Counting to three is a discipline technique used different ways by different parents. I’ve seen it used as a gentle way to assert authority, which is what I’m going to talk about here. I’ve also seen it used as a threat (“Do it before I count to three or I’ll whip you!”) and as a way to pretend you’re doing something when you’re not (“One…two…two and a half…. Don’t make me come over there…. Oh, whatever!”) and I am not advocating either of those styles!
I use counting to three exactly the way my mother did, because I remember that it was effective without making me feel shamed or powerless or any other bad thing except mildly disappointed that I had to stop whatever I’d been doing. I started around the time Nicholas turned two, and at that time I wrote this explanation of the most common way I was using it:
MAMA: Okay, time to change your diaper. Please lie down on your back on the towel.
NICK: Where fire truck?
MAMA: (getting diaper and wipe ready) We will find the fire truck later. Right now it’s time for a change. Lie down on the towel please.
NICK: Mama read a story.
MAMA: (kneeling down ready to change diaper) Let’s get your diaper changed so we can go make dinner. Lie down on your back on the towel.
NICK: (still rummaging through his books) I do it!
MAMA: Okay, you do it. (30 seconds later) Come here and lie down on the towel. You do it!
(He climbs onto the bed and rolls around laughing.)
MAMA: I will count to three. You will lie down on your back on the towel, or I will help you. One…
(He climbs off the bed.)
(He lies face-down on the towel, laughing.)
(He rolls onto his back, ready to be changed.)
I’ve never yet had him comply fully before I get to three, but he does comply about 80% of times. (If I stop counting once he starts complying, he immediately stops complying.) The other 20%, I grab him and put him in position, accompanied by cries of, “I do it!”; I say, “You did not do it, so I am helping.” and I try to keep my tone and gestures pleasant. It’s still less stressful than if I simply grab and force him without warning; that makes him so furious that he thrashes and kicks so hard I’m not able to reach his diaper and screams so loudly it’s hard to stay that close to him!
Sometimes he says, “Four!” very cheerfully as he complies, and that means he wants me to keep counting as I change his diaper or whatever it is.
These days he’s three years old, out of diapers, and much better at talking (including long-winded verbal negotiation), so I don’t count to three as often as I used to, but it’s still very effective sometimes. Now that he’s more capable of doing helpful things, if he refuses to do them in a lazy or inconsiderate way, I sometimes confiscate a relevant toy if he doesn’t comply. Here’s a recent example of the way things tend to go if I don’t remember to try counting to three:
MAMA: Your puzzle pieces are all over the floor in front of the doorway. I can’t get to the kitchen.
NICK: (not looking up from his other game, shrugging carelessly) You can step over them.
MAMA: No, this is not a good place for toys. Please pick them up.
NICK: You do it.
MAMA: It’s your puzzle, and you put it there. I want you to pick it up.
NICK: But you are the one who wants it picked up!
MAMA: Let’s do it together.
NICK: (nasty tone) No!
(I start picking up the puzzle pieces.)
NICK: (running over and kicking pieces) No! I like it on the floor!
MAMA: It cannot stay on the floor. I told you.
(He attempts to tip over the box and spill the pieces.)
MAMA: STOP THAT!! (I pick him up, move him several feet away, get between him and the box, and pick up the rest of the pieces.) You did not use your toy responsibly. Tomorrow you will do better. (I put the box on top of the bookcase.)
NICK: NO!!! Don’t take my toy away! I will pick it up now!
MAMA: (grouchy) Too late! It’s already picked up!
(half an hour of angry crying by at least one of us)
I don’t entirely understand why he’s so difficult about this kind of thing. He was done playing with the puzzle, and even when I drew his attention to it again, he didn’t care to play with it until I was actually in the act of confiscating it. My best guess is that he begins to see it as a power struggle, so it’s important to him to win control of the toy. His desperate tactics then irritate me so that I yell at him. It’s a bad scene all around.
Somehow, counting to three has the magical power to remind him that he can choose to do what I asked. It usually leads to our cooperating instead of having an extended and upsetting struggle. For example:
NICK: (climbing into front passenger seat of car) I want to sit in the front seat.
MAMA: That would be a nice change of pace, huh? Kids have to ride in special kid seats, though, and those have to be in the back.
NICK: But I will squish down in the floor like this, and I will hold on here, and I will be very safe.
MAMA: That does look safe, but it’s against the law. Please get into your seat now. It’s time to go. One…
NICK: Would a police car come? with a siren?
MAMA: (thinking, “Not until after the accident, when you’d be dead and couldn’t enjoy it.”) Two…
NICK: (climbing out of front door and going to back) I want to hear that song, you know, with that man, you know, that man saying, saying, what he says!
MAMA: Three. Why are you just standing there?
NICK: I’m trying to think of what he says. Oh! “You may ask yourself…” (climbing into his seat) Can we hear that song? and can we sit in the car until the whole song is over?
MAMA: (fastening harness) Yes, okay, we can hear that whole song.
Thus continues his effort to learn all the lyrics to “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. (My God, what have I done?)
UPDATE: Part Two.