One simple parenting technique can seriously improve the relationship with your children! This gem is called a “When/Then.” I heard about this technique through Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and author of If I Have To Tell You One More Time…

This technique is a way to communicate with your children positively rather than trying to “make them” do something. Ultimately, “When/Then” reduces power struggles and yelling. The heart of this technique is using different word structuring—I call it “flipping your sentence from nagging to inviting.”

The reason a “When/Then” and its great variations work so well is that children feel they are not being told what to do. Even though the choices are limited, children still have the power to decide when they will be ready to move to the activity you are asking to be done. (“When/Thens” are a particularly good way to diffuse the big anger than can happen in four-year-olds.)

Another benefit to this technique is that when parents have a consistent script to use, it is easier to stay calm when anger or frustration starts to boil—I refer to this as having a calm-down plan.

This is how to use “When/Then”

Start with a “when” and follow it with a “then.”

The “when” is usually the task you’d like your child to do. The “then” is the privilege your child would like that you will delay until the “when” is complete. For example, if you want your child to wash his hands before eating, you would word it like this, “When your hands are clean, then I know you are ready to eat.” This eliminates nagging like this, “Wash your hands!” or “Did you wash your hands?” (Yes/no questions can sometimes set your child up to tell a lie so stay clear of those.)

After your “When/Then,” stop talking. Let the words sink in, giving your child time to consider his next move.

Very importantly, do not use the word “If!” “When” makes the statement feel more non-negotiable and “If” can sound like a threat or bribe. For example, “If you don’t…” will likely trigger a child’s defensiveness rather than cooperation.

Speak in a calm tone and do not repeat yourself. Do not shout your “When/Then” or say it more than once. Speak in a calm, assertive tone and then give your child space to process the request. If you need to walk away to help remind you to create space, be calm, and not repeat, then do that!

I asked the parents in my Facebook community to provide examples of this technique that work for them. Here are some of their great suggestions:

“When you tidy up your toys then we can get out the new ones.”

“When you stop whining then mommy can listen to your request.” (Jen S.)

I really like this version mentioned by Tracy C. where you replace “then” with “I’ll know” (I use this a lot with my own kids):

“When your pajamas are on, I’ll know you’re ready for stories.”

“When your dishes are cleared, I’ll know you’re ready for dessert.”

Andy Smithson of Tru Parenting offered this wonderful variation:

“I also like to use a slight variation of this concept by saying, ‘You may go outside as soon as chores are done’ or ‘I would love to come play legos as soon as I’m done folding laundry.’ I like this because it leads with the positive and with the child’s desire but sets a personal boundary.”

You can also use “First/ Then” or “After/ Then” like these examples from Aidan W.:

“First we clean up our toys, then we get to vacuum.”

“First we eat our lunch, then we go play outside.”

“First mommy is washing the dishes then she can play hockey with you.”

This version works well because it eliminates the “Just a second” or “In a minute” which can be very frustrating for children because they don’t know how long your “second” will be. This way the kids know what happens first before you are ready to help or play. I have also discovered that when a child says, “MOM! I can’t do it!” a parent can create space for the child to problem-solve by not jumping in to help.

Provide that space with an “After/Then” like this, “Sure, I’ll come help you after these dishes are cleaned.” The child doesn’t feel like you are ignoring him and will likely find a solution to his problem before you get to him. (Thanks to Joy F.N. on my fb page for her “Sure! When…” examples.)

I’d like to give the last word and a shout-out to Jodi H. for this great example of using “When/Then” with a nursing child so the older one doesn’t feel she’s getting a raw deal.

Jodi said, “I have a 5-month-old and an almost 3-year-old. My oldest is constantly waiting for me to finish nursing so I say, ‘When I’m done nursing the baby, then I can …’ I’ve made a point to try and say it to the baby now so that my oldest sees it’s not just to him, but a way of handling multiple requests. Now if the baby starts to make urgent sounds while playing on the floor, for example, I’ll turn to the baby and say, ‘When I’m done getting your brother a snack, then I can pick you up.’ My oldest has definitely noticed and I think he feels like life is more ‘fair’ because she has to wait too.”