Photo Credit: Rifka Schonfeld

Wouldn’t you love to say “Abracadabra” and have all your children’s tantrums and misbehaving disappear?

Don’t you wish that you could just wave your magic wand and have your children listen?


Wouldn’t it be great if you could count to three and your kids would immediately stop whining?

But, parenting doesn’t work like that, right? Dr. Thomas Phelan argues that his parenting technique, “1-2-3 Magic” works, well, almost like magic. At its core, it’s about understanding the philosophy behind parenting and implementing that philosophy, which is magical when you get it right.

In his book 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, Dr. first lays out the criteria for effective parents. He argues that parents need to be both warm and friendly and demanding and firm.

He explains: Warm and friendly on the one hand means taking care of kids’ emotional and physical needs. It means feeding them, keeping them safe, warm, well clothed and making sure they get enough sleep. Warmth and friendliness also mean being sensitive to the children’s feelings: sharing their joy over a new friend, comforting them when their ice cream falls on the ground, listening sympathetically when they’re angry at their teacher, and enjoying their company. Warm and friendly also means liking – not just loving – your children.

Demanding and firm on the other is meant in the good sense. Good parents expect something from their kids. They expect good behavior in school, respect toward adults, hard work on academics, effort in sports and relationships with friends that include sharing and kindness. They expect their youngsters to follow the rules, to do things for other people and to sometimes confront issues that are hard or scary.

In other words, successful parents both expect their children to work through life’s trials and also to adhere to rules and limits that are prescribed by family or community. While these two parental models (warm and friendly vs. firm and demanding) seem at odds with one another, Dr. Phelan maintains that they are not. Instead, some situations call from a warm and friendly parenting style, whereas others situations call for a firm and demanding one. And, there are even some situations that call for both styles. For instance, think about bedtime with small children. One the one hand, the warm and friendly parenting style allows you to snuggle, read bedtime stories, and sing Shema. On the other hand, the firm and demanding one insists that before all of those warm and friendly things can happen, children need to bathe, brush their teeth, and change into pajamas.

The warm parenting style indicates to children, “I love you and will take care of you” and the firm parenting style lets children know, “I expect something from you.” Sometimes it is hard for us to understand how these two styles come together, but if you think about it, the ultimate goal is for your children to grow up and leave home one day, able to make it on their own. If you are both warm and firm, you are encouraging growth and respecting your children’s growing independence. The merging of these two styles allows children to do more on their own as they get older.


Let’s Get Practical

How do you manage to achieve both a warm and firm parenting style? According to Dr. Phelan, there are three main parenting jobs:

Job #1: Controlling obnoxious behavior. This type of behavior includes whining, arguing, teasing, tantrums, yelling and fighting.

Job #2: Encouraging good behavior. This type of behavior includes cleaning up after yourself, going to sleep calmly, being kind to siblings, doing homework and respecting authority.

Job #3: Strengthening your relationship with your children. This parenting job involves the “liking” part of parenting. Instead of only loving your children, this part includes developing a relationship with your children so that you like them as individuals as well.

How is it possible to do these jobs well? And how do the different style of parenting fit into these jobs? First, you have to identify what behaviors you want your child to stop (Job #1) and what behaviors you want your child to start (Job #2). Once you identify those behaviors, you then employ different strategies based on whether they are a “stop” or a “start” behavior.


Controlling Obnoxious Behavior

Let’s begin with a “stop” behavior. This is where 1-2-3 Magic comes in. Once you have decided that you want your child to stop crying for a Laffy Taffy right before dinner, without discussion or emotions, you count to three (with pauses to allow your child to stop nagging) and then you send them to timeout (usually a minute per year of age) if they do not stop the behavior. What Dr. Phelan says is the most important part of this piece is that you do not get emotional and do not talk about the issue. Instead, you calmly count to the three and then when timeout is over, you allow the child to come out of his room. There is no emotion or discussion after timeout either. It is simply a way to break the cycle.

I should note that recently, preeminent child psychologist Daniel Siegel argued against timeouts in his book No Drama Discipline saying that timeouts teach children that when they are struggling they are on their own and do not have parents to help them. Therefore, perhaps you want to revoke privileges instead of sending to timeout.


Encouraging Good Behavior

When you want your child to start a good behavior, there are other methods to use. These include praising your child when he does the behavior, making simple requests rather than long, detailed ones, and creating charts with rewards. While “stop” behaviors usually require one simple fix, “start” behaviors are harder and require more effort on both your part and your children’s.


Strengthening Your Relationship

This is the fun part of parenting, but it is also the one that takes the most amount of time and effort. In order to work on your relationship with your children, you need to spend one-on-one time, listen sympathetically, and talk in order to help them (and you) solve problems. If you have a strong relationship with your children, then many of the “stop” behaviors are easy to prevent and many of the “start” behaviors don’t require as much work.


1-2-3 Magic?

You can’t use magic to parent. Actually, parenting is almost the opposite of magic – you reveal all of your tricks at all times in order to help your children grow and learn. But, if you can both love and like your children, and teach them to be independent beings, you can create magic.


Register now for an Anxiety workshop by Dr. Paul Foxman on November 17, 2015. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.


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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at


  1. Don't send a child to their room. The bedroom then becomes associated with punishment. Now you want them to like going to bed? Good luck. And don't withdraw privileges–to a child it's like withdrawing love. See Dr. Shefalii Tsabary's Oprah-acclaimed The Conscious Parent, and her more recent Out of Control. Also start out right with Dancing with your Baby, Dr. Sue Doherty ( What this column does get right is no drama–no emotional reactivity. But one needs much more than just this.

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