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Jewish World Review /September 1, 1998 / 10 Elul, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

One, two, three

ABOUT THIS TIME OF YEAR, parents begin to pine for school to start. The frazzled parent longs for release from ceaseless sibling rivalry, endless dawdling and constant demands.

When parents are exhausted by their children, it is almost always a sign that the children are in charge. Righting the balance of power is difficult but, I am here to report, possible.

Like most yuppies of my generation, I have tended to believe that if I can only read enough about a subject, I will discover the keys to success. Accordingly, our bookshelves are sagging with discarded child-rearing manuals. Most have done little beyond illuminating the mistakes that have gotten our society to where it is now: treating children as little adults whose rights must be respected, privacy honored and self-esteem boosted at every turn.

I tend to believe that the old-fashioned view of child rearing is much more clear-headed. Children are adorable, but they are naturally selfish, ill-mannered and aggressive. They must be trained to do what is admirable and forbidden from doing what is not. They must obey their parents because that is the order of the universe.

On the other hand, manuals dating from the last century are not always applicable either. Training one's child as one would the family dog is not my style. I believe that if parents did not humiliate, scorn, belittle and terrorize their children -- universal practices since the dawn of time -- the world would contain at least 85 percent less evil than it does today. For better or worse, I am a creature of my time and would eat a boot before resorting to the punishments that were commonplace 100 years ago: spanking with a belt or boxing the ears.

That's why 1-2-3 Magic, by Thomas W. Phelan, comes as such a welcome surprise. Dr. Phelan approaches the subject of discipline with several excellent insights and a fistful of practical suggestions.

Phelan explains that children know they are small, weak and vulnerable. When they can reduce a large, powerful adult to screaming or exasperation, it's quite a sensation of power. So is getting the adult to engage in protracted discussions about each parental decision. Most of these are impertinent challenges to parental authority, not carefully considered views on the justice of any particular punishment. (Actually, the examples of rudeness and impudence offered in this book are evidence of the coarseness of our time. But even if your kids are not this terrible, his techniques work.)

It is part of Phelan's system to deny children that sensation of power and thus remove a strong incentive to misbehavior. By "counting" bad behavior (which includes back talk and impertinence) and then abiding by the rule "no talking, no emotion" (which is easier said than done), the parent reasserts his authority, denies the child a feeling of power and prevents the escalation to adult temper tantrums and hitting.

The 1-2-3 system may seem too simple, but it works. The child is counted for each infraction within a 20-minute window. If he reaches 3, he is sent to his room for a time out. The very act of counting, with its implied suspense, somehow makes the familiar time out more ominous. And the silence of the adult -- except for counting -- in the face of entreaties, arguments and whining ("that's 2") is far more powerful than the shower of words they have learned to ignore.

Phelan also attacks the subject with wry humor. He predicts, for example, that when children are informed of the new discipline technique, they will "poke each other and exchange knowing glances, as if to say, 'Well, it looks like Mom went to the library again and got another one of those books on how to raise us guys. Last time, she stuck to it for about four days. I think if we stick together and hang tough, we should be running the house again inside of two weeks.'"

Is there a place for talk, explanation of rules and patient understanding? Of course, but not at the moment when a child is being insufferable. The 1-2-3 system restores common sense to adult/child interactions and puts the adult back where he belongs.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.