National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Consequences Countdown

Family Matters

BY Dr. Ray Guarendi

July 12-25, 2009 Issue | Posted 7/6/09 at 10:53 AM


When my 4-year-old son began to ignore the sound of my voice, I started counting to three, and he’d move. Lately, though, he has even started to ignore my counting.

Parents of preschoolers rely on one of two countdowns: the compelling three count or its more tolerant, metric-system alternative, the 10 count. Far and away, most prefer the three count.

Us: Tarry, come on in the house now.

Tarry: (Dazed look, as if to say): Are you talking to me or the grass?

Us: (Slowly, with emphasis): One … two … thr —

Whereupon Tarry starts to aimlessly drift toward the back door as fast as a snail on crutches.

Here we must note that no kid worthy of the name “kid” will begin to think of moving before his folks reach the last sound of the last number. Furthermore, once in motion, Tarry will take another eight to 10 seconds acquiescing to your original request — coming into the house.

Less common is the 10 count, reserved mostly for incredibly iron-willed kids. Almost never used are other variants, like the six count or the count kids dread most: the one count.

Counts are popular because they work, at first anyway. But like playing any numbers, in the long run, we wind up on the short end.

Counts get results initially out of kids’ fear of the unknown, that is, our reaction after hitting the final number and seeing that they haven’t budged.

Eventually, most kids succumb to the temptation to find out exactly what will happen when the count is completed.

A mom of three boys used the 10 count (the more kids you have, generally the higher you count) to round up everyone for supper. Early on, by about “7,” all would be nearing the house. Then one day, mom reached “10” and only one of the boys had even looked up. Temporarily stumped, she yelled “10” again, paused, then climbed to “15.” Still no response. Out of numbers, she stormed back into the house.

Mom had let her count become her discipline and neglected to back up her numbers with consequences.

Another pitfall of numbers is that they convey an unspoken message, which I’m not sure we want to convey. In essence they say, “Newton, I’m asking nicely, and then you have several seconds to answer.”

The risk here lies in asking for a delayed contest of wills, because every kid is going to make us use every allotted second. To do anything less would be to surrender without a struggle. And that just ain’t normal kidhood.

How do you wean yourself from playing the numbers? The best way is to go cold turkey. Cease the count.

If you’d like Hunter to come in for supper, instead of counting, tell him what you’ll do if he doesn’t head for the door: “Hunter, if I call you again, you won’t go back out after supper.” No threat, no nastiness — just a quiet statement of a certain future, unlike numbers, which can be a loud statement of an uncertain future.

There is a bright side to counting. For grown-ups, counting is a basic stress-reduction technique. That is, to calm ourselves in an emotionally tense situation, we can silently count to three or 10 before we say or do anything we’ll regret.

So, as our frustration builds while counting at our kids, we can use the count to simultaneously cool ourselves down.

It’s hard to say which emotion would win out.

The doctor is always in