On Counting to Three

by Terri Mauro

Given the success of 1-2-3 Magic, the popular parenting book by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., many parents have found disciplinary success in giving their child a three-count before delivering consequences for disobedience. Other parents may feel that counting to three is too generous — they want kids to listen now. One warning's plenty. Teachers don't count to three, bosses don't count to three, why should parents? Depending on the child, either of these strategies may be effective ... or disastrous.

Some children may actually need longer than a count of three. An expectation of immediate action is completely unreasonable for them. If you know, or suspect, that your child has a neurological problem that makes it difficult to translate language into action (such as auditory processing, motor planning, or sensory integration problems), you may want to consider giving him a more appropriate time frame in which to do what's asked; that may mean counting, or giving escalating warnings, or setting a timer, or talking him through the transition, or just physically helping him along. Some folks may see this as a sign of weak parenting, but if it results in the thing being done in a way that satisfies both grown-up and child, with a minimum of fuss and argument, I'd say it's just being realistic. Again, I'm not saying this is true for ALL kids or MOST kids; but if you know your child needs extra time to process things, you can't expect them to snap to when you want it.

With my son, who has FAE, sensory-integration problems, and difficulties with attention and impulse control, I've found that giving him a count of 10 will almost always result in him doing what I want. I have no consequence after 10; I've never needed one. It's enough time for him to hear me, understand what I want, disengage from what he's concentrating on, and plan a course of action. He can't do that in 3. He sure can't do that in 1. If he can't do that in 10, he looks me in the eye (which is hard for him) and asks for more time. He never ignores the count.

With time and age and therapy, he is getting more and more able to respond without my having to count. But when he's really concentrating on something, or when the thing I'm asking is challenging to his fine or gross motor abilities, I still give him the 10-count. This is a case where the end does justify the means.

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