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How to Make 1-2-3 Warnings Work

You’re probably used to giving your kids warnings (“That needs to stop right now!”), but do they work? You may find that your warnings are more effective when you tailor your approach to your child’s temperament.

Here’s a question to help you figure out what kind of approach to take:

How does your child react when you say, “This is your warning, if you do it again I’ll have to… .”

One of my children used to interrupt my warnings as a personal challenge to “bring it on.” My other child reacted as if my warnings were an assault on his tender emotions.

Some children need warnings to be very direct and firm so they know you mean business. Other children do much better when you use a soft gentle voice and confine the warning to information, only. And some children need a blend of the two. Only you know what your child needs.

Keys to a Successfully Using 1-2-3

We’ve all said to our child, “You don’t want me to get to three!” Some parents even add, “I mean it.” That’s the point when a lot of parents wonder, “What am I going to do when I get to three?”

Many experts say being consistent is the answer, and I agree. But it’s not the full answer.  If you don’t know what you’re going to do when you get to three, you can’t be consistent.

Most parents say, “I’m going to send her to timeout if I get to three.” But timeout tends to stop working when it’s overused, so consistently using timeout isn’t the answer either.

You can increase the chances that your child will listen if you say what’s going to happen as you count and if you say it in a way that’s suited to your child’s temperament. Your follow-through then becomes effortless because you’ve already announced what was going to happen.

Words for Warning Strong-Willed Kids

A strong-willed child needs clear, empathetic, direct, firm directions and no wiggle room. Firmly say: “Do not play with the water glass; that’s 1.”

Wait five seconds to see what he does. If nothing happens, say: 
“I will come and take the glass if you don’t stop now; that’s 2!”

Wait five seconds to see what he does. If nothing happens, say:
“I see you chose not to listen; that’s 3. The water is going away now.” 
Notice: There’s no way for the child not to comply aka no wiggle room, as long as you immediately get up and take the water.

Words for Warning More Tenderhearted Kids

A tenderhearted child requires a softer voice, some eye contact and a little more time. Calmly and gently say: 
“Sweetie, please stop fidgeting with the water glass. You’re not allowed to play with your drink; that’s 1.”

Wait 7-10 seconds to see what he does, then repeat if need be: 
“Honey, do not play with the water glass. You can have water play when you’re done eating; that’s 2.”

Wait 7-10 more seconds to see what he does, then repeat if need be: 
“Sweetie that’s 3. You didn’t stop playing with the water. I need to take it right now.” 
Silently take the glass.


Both scripts…

• Are basically the same; you’ve just adjusted your tone and words to fit your child’s temperament.

• Can, and should, have the time in between warnings adjusted to suit your child, versus simply using the timing I used in the example.

• Allow you to enforce the choice your child made to either listen or not listen.

• Take less than one minute and keep your child engaged enough to listen.

• Teach him you mean what you say and you’ll take action, without anger, if need be.

• Require a slight change in your tone of voice to match your child’s temperament.

Remember, warnings work best when you tell your child what’s going to happen as you count, and when you match your tone to your child’s temperament.


Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Discipline Consciously and Become the Parent You Want to Be, and the monthly Online Skills Class, a local, national and international anytime e-class providing parents with solutions for reacting, correcting behavior, outbursts and more to create the parenting instruction manual you always wished came with your child! Click here to receive 2 FREE tips from Sharon’s book. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook

14 Responses to “How to Make 1-2-3 Warnings Work”

  1. giveawayhound

    Thanks for the post. It seems to me these warnings would also be effective without the 1-2-3 aspect.

  2. Cindi

    The 1/2/3/ works with our two children…
    If it doesn't work, then it is time out with a timer!
    Thanks, Cindi

  3. Teresa Moore

    This was a great article. So glad to know others use this method. I started the 1-2-3 warning around the time my daughter was three. Her consequences of me having to say "3" varied, due to what was going on at the time. Now three years later, she quits doing what she has been told not to do or do what she has been asked to do, by the time I say "2". I only use the 1-2-3 after she has been told twice to stop or do something specific. With my child, this has been so much more effective than time out!

    • Teresa Moore

      And that is the key, following through. I always followed through and that is why my daughter knows not to let momma get to "3"! Good point!

  4. Susan Smith

    Good tips, we use this system and it usually works, they know after 3 they get grounded if they don't do what they are suppose to do.

  5. talliana

    I use the 123 system with my kids. The first warning I explain what they did wrong, why it was wrong/inappropriate, and what they need to correct/change. The second time it is a more stern warning. By the third warning my kids already know that they face loss of computer/tv time so we rarely get that far.

  6. paulinemilner

    It is amazing at how much just a change in your tone of voice can affect how your child reacts. I used to use the 1, 2, 3 method all the time and it usually worked. I made sure that whatever I said I was going to do at 3 that I did it.

  7. amanda roach

    interesting. my 4 year old is very stubborn so ill have to take the first approach with her. wish me luck.

  8. leenilee

    I like the 2 different approaches since I have children with both of these temperaments. It seems the approach you used would be easy when there is an object to take away. My main issue is with behavior so I use warnings and the punishment for not listening is going to their room for an extended amount of time. My strong willed child tendds to scream and carry on while being punished in her room so it's hard to know when to allow her to come out.
    leenburke at yahoo dot com

  9. Carol

    Thanks. We are actually struggling with this right now, so this is helpful.

  10. Rosanne

    I'm done raising my 4 kids thank God and I used the 1-2-3 with effectiveness. I tried it on my granddaughter to get her to go up to take a nap.I knew I was getting to 3 and she wasn't going to budge. I looked at the stairs and looked at her and said" I'll race you up the stairs. She bolted upstairs jumped in bed and we took a nap together. I knew she had a stronger will than I but I still got her to take the nap e both needed

  11. Sharon Silver

    I'm glad that everyone liked the ideas in this article. I have used both types of warnings and they both work depending on your child's temperament. Thanks for reading and coming back to read the other articles too!


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