Re-Thinking “Counting to Three”

As you may remember from an earlier post on living in the moment while on mat leave, I love Pamela Druckerman’s book, Bringing Up Bebe (I told you it might come up again!). In her comparison of French- and American-style parenting, she mentions the old “count to three” tactic that I bet most of us are familiar with. She writes that a particular French caregiver she observes “counts to three” to get a child to cooperate, but describes a difference in the tone and attitude of this counting from what I was expecting: less a warning and more an allowance of time for the child to get on board with the program and make a sage (calm and reasonable) decision.

I remember using the “count to three” method on my brother, younger by thirteen years. When I said “I’m going to count,” or when I heard either of my parents say this phrase, there was a definitive warning tone, an escalation of the resistance and conflict between us, an implied threat of pulling out the ‘big guns.’ In essence, this phrase meant, “you are going to do what I have asked whether you like it or not, so you can either save face by doing it before I get to three or you can endure the humiliation of having me enforce it upon you.” It’s the parenting equivalent of checkmate.

Now I don’t think that either I or my parents did anything unusual or extreme in counting to three before enforcing the reality of whatever we had asked my brother to do (likely multiple times) before resorting to counting. Most parents I can remember growing up “counted,” and I bet most of us can remember somebody counting to get us in line at some point or other. It seems to be a very effective strategy overall.  My in-laws told me all they had to do was tell my husband, “I’m going to count…” for him to comply. They didn’t even have to get as far as “one.” The fear of “three” can be almighty.

But reading about this anecdote in Druckerman’s book made me think about a different counting memory, too:

Back in our early years of dating, when we were doing the Toronto-Montreal long-distance thing, my partner and I would do our own version of counting. Whenever we knew we had to do stop doing something  we wanted to do (usually snuggling under the covers in one of our freezing student apartments) in order to do something we didn’t want to (usually brave the Canadian winter so one of us could get back on a train home), we would count. We would count to ten, or twenty, taking turns saying alternating numbers. We were slow about it, breathing calmly and speaking softly. It was just a way to savour the last seconds  of doing what we wanted, of a nice moment, an experience, before resigning ourselves to the harsh, intrusive world of reality where we had to leave each other. And it really did help to make that transition easier.

So between this memory and Druckerman’s observation of the French caregiver, I’ve been trying to use counting in this light the past week with my toddler. And so far, it seems to work (though as with all new attempts at parenting strategies, I feel a need to cross my fingers as I write that!). When my twenty-month-old resists a necessary task, this is my script, said at his level, in a quiet, gentle tone that implies I have confidence he will understand the reason behind what we’re doing:

“Arlo, it’s time to cooperate now. So Mommy’s going to count to three, and then you need to [insert required action here]. One… two… three. Okay, [insert directive here].” Then I let him have this prepared chance to do it on his own.

So far, it’s worked to get him to lay back for a diaper change and stay still instead of wrestling. It’s worked to get him to let me clean his face after supper without a fuss (which normally is a drama). It’s even worked to get him to calmly place a toy in my friend’s bag that belonged to her son, and not, to Arlo’s despair, to him. I was most shocked at this last one!

When he complies, I’ve been acknowledging his cooperation with a  “Thank you,” or “You did it,” and offering him a high five, which he loves. When he still resists, I repeat gently that it’s time to do it, and talk him through the action as quickly and calmly as possible. Even in these instances, once the unpleasant is over (as happened with taking a shirt off yesterday), he hasn’t stayed mad about it or thrown a post-action tantrum the way he used to when my tone had been more forceful and demanding.

These interactions feel good on my part because I get to express empathy with my kid, instead of frustration or the sense that I’m ‘at the end of my rope.’ I’m hoping he somehow feels validation in his resistance, that he feels I ‘get’ why he doesn’t want to comply, and that I understand how much it sucks to not get your way. Because I do. We all do. And even though my job is to sometimes enforce the harsh intrusiveness of reality against whatever he might desire in a particular moment, it seems to be much less of an ordeal for both of us when I turn a moment of resistance into a moment where we’re on the same team, even if I can’t give in to his whim.

So I’m going to keep trying to “count” on this strategy with my little guy, and we’ll see how it goes. As I said, it seems to be working so far, but if parenthood has taught me anything, it’s that things can shift unpredictably and instantly, so I’ll keep you posted!


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