Try the 'When/Then' Trick to Get Kids to Follow Directions


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Sometimes, occasionally, every once in a while, a kid just doesn’t feel like being compliant. They need to go get their shoes? Nah. It’s bath time? Thanks but no thanks. You want them to put their toys away? Not interested. That’s when you use the “when/then” trick.

Angela Elias writes for PopSugar that she learned this method from Amy McCready’s Positive Parenting Solutions course, and it goes like this:

Let’s say I ask my son to pick up his toys or wash his hands and he ignores my request, offers an excuse for why he can’t do it, or flat-out refuses. Instead of repeatedly asking him to do it and eventually losing my cool with a “you better do it or else” threat, now I calmly explain that when he does the undesirable task, then he can do something he is looking forward to. Then I walk away.

For example, I might say when you pick up your toys, then you can watch your show. When you wash your hands, then you can have your snack.

For this to work, the “then” has to be something they want. “When you get your pajamas on, then you can go to bed,” isn’t going to get you results. But, “When you get your coat on, then we can go to the playground,” should spark some interest.

Elias reports that the first time she used this method with her son, it took him a while to come around to the fact that he was the one in charge of getting what he wanted (a snack)—he simply had to comply with the terms she laid for him (wash your hands). But she stayed calm, avoided being pulled into a power struggle and eventually, he washed his hands.

The when/then phrasing also sounds less bribe-y than if/then. If you put your toys away, then you can watch a show sounds like you’re buying their compliance with screen time. When/then is more about controlling the order and flow of events with privileges you’d be allowing anyway.

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