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Counting to Three: A Positive Parenting Version

Many kids have an inherent panic response when Mom or Dad starts counting, “1…2…3…”—the three most fearsome numbers of childhood. Although the consequences differ from household to household, counting is often code for imminent trouble. Peaceful, positive parenting can change that. Rather than counting to three as a threat (suggesting punishment that’s rarely effective anyway), counting can be a useful parenting tool for you. Here’s how.

When you’re upset with your child, silently count to three, just for yourself, while thinking about a special moment in your child’s past (or future).

For those brief seconds, recall a tender moment when your little one was a baby. Remember the feeling of those tiny fingers wrapped around yours. Alternatively, imagine your “baby” being older and moving out of your home. Picturing either extreme will automatically ground you and help you remember how fleeting this moment is. Part of positive parenting can include using mindfulness techniques like this one.

count to three
Great for pinning!

If your child is asking to do something you’d rather not do, see if you can say “yes” and grant their request for three seconds (or three minutes, or whatever you can manage).

Does that mean you agree to every request or throw your boundaries out the window? Of course not. However, you can reevaluate whether you can say yes more often (you’ll find some practical ideas of how to do that here).

Walking past a playground recently on our way somewhere else, my daughter wanted to stop and swing on the swings. We really didn’t have time. I could tell by looking at her, though, that it was important to her. So, I said, “Yes, you may swing for three seconds before we keep walking. I’ll start counting as soon as you get on the swing, and when I get to three, it’ll be time to go.” She agreed.

1-2-3 magic counting to three

She shed no tears; she didn’t negotiate for more time (aside from my agreeing that it was reasonable for her swing to slow down before she hopped off). Part of her lack of desire to negotiate in situations like this is that she’s learned she’ll often get a “yes”—even if just a brief one.

These little “yeses” can go so far in supporting connection with your child. Some might argue that their child wouldn’t get off the swing so easily, but I wonder if they’d consider the time they’d lose in managing their child’s disappointment, and the missed opportunity to connect.

It’s easy to say yes more often once you practice, and once you build trust with your child that it’s what your answer will often be. The “forbidden fruit” they’re seeking will feel less forbidden, and therefore be less of a draw, if they feel you’re on their side.

This approach also makes parenting easier for your kids because they learn when “no” really needs to happen. They trust it’s not arbitrary.

If a transition from one activity to another is hard (as it often is for kids) and you’re triggered because you need to move onto the next task, use your “three” to give them a few moments to adjust to whatever needs to happen next.

In our house when my child was younger, this “counting to three” took the form of “Would you like to go put on your shoes now, or would you like me to hold you while I count to three so you’ll have some time to prepare?” It worked amazingly well. It’s as if my child really needed that count of three to ready herself for whatever was coming next, even if the task was as mundane in adult eyes as brushing teeth or walking to the car. Three seconds to adjust is often just enough time to connect and make the transition easier for both of you.

“Three” can be a place of peace.

It can be a “yes space” for both of you, child and parent, where you ground yourselves for a better interaction and greater connection. And it can be as easy as 1, 2…well, you know.

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Further reading on this topic

parenting bookspositive parenting booksparenting bookscounting to three dandelion seeds positive parentingcounting to three positive parenting books

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About the Writer

Sarah R. Moore is a published writer, positive parenting educator, wellness advocate, and world traveler. Her work spans the globe, reaching readers on six continents and appearing in publications such as The Natural Parent Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Macaroni Kid.

She has been certified by the Raffi Foundation for Child Honouring.  She wholeheartedly recommends the course for parents, educators, and all others who influence the lives of children. 

She also holds BA / MFS degrees in Journalism, French, and Media/Arts/Cultural Production. Read more about Sarah here.