Don’t plead. Count to 3!

My 5-year-old daughter, Gwen, is like an adorably playful, but naughty puppy, who wants desperately to play nice, but can’t stop nipping. 

Because the puppy is so darn sweet, and you’re so weak, you keep letting it get away with things it shouldn’t get away with — because in the short term it’s easier to deal with a few nips than confine your puppy to its kennel and listen to it howl all night. 

You go on like this for a while, and things are OK ... until your puppy bites a neighbor. That’s when you realize you have a problem. Your puppy is out of control and you probably had no business having a puppy in the first place. 

OK. Enough of the puppy analogy. 

My little girl is so wonderful in so many ways. She has a great sense of humor. She loves animals. She’s smart. 

She can also be a bit of a bully.

I was just cleaning up breakfast when I got the text that I figured would someday come. It was from another mom in the neighborhood.

Hey, do you have a minute to talk about something that happened between the girls yesterday?

My stomach flip-flopped. I told myself to calm down, not to overreact.

Sure. I’ll meet you outside. 

As I approached my lovely neighbor, I tried to read her face. 

Did she look like a woman who was up all night washing marker out of her daughter’s hair or explaining to her why she shouldn’t strip in public and scream: Shake your booty! 

No, she did not. I breathed a sigh of relief. 

My neighbor wasn’t mad. She just wanted me to be aware of what happened because “if it were her daughter,” she’d want to know. (I didn’t tell her I was fine with blissful ignorance.)

What happened was this: The day before, while playing outside with some of the neighborhood kids, Gwen snatched her friend’s doll and refused to give it back even as her friend begged and pleaded. 

After holding the doll “hostage” for a few more minutes, Gwen hurled it by its long, blonde hair across her friend’s front yard where it landed in a pile of mulch.

Here’s where it got even messier: When Gwen’s older brother came home from baseball practice, Gwen took off to greet him in her usual, inappropriate way — by punching him in his crotch. Gwen knows her brother wears a cup, so she knows she’s not hurting him, but he feigns injury nonetheless and, to the horror of her friend, he collapsed to the ground convulsing in fake pain. 

While the girl’s mom, a sweet woman whom I’ve known for years and consider a friend, didn’t witness any of this as it happened, she got a play-by-play account from her daughter that included Gwen using her term of endearment — “big little wiener” — to greet her brother just before she punched him in his privates. 

I tried not to laugh at that last part. Instead, I apologized and thanked her for bringing the behavior to my attention. This was serious after all. We were not a family that condoned this kind of behavior in our house and certainly (especially) not in our front yard where everyone can see it. 

That night, I sat Gwen down and tried to reason with her. This was my first mistake.

She nodded her head as I explained to her why she shouldn’t take her friend’s toy without permission and why she shouldn’t punch her brother even though he lets her at home. As expected, she was sort-of contrite. But I knew nothing I said was sticking. 

A few days later, I mentioned the issues I was having with Gwen to my therapist. To my surprise, she didn’t offer me parenting advice or personal anecdotes. Instead, she suggested I rent a DVD called 1-2-3 Magic. (It’s also a book, but the DVD is faster to absorb: See 123magic.com/1-2-3-magic-dvds.)

1-2-3 Magic

She said it pretty much saved her from killing her kids.

My husband and I watched the video the next night. It was super cheesy, but literally everything this doctor said resonated, especially this: All this time, we’d been treating Gwen like a little adult, always bargaining and pleading for her to stop or start a behavior. 

And she is not a little adult. She is a child. And just like you can’t negotiate with terrorists, you can’t negotiate with an unreasonable kid.

I won’t go into the whole method here, except to say that it will probably sound familiar to you and works like this: Whenever your child has a tantrum or displays unacceptable behavior you stop talking, take a step back and offer the child two chances to correct herself. 1 … 2 … if you get to 3 and she hasn’t stopped the bad behavior, she gets a timeout. 

It sounds ridiculously simple, I know. But it’s not easy. The hard part, at least for me, is shutting up. For my husband, it’s not giving in to her negotiations. (He tends to fall for her puppy dog eyes.)

We’ve only just begun using the method, but so far, it works. Gwen hasn’t nipped or growled in more than a week! I’m pretty sure that’s a record. Also, my husband and I aren’t yelling quite as much as we used to. It’s about progress, not perfection, right? 

For now, I’m going to enjoy my well-behaved little terrorist.


Tina Mortimer is an essayist and a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in White Bear Lake with her husband and two children. Follow her work at tinatwotimes.com.