When Counting Undermines

parent discipline countingI’m not talking about counting to five, or counting on fingers, or counting cars on a road trip.

I’m talking about the disciplinary action of counting down to get a child to behave.

Many of my friends really embrace the idea of non-punitive parenting, or parenting with a positive discipline style. Yet, I have seen a similar scenario to the one below many times in their homes, or the park, or the grocery store. I live in a small town where the counting parenting style is prevalent, so without mentioning any names, I’ll give an example:

(Generic) Mom to her two kids, Susie and Jimmy, who are washing their hands at the kitchen sink: Dinner is ready. Stop splashing water on the floor and get your hands washed.

The kids continue to splash, bigger and louder.

Mom: I said, stop splashing. Finish washing your hands and clean up the water.

The kids are having so much fun. They ignore their mother.

Mom: You are both going to spend the night in your room with no TV.

The girl yells at her brother to stop. He splashes her. She cries.

Mom:  That’s it. I’m going to count to five. By five you had better be away from that sink.

No reaction.

Mom:  One . . .

Susie splashes water at Jimmy, trying to get back at him for not stopping.

Mom with a bit more tension: Two . . .

Jimmy hits his sister. Susie begins to cry

Mom growls: Three . . .

The kids are both yelling. Susie bites Jimmy. He shoves his sister hard.

Mom louder with warning in her voice: Fooo-uuur . . .

The kids finally think that Mom is serious. They know a threat is looming. Threats can lead to punishment. They are scared of losing something, like dessert or TV after dinner. The sink play was fun but not fun enough to be worth losing something. And now it’s not even fun anymore. So, the children get quieter, but are still managing to say mean things to one another.

Mom, shouting: FIVE!!

The kids step away from the sink.

Have you seen this scenario? No, I haven’t been in your home. 🙂  But plenty like this.

The counting becomes a repetitive strategy for the mother. She thinks that the counting was effective. But specifically effective at what? What are the kids learning? And at what cost?

For one, they learn to fear their mother. She is more powerful and they had better do what she says or else. They react not from a relationship built on trust and respect but one of fear. The counting, which holds a threat behind it, contributes to this.

Second, the climate is one of disrespect. For all three of them.

Third, they have learned NOT to listen to their mother’s voice the first time. They have learned to disregard what the parent is requesting or telling until they go through the script and hear the end of the count.

What can a parent do instead of counting?

They can teach the child to respond to the parent’s voice on the first time. Some parents think that this won’t be possible. True, the kids may have not done this yet. But, remember, they have learned to ignore the parent’s voice until the counting begins. If a child responds at the end of the count, why not just have them respond the first time the parent speaks?

Here’s a different scenario:

Mom to the two kids who are drawing at the table: From now on, I want you to listen to my voice on the FIRST TIME.

Kids look up puzzled.

Mom: I won’t be counting anymore. I’ll tell you one time what I need to tell you.

The older boy: So, if we don’t listen, we’ll get punished sooner?

Mom: If you don’t respond to my voice, we’ve got a bigger problem of not respecting each other. We might need to stay home from extra activities for a few days so we can practice as a family.

Both kids: Oh, no. I don’t want to miss (fill in the blank: dance, soccer, play practice, sleep-over.)

Mom: Okay, let’s practice now. Dinner is in 30 minutes. In 15 minutes, you can both set the table.

Fast forwad. In 15 minutes, the kids set table.

No one has been threatened. There is no punishment. No yelling, cajoling. No tears.

How does it work in your house? Is this an issue? Have frustrations ever escalated around children not listening? Have you found a way that your children respect your voice on the first time? It would be great to hear from in the comment box below.


7 Responses to “When Counting Undermines”

  1. What a fabulous post! Thanks for writing it! With my youngest, I finally sat down with him and said, “Something isn’t working right here. I need your help. In our family, we all pitch in. You have agreed to do several things and you did not do them. How do we fix this?” He had the BEST idea, which has worked ever since. Here was his response: “When you ask me to do something, how about if I say, ‘Sure. I can do that in 10 minutes!'” Worked like a charm! Asking kids to help solve the problem can give them ownership of the solution. I think it helps them follow through! Worked for us! =) Great blog! Happy to find you!

  2. LOL – This is taught in supermarkets across the country! “Connor! Put it back ONNNE… put it back TWOOO…”… it seems like a game taught to the parents by the child.

    And in general, it seems many parents just UTTER instructions, prompts, etc – which is different than communicating them: parents are way taller than kids! It’s probably like the Voice of God talking down unto them, with diminished eye contact and all the rest that goes along with effective communication.

    I think that taking the time to crouch or kneel down, and to TOUCH your kids when speaking with them goes a long way in the right direction!

  3. Countless times I have seen the counting technique fail. Sometimes I wonder if parents wait until they are in public to instill manners. This was a great post, awesome point, here. Listen on the first warning, not chance after chance of watching mom/dad count to five or ten.
    Thanks for sharing

  4. counting doesn’t really work after the 2nd time. Now I give 1 warning.. then it is final..not done and they get punished.

  5. Great post! Children definitely have to learn to listen the first time their parent says something to them however I’ve found for one of my daughters, I usually just have to say 1 and she quickly stops what she is doing.

  6. I like the 1-2-3 Magic books. It’s similar to this but with less threatening and shouting. The downside of counting is that in a dangerous situation you need your kid to respond the first time. Great post.


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