired with a hapless, helpless parent. That arrangement can result in unsolicited offers of help, advice or suggestions like "Could you take your child outside the restaurant, please?"

Perhaps the scenario most palatable to the public is the one in which a grim-faced parent hauls a wailing, out-of-control child out of the store or establishment to do a timeout on the curb or inside the car. Those who have children will identify with the parents. Those who don't have children will wonder why it took you so long. They don't have a clue as to how difficult it is to do.

Unpleasant as the move promised to be, Joseph's mom should have reached quickly into the bushes and grabbed her son. Whether she did anything else would be up to her. The mere act of going in there (like my getting up from my chair) would be enough over time. Usually, when parents can overcome their inhibitions and ambivalence and just follow through with discipline at home or in public several times in a row, children begin to respond: Either they at least hesitate before continuing their defiance or miraculously comply with the direction.

The counting approach, when done properly, has other features to commend it. It's moronically simple. There is to be no additional talking or extra chances once a parent initiates a count. Parents should not use the counting approach frivolously. They should discipline themselves to count only when they are prepared to follow through with something. An immediate action of some kind works best. Delayed actions, like the later loss of computer or TV privileges, may work over time but, especially to younger children, the threat of a delayed action is just more intangible words (and more chances).

The simplicity of the approach also makes it easy for two parents to act similarly with the kids, enhancing consistency, which is the Holy Grail of parenting (total consistency is a quality sought but never truly achieved in the real word of parenting). Finally, the counting technique gives children two opportunities to change their behavior before a parental action takes place. And the methodical approach is also helpful to abrupt or explosive parents: They must count before taking their action.

Transgressions such as hitting someone in anger or destroying property (his toy, your favorite flower vase), may transcend a count and lead to an immediate action. But if done properly, the counting method is as close to a foolproof disciplinary technique as we may ever get. I don't have any financial interest in "One, Two, Three: Magic!" but my copy is rarely in my office for more than a day or two before I've lent it to another set of parents to read.

When the method doesn't work, there's usually a good reason -- major parental ambivalence about discipline in general or some other big problem in the family (adult depression, marital issues, substance abuse). Of course nothing works for everyone 100 percent of the time. Some kids' personalities are so tough (intense, persistent or impulsive) that discipline will still be a problem after the count, but even in those cases, consistently counting and saying "two" only once before taking an action will greatly help.

Salon Staff

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