The Power of "If/Then" Language


“Mason” loves his trains. He is particularly fond of the blue and the red ones, and wants to carry them around everywhere. In fact, he has become pretty ambidextrous just so he doesn’t have to let go of the trains for a second while he navigates the world. Now it’s time for Mason to put his shoes on to go to school. Mason runs away, he hides under the pillows, and laughs gleefully as he evades mom and dad’s best attempts. Mason’s parents have some choices. They can:

A) Put his shoes on for him,

B) Beg, plead, and bribe Mason to get him to put his shoes on himself, or

C) Take him to school shoeless and explain to his teacher he just wouldn’t do it this morning.

What Mason’s parents didn’t think of was plan:

D) Try “if/then” language.

See, Mason knows what is expected of him; put his shoes on. But Mason doesn’t want to put his shoes on. This creates a familiar headache for parents everywhere, and a perfect opportunity for your little one to test your stamina as the parent/adult. But what parents often forget when rushed, busy, and frustrated is that you shouldn’t be in a power struggle with a four year old! They may be smart, but you are smarter! “If/then” language is a way to outsmart your kids and at the same time help them become better problem solvers, more confident in their choices, and increase their self-regulation.

Here is the real life solution I used to get Mason to put his shoes on:

Me: “Mason it looks like you are having a hard time putting your shoes on. If you put your shoes on now, then you can keep holding your trains. If you cannot put your shoes on, then you are going to have to take a break from your trains and I’m going to have to hold them. Mason, will you put your shoes on?”

Mason: “Noooo!”

Me: “Oh okay I’ll hold your trains then. (I start to reach for them…slowly) If you put your shoes onthen I will give them back. If you still don’t put your shoes on, then I get to play with them!”

Mason: “Ok I’ll put my shoes on!”

What I did here is tapped in to something Mason cares about, his trains, and use them to get what I wanted, him to put his shoes on. I did not take his trains away from him, which would be punishment. Instead I gave him the opportunity to keep or lose his trains depending on the choice he makes. It was up to Mason what happened next. In this example, Mason just learned a couple key lessons. The first is, “I get to keep my trains if I do what is asked of me.” The second is, “I may have to take a break from my trains if I keep running away.” And the last is, “Crap…Shana is in charge, not me.”

“If/then” language is a classic example of cause and effect. All throughout childhood we learn through cause and effect. If we were hungry, we figured out crying would produce a meal. If we threw our toy from our high chair, we no longer had that toy (or conversely, we learned mommy or daddy would bring it back!). And if we pushed the button that looks like a cow, we would hear a funny “moooo.” In those first stages of life, children are like mini-explorers who are out to discover anything new and exciting within reach. With that exploration, come consequences.

Harnessing the power of cause and effect can have an outsized effect on your child’s behavior. By changing your language to include the words “if/then” you can greatly improve your child’s cooperation. It takes some practice, and it might not work the first time you say it, but getting your child to understand how cause and effect is part of their everyday life will help you in the long run. Here is another example:

Bobby wants to play outside. Mom wants Bobby to have a snack first. Mom says, “It sure will be fun to go play outside. But first I need you to have a snack. So, if you want to play outside, then you have to have a snack. If you don’t have a snack, then we can’t play outside.”

In this example Bobby is given a choice. Do what mom asks and get to go outside, or don’t have a snack and lose out on the day. Is it worth it to Bobby to sit down for some carrots to be able to play outside? Chances are, yes.

In addition to getting kids to comply with parent’s requests, “if/then” language can also assist with self-regulation. Here is an example to explain how:

Sarah doesn’t want to leave the park and throws herself on the grass. Dad knows it’s time to go home. Dad says, “It’s really hard to leave the park when you are having so much fun. I can see how sad you are because we have to stop playing. It would be great if we can go to the park everyday! So, if you want to come back to the park tomorrow, then I need to see that you can leave the park easily. If you have a hard time leaving, then I don’t want to come back to the park tomorrow.”

Here Sarah is learning that her tantrum could prevent her from coming back to the park. The goal is for her is to see that her behavior is not keeping her at the park for longer (which is what her little mind thinks might work), but is taking away fun in the future. Whether or not you actually go to the park the next day, you are teaching Sarah how to behave appropriately.

I firmly believe the power of “If/then” language goes beyond getting what you, the caregiver, want out of your child. It also allows you to take off some of the responsibility you have being the parent and affirms their role in decision making process. They get to decide if they want to listen. They decide if they want the cool thing or activity. They decide if they are ready to calm down. And by giving that power back to your child, you are helping them grow. So if you think this article was helpful, thenmake sure you let me know. If you didn’t learn anything, then pat yourself on the back for understanding how cause and effect helps you build awesome, empowered kids!

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