Why 'Counting to Three' Could Be Harming Your Child

I see it everywhere kids congregate: a flustered mother counting, and a child running amok. I have a toddler myself, so I certainly understand being in public and trying to rein in your child long enough to focus on directions from a parent, but a delay in obedience is becoming the norm. Kids everywhere are being taught –through actions more than words— that listening and obeying are optional responses to a parent’s directions. As a mom trying my hardest to raise a respectful young man, I find these compromises dangerous for the future of our children.

Obedience is Not One of Many Options

There is only one desired outcome I have in mind when it is time for my son to join me and leave the library. At these times, my son has not been instructed to play with the trains for another loop around the track, complete another puzzle, or grab another book—he was told we are leaving. When we leave the library we frequently have an errand to run before we need to pick my husband up from work for his lunch break (one of the joys of being a 1-car family!). When there is a delicate time line in play, parents must accept nothing less than obedience. I strive to offer my son a two-minute warning (because saying it like a sportscaster is fun for both of us) so he knows the departure is coming, but there are no extensions to “it’s time to go.” Parents have to be serious about teaching kids this every single time to communicate its importance.

Slow Obedience is No Obedience

This mantra may as well have been tattooed to my forehead for as often as it was recited during my childhood. If my mom told me to wash the dishes and I chose to finish a television show first, I was at risk of punishment for my disobedience. Doing something else first is not obeying, it is doing something else. I find myself reciting this same phrase to my son. Distractions are aplenty in our culture, but learning to focus and complete a job in a timely manner is a life skill that is best taught in the young years.

Counting to Three is Unsustainable

While this tactic may work on a toddler, a classroom that requires counting to three could take away from your child’s education. Imagine the teacher counting off for Johnny, then doing the same for Jenny, and then… half of the day would easily be spent settling the classroom instead of educating the next generation. Do you expect your daughter’s employer to give her three chances to complete a task twenty years from now? No company can run efficiently when tasks have to be assigned more than once before they are started. Teaching your kids to rely on multiple chances sets an unsustainable precedent.

Your Child’s Life Could be at Stake

While it doesn’t happen every day, there are times when immediate obedience has the potential to save a child’s life. Some examples: “Do not go in the street!” “Do not jump in the pool!” and “Do not put Grandpa’s dropped pill in your mouth!” Teaching your son or daughter to obey the first time could be the difference between life and death if you ever are in such a situation. Many accidents could be avoided if a child heard and immediately obeyed the instructions of a parent. I want my son to obey every time so that he will be safe no matter the risk he faces.

Kids Can be Taught to Obey and Still Have a Voice

Tedd Tripp, in his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart, outlines what he refers to as the “Petition Process.” This allows children to have an input in the directions given, without compromising obedience. For instance, if your child is told to come downstairs for dinner but she would like a minute to clean up her dolls, she certainly has a valid request. As she is coming down the stairs (already obeying), she may say “Mom, is it okay if I take a minute to pick up my dolls before dinner?” Mom, looking at the clock, may answer, “No. We only have 20 minutes to eat and get to your brother’s football game. You can clean up when we get home.” Or, she may answer, “That is fine, we are home for the night. See you in a minute.” BUT, either way, kids should be taught to obey first, and accept the answer given to them, even if it is not the answer they wanted. The goal of ending the count off for obedience is not to keep our kids from speaking up, but instead to teach them how to do so in a respectful way, no matter the outcome.

The long-term goal of parenting is to equip our kids to survive in the real world. The habits I help my son create today are setting the pattern for how he will live his life in adulthood. I want to teach my son to listen and obey the first time, rather than test the patience of teachers, co-workers, employers and more. Counting to three is an easy practice to slip into, but guarding against it will benefit our children the most in the long run.