The When-Then Parenting Technique for Kids

A friend of mine once told me that there’s a 70/30 rule with raising kids. Having a baby is 70 percent physical and 30 percent mental, and as that baby gets older, the ratio begins to shift in the opposite direction.

And, my goodness, it’s so true.

With my 4-year-old son, I don’t have to change his diaper, hand-feed him his dinner, rock him to sleep, breastfeed throughout the night, etc. Now that he can exist on his own, independently, without me running after him in a panic, I don’t have those consuming physical demands of early motherhood.


But then, on the other hand, the mental and emotional demand of motherhood is making up for that ratio.

With more independence comes more responsibility — meaning that yes he can clean his plate off after dinner and place it into the sink. Yes he can get himself dressed in the morning. Yes he can find that one special toy that he’s too lazy to look for.

But you’d be surprised how many NOs I hear.

In all honesty, he’s a pretty good kid and I can’t complain too much. But we’ve been using one little technique that’s been working like a charm to squash the back-talk and whining:

The WHEN-THEN Technique:

Popularized by Amy McCready — founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time… — the “when-then” technique is simply a different way of approaching what would normally result in power struggles and yelling.

Here’s how the situation might normally go: You tell your child to do something (like, say, clean up his toys scattered around four rooms of the house), he says “in one minute!” (or “NO!” or maybe even ignores you), and then you repeat yourself again and again until your voice raises and BOOM. You’re yelling and threatening and punishing.

The “When-Then” parenting technique simply requires a different word structure. So instead of the “Repeat-Remind-Explode” cycle, as McCready calls it, you start with a WHEN and end with a THEN:

“WHEN you finish cleaning up your toys, THEN you can continue watching your TV show.”

“WHEN you get yourself dressed, THEN you can go outside and play for 15 minutes.”

“WHEN you clean off your plate, THEN you may have dessert.”

I know it might not sound like a drastic change, but that’s the beauty of it. Using the WHEN-THEN structure makes the message clear and consistent, without any need for further discussion. (In fact, that’s one of McCready’s tips: Leave the room and disengage after saying it.)

And the word “WHEN” (as opposed to, say “if”) makes it a non-negotiable statement.

Above all else, the consistent and reliable script enables me to stay calm and hold my ground. Now, with a 4-year-old, and hopefully well into the teenage years.

Watch this clip from Amy McCready for her four ground rules and one big caution when using the “When-Then” parenting technique:

And read more from Amy McCready on her blog.

Article Posted 4 years Ago

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