3, 2, Thank You!

How do you discipline your children? Certainly infants and very young children don’t need any discipline. Rather, the focus at these ages is on modeling good behavior and steering children away from danger. As your child approaches age 2, he starts to have more of a sense of independence and starts trying out new behaviors, some of which you may not want to continue. This is when the concept of behavioral consequences should be introduced: Each behavior you choose has a consequence.

My favorite strategy for disciplining young children involves providing choices. Your child’s verbal comprehension skills are well-developed already, so even if they do not yet have a lot of verbal expression (saying words), they can understand what you say and the choices you provide very well. Giving your child a choice helps them to feel empowered rather than feeling like their parents are dictators. Something as simple as, “Would you like to read this book or that book before your nap today?” helps your child develop their independence and gets them used to the concept of making choices.

Using choices as a discipline technique comes into play when your child says they do not want to do something that you expect them to do. For example, when you let them know it’s time to head upstairs for their nap and they in turn, let you know they don’t want to take a nap today. First, I would provide an explanation for why you are asking them to do the given behavior, in this case napping, such as, “Your body needs rest so you will have enough energy for our fun afternoon outing. Let’s head up to nap now.” Assuming your child seems ready for his nap and this resistance can be attributed to “testing the limits” of his independence, I would then provide the clear choice, “You can walk up the stairs to nap or mommy can carry you.” You’re still speaking to your child in a kind way but you are clearly communicating that you are in control and the nap will happen, while giving him a choice to make a good decision and walk up on his own.” I would then start counting, “3, 2, 1” and if they have not started walking up the stairs by 1, I would pick them up and give then a snuggle or fly them like a plane to keep the mood lighthearted before nap.

Some people count up to 10 but I think 3 counts is plenty of time for them to make a decision. Some people count up from 1 to 3 but I think it’s clearer to kids that something will happen after 1. They know there’s a number 4 after the number 3 but they’re not yet aware of negative numbers (and often not even aware of 0) so to them 1 indicates the end of the line. And here’s my favorite part about counting down from 3: When your child gets the hang of it and knows you’re serious about the alternative choice (being carried up to nap in this example), they’ll get those feet moving, usually after a teeny bit of dilly dallying, so you end up saying, “3, 2, thank you!” (never having to say 1) which rhymes so nicely and keeps the mood positive.

If you’re going to use this strategy, remember that it must be used consistently. That doesn’t mean use it universally every time your child is doing something you don’t like. Rather, use it only for behaviors for which there is a clear next step that must be followed: “Please climb in the car or mommy can help you in,” “Please hop out of bath or mommy can help you out,” “Please give that back to your sister or mommy can help you give it to her.” Using this approach consistently means when they have refused to do something you have asked them to do, you provide a choice, start counting down from 3, and if your child does not choose the favorable option, you consistently follow-up with the consequence. There’s no further discussion. Set a clear consequence, make sure they hear the consequence, start counting, and hopefully you’ll be saying “3, 2, Thank you!”

As you can see, in the early years this is a physical approach (in a very gentle way; please do not confuse this with physical punishment) in that you’re helping your child move their body. When used consistently, kids learn to make the good choice provided by you (because they know if you start counting, you’re serious about making the request happen). Over time, your child will learn to make good choices on his own and to respect your words so this becomes a simple, verbal approach to discipline (start early with your 1-2 year-old so you won’t be carrying your heavy 4 year-old around every time they refuse to follow your requests). Using techniques like this, by the time your munchkin starts kindergarten (that first milestone that I’m always working towards in my parenting) they’ll be cooperative and helpful both at home and in the classroom.

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