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Expert Insights with Dr. Thomas Phelan on 1-2-3 Magic!

March 4, 2013

by Michelle LaRowe
Editor in Chief

Besides my own mother, no one has shaped my parenting style and caregiving philosophies more than Dr. Thomas Phelan, clinical psychologist, founder of the 1-2-3 Magic program and author of the 1-2-3 Magic book series. That said, you can only imagine how honored I was when Dr. Phelan accepted my invitation to write an endorsement of my first book, Nanny to the Rescue! His method is one I wholly endorse, and his books are the first I recommend to my own clients. For parents and caregivers who are struggling to manage their children’s behavior or new parents who are looking for a solid discipline strategy, the 1-2-3 Magic book series can positively change your parenting life.

Recently I had a chance to chat with Dr. Phelan and find out why his message is so powerful and why he believes his approach really works. Here’s what he had to say.

eNannySource: Tell me about how you came up with the concept behind 1-2-3 Magic.

Dr. Phelan: The 1-2-3 Magic program is an outgrowth of my private practice as a clinical psychologist and my parenting experience. It also draws from my experience in child guidance and working in the mental health field with children and families. I distinctly remember one day when I was talking to a mother who came in about her 10-year-old son. She was going on and on and on, and I realized I was starting to get irritated with her because she talked so much. I thought to myself if I am irritated – what about her 10-year-old son? He must be irritated too! Then it dawned on me. Talking is not benign. It’s not even neutral. Talking can be a positively negative experience if you know what I mean.

eNannySource.com: What I love about your program is the non-emotional approach to discipline. Can you tell me more about why that’s such an important part of the program?

Dr. Phelan: First, the more you talk, the more emotional you get. The more you talk, the more you tend to confuse and fluster your child while they are trying to think clearly about your message. You get emotional, the child gets emotional and then no one thinks clearly.

Second, some kids enjoy getting a big bang out of their parents – in a negative sense. This is a big problem for kids who enjoy rocking the boat. The more of a response they get, the more satisfaction they get, thus the more revenge they get.  If they can get successful revenge, they will.

eNannySource: I know no discipline strategy is a one-sized-fits-all fix, but I have seen 1-2-3 Magic work for tons of different types of children in the 15 years I’ve been using the approach. Why does it work so well?

Dr. Phelan: It works for most kids most of the time. It works because parents know what they are doing and they have a strategy for each problem. Kids sense if their parents do not know what they are doing. They pick up on confidence, and if the parents know what they are doing it is a deterrent to misbehavior. The trick is to get the kids to cooperate before they’re overloaded. By not talking and by not getting emotional, you get them to cooperate, as opposed to getting more emotional and getting into an argument. When that happens, the child is churned up and he can’t cooperate.  You have success because you are aborting the emotional response in an early stage for both parents and children.

eNannySource.com: What’s the biggest mistake parents make today in terms of disciplining their kids?

Dr. Phelan: They talk too much. They see kids as little adults.

eNannySource: You talk about stop and start behaviors. Which is harder, to get a behavior to stop or to start?

Dr. Phelan: It is definitely harder to get a kid to start a behavior. Think about it: getting up and out of the house, eating dinner and doing homework versus stopping whining and stopping arguing.  To stop misbehavior with motivation using the counting to three method, it stops in a half a second. Homework could take 50 minutes, eating can take 20. The longer something takes, the more motivation is required.

eNannySource: You have several versions of the book out there – some geared towards teachers and Christian parents. Does the strategy change with the audience?

Dr. Phelan: The theory is the same, but the situations they address are different.  The book for teachers addresses classroom-related issues. The Christian book starts with a Bible verse and ends with exercises for Christian parents to enhance their knowledge of the program with commentary. The Christian book actually came about because a Baptist minister called me and told me I was missing out on a big market because the book had the word magic in the title. We debated taking magic out of the title and then decided against it. The theory is compatible with the Bible, so we edited the interior of the book to reflect that.

eNannySource: What is the one thing you wish parents knew before they came to see you?

Dr. Phelan: All of us got caught off guard when we become parents.  It’s a shock and a trauma. Give yourself a break. You entered into a thing that was more shocking and more traumatic then you ever could have imagined. Don’t shoot from the hip. Find a strategy.  Pick something – anything – and stick with it.

Dr. Phelan’s program that started out as a 60 page pamphlet has now sold over 1.4 million copies of books in 22 languages. You can learn more about Dr. Phelan’s 1-2-3 Magic approach and purchase copies of his book at his company’s website http://www.123magic.com/


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