Friday, May 9, 2014

Book Review: 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas W. Phelan

1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, Revised 4th Edition, by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph. D.

1-2-3 Magic presents a parenting plan broken into three different jobs--controlling obnoxious behavior, encouraging good behavior, and strengthening parent/child relationships.

The book is mostly focused on job one, controlling undesirable behavior like arguing, tantrums, sibling fights, whining, and so on. The technique is fairly simple. When a child exhibits obnoxious behavior, the parent tells them calmly, "That's a one." If the behavior continues, the parent gives them a two and then a three, which means a time out or some other disciplinary action (the author recognizes that a time out can't be given in every situation). The idea is that the parent doesn't argue or plead with the child to stop their behavior, the parent just gives the number without emotion or discussion. This prevents escalation and anger (which is not productive) for the parents. Phelan often refers to a classic parents' blunder: assuming one explanation of why something is wrong or annoying will somehow persuade the child to stop, what he calls the Little Adult Assumption. The underlying idea of Phelan's solution is that kids need direction and not instruction when they are misbehaving. Some children will push back against the system but plenty of techniques and examples are provided to deal with those situations.

The book also describes how to establish positive routines to encourage good behavior, especially at tricky times like getting up in the morning, getting out of the house, getting chores done, getting homework done, and getting to bed. Some nice practical techniques are introduced.

The final section goes over ways to get closer to your children, including how to listen attentively and how important one-on-one time is. A new chapter on children and technology has been added.

This book provides a lot of practical advise and we are trying it out with the kids now. My only criticisms of the book are (1) the tone and (2) the basic assumption behind it. I found the tone of the book a bit condescending. For example,  when he talks about the Little Adult Assumption (which comes up several times) he basically says, "Aren't you an idiot for thinking that way?" That's especially tedious when he falls into the same assumption in his own book (see the sample quote below). I had to put the book down a couple of times just because I found the writing style annoying.

My other problem is that the book is more focused on behavior modification rather than moral formation. Sure, we all want our children to behave, especially in public, but the system seems to apply to anything the parent decides is annoying rather than only to misbehavior. Also, delaying any explanations until the child is calm enough to understand might disconnect the explanations from the behavior too much. With a little tailoring, though, I think the system will work well for us.

Sample Quote, where the author hangs himself by his own petard, or he describes the anticipated reaction from the kids after the 1-2-3 system is explained:
Expect the kids to sit there and look at you like you've just gone off your rocker. Some kids will poke each other and exchange knowing glances, as if to say, "Well, it looks like Mom went to the library again and got another one of those books on how to raise us guys. Last time she stuck to it for about four days, and Dad never did anything different at all. I think if we stick together and hang tough, we should be running the house again inside of a week, right?" [p. 74]

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