How do I get something done from my sons without threatening or blackmailing?

Mother: “I constantly find myself threatening and blackmailing to get our sons (6 and 9) to listen. For example, if they argue very intensely. They are rambunctious boys. First I say reasonably: ‘Guys, I don’t want this’. And then again. Then I warn. If all that doesn’t work, I’ll use blackmail. “Do that, then you can use the Nintendo later.” Or: ‘Stop now, otherwise I’ll cut my Nintendo time in half.’ We sometimes also use a positive scoring system for when they help with the dishes or don’t shout at the campsite during rest time. Then they can, for example, create candy when the card is full. It feels like powerlessness. I would prefer that they just listen, but I don’t know what to do to make that happen. Time-outs and such don’t suit us.”

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Make appointments

Joyce Weeland: “This is difficult for many parents. The technique you describe, the ‘if-then warning’, can be effective if the stated consequence is also implemented if there is no listening. There are a few methods to expand your repertoire: discussing agreements and rules together; coming up with ways to prevent unwanted behavior; and rewarding behavior.

“If I take arguing as an example, you could make agreements about this with the whole family in a quiet moment. What is really not allowed? Children can think about appropriate consequences if these agreements are not fulfilled. For example: if there is an argument about the Nintendo, the Nintendo goes into the closet. It is important that these are consequences that you are also prepared to maintain. The advantage is that you no longer have to warn or threaten in the event of an argument. After all, consequences have been agreed in advance. You can also discuss with your sons what would help them avoid arguments. For example, ‘If you notice that you are getting very angry, go to your room or ask for help.’

“Reward the behavior you want to see. Suppose a son manages to run away three times when he gets angry, then discuss an appropriate reward, for example doing something fun with one of the parents.”

Send positively

Walter Matthys: “You can learn to look at your children’s behavior from a simple model: Before – Behavior – After. It starts with you first expressing in a friendly manner what behavior you want to see (Before): ‘I want you to help with the dishes.’

“’I don’t want this’ is not specific enough. Well: “I want you to speak softly during downtime.” Such a positive assignment must be concrete.

“As soon as your child takes the very first step in the desired direction (Behavior), you immediately compliment him (After): ‘How good that you say this softly!’ ‘How good of you to grab a tea towel!’ This means that the desired behavior is immediately positively reinforced.

“Instead of threatening negative consequences, it is better to promise a reward: ‘If you play quietly, we will watch a movie together later.’ You are right to want to keep ‘punishments’ to a minimum.

“I would first practice listening for a while with each boy separately, and with simple positive commands, before you tackle playing together. Rephrase ‘quarrels’ into the positive opposite: ‘Have fun playing together’, and give this as an assignment.”

Joyce Weeland is an educationalist and works as a university lecturer at the youth and family department of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Walter Matthys is emeritus professor of aggression in children at Utrecht University. He worked as a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University Medical Center Utrecht and wrote Behavioral problems in children.