This "When-Then" Trick Is My Go-To For Getting My Toddler to Cooperate

Angela Elias
Photographer: Levi MandelRestrictions: Editorial and internal use only. No advertising or print allowed.

Drained by constant power struggles with my 3-year-old, I took the advice I received in Amy McCready's Positive Parenting Solutions course and began using her "When-Then" tactic to get him to do something without a battle. It's a ridiculously simple method for motivating a child to do a task, and it even has a built-in consequence if the task isn't done.

Here's how it works. 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.

The beauty of this approach is twofold: it saves me the time-consuming, energy-sucking, blood-boiling experience of being lured into a power struggle with a small child, and it empowers him to decide to carry out his task when he's ready. It may not be instantaneous, but I find that he always comes around if the "then" is something he really cares about.

You might be thinking: but isn't this a bribe? In her Positive Parenting Solutions course, Amy explains the difference. "Unlike giving your child a reward for doing what they are supposed to do, with When-Then, we're simply controlling the order in which normally allowed privileges can be enjoyed," she says. "We're controlling the environment." So, if you normally allow 30 minutes of screen time or a healthy snack in between meals, it's fair game to use those as motivators.

Amy also points out that it's important not to substitute "when" with "if." "If you wash your hands, you can have a snack" does sound like a bribe. It also demonstrates that you're not confident they can do what you ask.

To be fair, the first time I tried the When-Then method, my son was not happy. In fact, he followed me around crying and demanding his screen time and snack. But since the terms were already laid out, all I had to do was keep my cool and go about my business without giving his behavior attention.

At a certain point, he realized he was in charge of getting what he wanted. Even though I really wanted him to wash his hands and pick up his toys, the more indifferent I acted about whether or not he did it, the less he fought me about it.

"OK, mama, I'm ready to wash my hands," he announced as he ran to the bathroom.

"OK, I'll get your snack ready," I answered nonchalantly, though I was giving myself a mental high five.

Through Amy's Positive Parenting Solutions course, I've learned how to apply the When-Then method to make morning and after-school routines run more smoothly. I realized that using it to get him to do more helps me and empowers him, and now I can't imagine my days without it.