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There are so many famous techniques and principles that people have heard about, but don’t know how to apply effectively in their own lives. It’s as if they kind of have the right idea, but they don’t know the details to execute properly. Unfortunately, this then renders the technique completely useless. Counting to three is one of those techniques.
Related: How to survive the terrible twos
Why counting to three is not an effective method
The problem with counting to three is that it gives kids the opportunity to ignore you without consequence. This is how that works:
Mom: Q, please clean up your toys.
Q: continues playing, thinking Mom’s not serious.
Mom: Q, did you hear me?
Q: I’ll ignore her, she’ll count to three soon.
Mom: Q, I’m counting to three! One….
Q: I’m scared now…
Mom: Did you hear me? Two….
Q: still ignoring mom
Mom: You’d better get moving!
Q: Okay, I’ll clean up
Not the response you want, right?
If only the kids would listen, then…
Well, then you could reap the benefits of this powerful, yet simple technique. But you’ll only get those benefits if you get the details right. (You know, where the devil is).
When we tell our children what we want from them effectively, we may often find that kids do listen. One of the things we moms tend to forget, is that our kids aren’t working our agenda’s. They’re playing to their own agenda’s instead. If you can really get them to pay attention, though, and understand the consequences, you’ll find that often kids do listen (and obey, not an unimportant detail) and you can often prevent the situation from escalating.
Getting this technique right can help you keep your cool and stay calm when the kids refuse to co-operate (did I promise they’d always listen? I said often, not always 😃 )
For a moment, think about this: when you speak to someone you respect, what do you do? Do you shout at them from across the room? “Hey, pick this up!” I imagine not.
You walk over, look into their eyes, you make sure you have their attention before you start talking, and then you clearly state your meaning. If you have a request, you’re also likely to state why you have this request.
Why aren’t we doing the same with our kids? I mean, they are a bit like human beings, aren’t they?
How to get your kids to listen
It’s really simple, we treat our children with the same respect, but (unlike with other adults) we can install boundaries.
For starters, I think it’s important that you’re aware of when to do this. For instance, if you were to say, “let’s get ice cream!” Then you probably wouldn’t need to do this. However, if you want the toys picked up, this technique helps.
Please remember, that it also helps to install routines! There’s far less debate and talking back if the kids are used to these rules!
Okay, let’s get started. You’ve asked the kids to pick up the toys, from your spot at the dining room table, and they seem to not have heard.
Ask yourself what the consequence will be
Say you ask your kids something, and they don’t seem to listen (a.k.a. they’re ignoring you), why do they do that? Because they’re bad kids? Or because they don’t understand what will happen if they don’t listen? Probably the latter, right? So, before you start, decide what the consequence of not listening will be. What would make an impression on them?
Important: make sure the consequence is something you’ll follow through on!
This is something a lot of people forget, and why I put this step at the beginning of the process. I always ask myself what the consequence will be, or what my leverage is on these kids, before I go to talk to them. It’s not the act of counting to three that gets kids to listen, it’s the consequences of not listening! So make sure the consequence you are going to use makes sense.
Why? Because if I state something silly, such as I’ll lock you in the dark basement with no lights on, and it’s something I’m not willing to follow through on then guess what will happen? The kids will have heard me, but decide to stay on their own agenda’s instead of complying to mine and cleaning up. And then what? I’m left empty handed and the kids know they don’t need to listen to me, because there’s no consequence to not listening.
Always, always only make threats you are willing to act upon!
Walk over, kneel down
Then, just as you would with other people, walk over and kneel down so you can look them in the eye. Don’t be too particular about eye contact, though, often our children are a bit intimidated or distracted by all that eye contact. But do make sure you have their attention and the know you want to say something to them. You don’t want any excuses about “I didn’t hear you mommy” later on.
Say what will happen
“You are going to clean up those toys now (without further debate, my son loooves to debate), or mommy isn’t going to read you a book tonight. And I mean now.”
Then what happens
They might have to think about it for a few seconds, but not longer than 3 seconds. If you still feel the need to start counting to three, then make sure you get to three within those 3 seconds. No 2 1/2 of that nonsense. No drawn out oooone, twoooo…. Count seconds, 1 2 3. That’s it.
If they listen then give praise immediately, this reinforces good behavior better than anything.
If they don’t listen, follow through on the consequence you chose immediately. Without changing your facial expression and without talking to them.
What you don’t do
- Do not start counting to three a second time.
- Do not repeat instructions.
- Do not cajole.
- Do not explain further.
How to pick an effective consequence:
- You have to be willing to follow through on your threat;
- It needs to make an impression on them, not you;
- It needs to take effect immediately, or really soon;
Remember that these consequences are only effective if they’re within your child’s frame of experience. Which means that it can’t be too far away in time; young children don’t have much of a sense of time, plus that if the consequence starts only half a day later they might feel unfairly treated (but I was good for the whole afternoon?!).
It also needs to be something that they’d value. That’s why earlier bed-time works so well after dinner; it’s when every second counts to them. So ask yourself what really carries leverage with them. You don’t necessarily want to punish them, you want to convince them that following your request is the best way to go.
And, as stated above: always follow through
I’m just going to keep repeating it: always follow through.
You’ll have exactly ZERO leverage with your kids if you don’t follow through. In fact, you still have zero leverage with your kids if you follow through just half of the time.
If it helps, sit down for 5 minutes and create a little reminder card with common consequences that you can expect your child to react to at different times of the day. A few examples:
- Go to bed earlier
- No bath time, only a quick shower
- No sweet sandwich for lunch, only something savory
- No mom-time playing with them