Counting to three is a common way to indicate to kids that you're being serious and they need to do what you're saying, and I find it helpful with my kids. It's associated with Thomas Phelan's 1995 book 123 Magic, but it's older than that:

  • Tom Chapin's 1988 song Nick Of Time includes a variant.

  • My parents used it with me, probably also around 1988.

  • My dad says he learned it from my aunt, who says she used it with her kids in the mid 1970s. She doesn't remember where she learned it.

There's something about it that feels reasonably recent to me, where it would feel out of place in a book from 100 years ago? But does anyone know more about its history?

(It's hard to search for uses, since it is often just called "counting" or "counting to three." I wrote to Phelan and Chapin without a response.)

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Here is an example from The Friend magazine, January 1853: "'Do you hear me, sir!' asked the captain. 'I give you whilst I count ten to start. I do not wish to shoot you, Wilson, but if you do not move before I count ten I'll drive this ball through you-- as I hope to reach port, I will.' Raising his pistol until it covered the boat swain's breast the captain commenced counting in a clear and audible tone. Intense excitement was depicted on the faces of the men and some anxiety was shown by the quick glances cast by the chief mate and steward first at the and then at the crew. Wilson with his eyes fixed in the captain's face and his arms loosely folded across his breast stood perfectly quiet as if he were an indifferent spectator. 'Eight!  Nine!' said the captain. 'There is but one left, Wilson, with it I fire if you do not start." 

And from Levana Or, The Doctrine of Education By Jean Paul, 1848:  "Another parental delay, that of punishment, is of use for children of the second five years (quinquennium.) Parents and teachers would more frequently punish according to the line of exact justice, if, after every fault in a child, they would only count four and twenty, or their buttons, or their fingers. They would thereby let the deceiving present round themselves, as well as round the children escape the cold still empire of clearness would remain behind;"

I have used this in the form of counting down from 3. I use it only with consequences and only for things that are important for me but don't warrant immediate action. I just let the kid know that I disapprove of something. 

Research shows that these kinds of punishments are not effective - except in reinforcing the behavior in the parent!