Gentle Yet Effective Discipline Using 3, 2, Thank You!Sep 07, 2023
This post is the second in a special two-part series on 3, 2, Thank You! (see Parenting Through Choices for the first part). This technique is one of my absolute favorite and most valuable parenting tips. In my last post, we talked about how 3, 2, Thank You! falls under the Choices & Checkpoints category of my 5 C’s parenting framework (see The 5 C’s to Amazing Parenting) because at its core, 3, 2, Thank You! is about teaching your children to make good decisions. You are teaching them an important life skill while teaching them to respect your words. In addition, 3, 2, Thank You! can be an extremely useful, gentle disciplinary technique, so it could just as easily fall under the Consequences category.
3, 2, Thank You! is one of the best ways to establish the parent as the loving authority figure in the parent-child dynamic. This is important to do early in your parenting. It’s cute when your toddler climbs on you, but when your big kid climbs on you, and you ask them to stop, you want them to listen. Similarly, when you ask your child to do something, you want them to do it. Training your children to listen to and respect your words early on will pay dividends as they get older. Now, if your child is already 3 or 5 or 7, or even 10 when you read this, fear not; it’s not too late to start using 3, 2, Thank You! The great thing about starting early with this technique is that by age 5, 7, or 10, you’ll be using it less and less until you never have to use it because your children know that your words are important and must be respected.
The beauty of 3, 2, Thank You! is that it’s not confrontative. When done correctly, it involves making a request and, if necessary, providing a brief justification for why that request is reasonable, then giving your child a chance to respond to your request. If they do not, then you provide a choice such as, “You can turn off the TV as I asked, or I can turn it off for you.” Then you countdown “3, 2, 1.” Once you have your child trained in this technique, you will very rarely get to 1. Instead, you will say, “3, 2, Thank You!” or better yet, “3…Thank You!” when they respond immediately after you start counting. Kids learn quickly that if you start counting down, you must mean business; you are very serious about that request, and they must respect your words and respond accordingly. It takes a little time to get them trained to that point, but be consistent by always following through with the consequence, and they’ll get the hang of it quickly.
Let’s talk next about how 3, 2, Thank You! evolves as your child ages. Many of my examples in previous posts are more relevant to young children - removing a toy from their hand, gently removing them from a restaurant, etc. That’s fine when they’re small and light, but what about as they get older? I’m not about to try to move my 80-pound child. First, remember, if you get an early start to teaching your children to respect your words using 3, 2, Thank You!, you will rarely have to count past 3 or 2. For three of my kids, it was uncommon for me to have to use a countdown past age 4 or 5, and when I did, it was quite a rare thing for me to get down to 1 (i.e., they almost always began doing what I had asked when I started counting down).
All kids are different, and some can be more, shall we say, resistant to parental boundaries. You may think of them as defiant or stubborn, but we can reframe that into strong-willed and determined - qualities that may prove very useful to them in their future careers and other endeavors but can be challenging to the parent-child dynamic. One of my kiddos is like that. These kids can absolutely benefit from 3, 2, Thank You!, and using this technique can help resolve a lot of parent-child standoffs in their early years. What you’ll find with these kids, though, is that there may be a continuing need to use 3, 2, Thank You! in their early elementary years when they are growing bigger, and physically resolving the issue may prove to be more challenging.
What does 3, 2, Thank You! look like with an older child? The underlying concept is the same: Teach your child to make good choices and respect your words. During the elementary school years, they are old enough for what is called a secondary consequence. Whereas a primary consequence is directly related to the event in question (e.g., removing a toy from their hand and giving it back to the sibling they took it from), a secondary consequence is applied because of the event in question but may not be directly related to it. For example, if I ask my child to clean up a mess they’ve made and they refuse, I may reply, “Please clean that up now, or you will lose 10 minutes of your screen time this afternoon.” This delayed, secondary consequence is a big cognitive leap from “Please give that toy back to your sister, or I will help you do it,” and therefore should not be used on younger children. Depending on your child’s development, they might be ready for secondary consequences somewhere in the age 5-6 years range.
When using secondary consequences, there are a few factors to remember. First, just as with younger children, you want to be sure you explicitly state the secondary consequence. To help your child make an informed decision, they should know the details of the potential consequence in advance. Use details like “10 minutes of screen time” rather than just “screen time.”
Second, when it comes to secondary consequences, the more proximal, the better. That means, ideally, the consequence follows shortly after the behavior. In my example above, screen time isn’t scheduled until later in the day. That’s OK for an older child, but if there were a consequence earlier in the day, soon after the problem behavior, that would be even better. I definitely wouldn’t recommend putting off the consequence for days.
Third, be sure that the secondary consequence is fair. I said 10 minutes of screen time in the example above. Depending on the severity of the behavior, that might be reasonable. An hour of screen time might be excessive. It depends on the specific situation.
Fourth, make sure the secondary consequence is motivating. Maybe your kid isn’t big on screen time, so they really don’t care if they lose it or not. My determined kiddo absolutely loves screen time, so this is always our go-to consequence for him. That way, he’s very motivated to listen when I start counting down from 3.
Fifth, I recommend using take-away consequences rather than add-on consequences with the 3, 2, Thank You! technique. Taking away screen time, for example, is easy to enforce. Adding on an unpleasant consequence like doing the dishes or taking out the trash can be harder to enforce because it potentially sets you up for another parent-child standoff.
Discussions around consequences don’t need to be drawn out or emotional. You should clearly state the potential consequence, countdown, then (if you had to count to 1) reiterate the consequence and state when it will take place. There does not need to be a debate, and you do not want to humor any attempts at changing the outcome. You don’t need to address any questions like, “But why do I have to put the toys away/turn off the TV/clean up the mess?” What’s done is done. Just let your child know they can ask questions in the future before you begin the countdown.
Critical to consequences working effectively is following through on them. Be sure you do the prelude of clearly stating the potential consequence so you feel comfortable following through with the consequence if needed. Be prepared for some retorts like, “But you counted too fast,” or, “But I didn’t know you meant that.” These strong-willed and determined kids can be masters of persuasion and manipulation. You’ll get the routine down very quickly and be sure to include the essential elements so you feel comfortable following through on the consequence. And they’ll learn the ropes quickly to choose the better option next time.
In summary, teaching consequences early helps children learn to make good choices and helps you maintain a sense of composure in your parenting. My 3, 2, Thank You! strategy works like a charm, but that’s the most I would suggest for consequences in the under-five age range. Adding the next layer of secondary reinforcement is for children five and over, depending on your child’s ability to plan ahead and understand consequences. Remember to pick your battles, so to speak, and reserve consequences for serious behavioral problems. And remember, you must follow through on consequences to ensure that your words are considered meaningful. Also, be sure to complement your use of consequences with positive reinforcement and modeling good behavior.
Now you see how 3, 2, Thank You! could be categorized in the Choices & Checkpoints category of my 5 C’s parenting framework or in the Consequences category (see The 5 C’s to Amazing Parenting). To view more posts in these categories, use the category search menu on the right of your screen. Keep up the good work on your amazing parenting journey!
P.S. If you love the idea of gentle discipline tools like 3, 2, Thank You!, you might be interested in learning more about my 5 C’s framework and continuing your amazing parenting journey with my free Bootcamps. Find a Bootcamp specific to your child’s age here.
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