1-2-3 Magic: Thomas W. Phelan’s Child Discipline Technique

If you’re a parent or teacher who is interested in non-spanking discipline techniques, you’ve probably heard of “1-2-3 Magic” at least in passing. You’ve probably even used some variation of it and not known it. What is “1-2-3 Magic”? Will it work for your child? Read on.

1-2-3 Magic is a child discipline method developed by a clinical psychologist named Dr. Thomas W. Phelan. Dr. Phelan has expounded on the technique in his books and in his video-recorded seminar. The basis for the system was developed by Dr. Phelan while raising his own [now-grown] children whom he states were discipline challenges. It is a “three strikes and you’re out” system where child receive gentle warnings to amend the behaviors. If they do not improve their actions they are disciplined.

Many parents already use counting as a warning to their children, e.g. “Molly, I’m going to count to three and if you don’t turn off the television by then I’m taking away your t.v. privileges.” Phelan’s plan takes that tool a step further and helps parents understand when to escalate special situations without losing composure. When parents discipline with anger, the child may end up repeating the behavior just to get a reaction.

Rather than counting to three all at once, in Phelan’s method small transgressions are given a “one.” The parent informs their child “That’s one.” If the child continues, they hear “that’s two.” If the child insists on being stubborn, they’re told “that’s three” and they are sent to time-out or have some privilege revoked. Parents can choose to skip one or two altogether for behaviors that are particularly inappropriate.

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In the program DVD 1-2-3 Magic: Managing Difficult Behaviors in Children 2-12, Phelan explains that the biggest problem parents have with discipline is wanting to treat their children like little adults. As a result, parents talk too much (causing the children to develop selective hearing) and react with too much emotion. Rather than scolding or lecturing children for small transgressions, Phelan believes they should be reminded calmly that the parent is the authority figure by being given terse warnings and appropriate follow-through.

With consistency, Phelan says “1-2-3 Magic” should work on children within seven to ten days. When the children understand that they won’t be able to talk or tantrum their way out of punishments, much of the time they will amend their behaviors before being given a “two.” Phelan goes on to say that children who do not respond to the program within three weeks may need evaluation by a professional knowledgeable about child behavior.

The program video/DVD is approximately two hours long and gives a good overview of the techniques with actors showing the right and wrong way to deal with what Phelan calls “stop behaviors.” The book, 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for children 2-12″ is a paperback of 208 pages and provides detailed strategies on implementing the program, gives suggestions for consequences, and troubleshoots specific situations (e.g. riding in the car). There is also a follow-up book, More 1-2-3 Magic that teaches parents how to encourage their children to do certain positive behaviors.

This article is only intended to highlight general features of the method so that you can determine if it is something you would like to research further. It is not intended to be a substitute for reading Dr. Phelan’s books as they actually provide parenting strategies based on clinical study and provide solutions to real-life scenarios. Learn the technique firsthand from the individual who developed it.

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For more information about the method visit www.parentmagic.com, where archived copies of newsletters are available. The books and DVDs are also available in public libraries.


Phelan, Thomas W., Phd. 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, third edition. ParentMagic, Inc. 2003.

1-2-3 Magic: Managing Difficult Behavior in Children 2-12. DVD. Dr. Thomas W. Phelan. ParentMagic, Inc., 2004.