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Throughout my 15 years of teaching, I’ve had a unique vantage point to observe the intricate ways children interact with each other. One fascinating aspect I’ve noticed is how they often resort to using threats and bribes in their relationships, especially when situations don’t unfold as they expect. This observation got me thinking about my own behaviour at home, particularly in how I parent my older son.

I realized that, inadvertently, I had been teaching him to use bribes with his friends, mirroring the small bribes and threats I sometimes used at home. This usually happened when I found myself exhausted from the endless cycle of repeating the same requests: “Clean your room,” “Eat your food,” “Change your clothes,” “Brush your teeth”… The list goes on, and as many parents can relate, young children don’t always do these things at the speed or with the enthusiasm we might hope for.

This personal reflection led me to an internal analysis of my parenting and teaching strategies. It made me question the unintended lessons we teach our children through our actions, especially when we’re trying to navigate the fine line between guiding them and controlling their actions. It’s been an eye-opening journey, one that has taught me as much about myself as it has about the children I teach.

Reflecting further on my approach to parenting and teaching, I’ve come to understand it as falling under what’s often called conditional parenting. This strategy involves linking love, approval, or rewards to specific actions or behaviours from the child. Phrases like, “If you clean your room, you can watch TV,” or “If you don’t finish your homework, you won’t get to play,” are common examples of how this approach manifests in everyday interactions.

My intention, like that of many parents and educators, has always been to instil discipline and encourage positive habits. But diving deeper into the psychological underpinnings of conditional parenting has been quite enlightening. It suggests that such tactics might lead children to see love and approval as something they need to earn through transactions. This realisation hit me hard, making me worry about its potential effects on their self-esteem and their understanding of unconditional love.

This journey of introspection has shown me how easy it is to fall into patterns of conditional parenting, especially under the guise of discipline and habit formation. It’s made me more aware of the subtle messages we send our children about love, approval, and the nature of our relationships with them.


The foundation of children learning and mimicking behaviours lies in the social learning theory, proposed by psychologist Albert Bandura. This theory posits that children learn behaviours, attitudes, and emotional reactions through observing and imitating others, particularly influential figures in their lives such as parents and caregivers. Thus, when parents use conditional statements as a method of discipline or motivation, they’re not just influencing immediate behaviour but are also inadvertently teaching children a way of interacting with others. Child development specialists emphasise that children absorb these interactions as templates for their own social behaviours. For instance, witnessing a parent employing a threat to achieve a desired outcome can lead a child to believe that similar tactics are effective in their own friendships and social encounters.


The repercussions of adopting conditional behaviour tactics extend deeply into children’s social development and the nature of their friendships. When children use threats and bribes in their relationships, it introduces a transactional element to these interactions, where affection, attention, and loyalty may be perceived as commodities to be traded, rather than natural, unconditional aspects of a healthy friendship. This can lead to a range of social difficulties, including issues with trust, challenges in developing genuine connections, and an increased likelihood of conflict within friendships.

For instance:

  • A child might say, “If you don’t share your toys with me, I won’t invite you to my birthday party,” mirroring the conditional access to rewards they experience at home. This not only introduces a transactional element to their friendship but also sets the stage for relationships based on leverage rather than mutual respect and affection.
  • Another example is a child asserting, “If you don’t do this for me, I’m not going to be your friend anymore,” which reflects a learned behaviour from observing adults who use similar tactics to enforce rules or get things done. This teaches children to view friendship as conditional, dependent on what one can provide or do for the other.

Studies and expert opinions highlight several specific impacts on children’s social interactions:

  • Difficulty in Understanding Unconditional Relationships: Children might struggle to understand the concept of unconditional love and support within friendships, expecting that all interactions have a condition attached.
  • Increased Manipulative Behaviors: There’s a risk of children becoming more manipulative, using threats or bribes to control situations or people, reflecting the conditional interactions they’ve observed.
  • Social Rejection and Isolation: Peers may start avoiding children who frequently employ these tactics, leading to social rejection and feelings of isolation among those unable to form healthy, reciprocal relationships.

Educational and psychological literature provides further insight through case studies, where children observed using conditional tactics in their interactions face more challenges in forming lasting, meaningful friendships compared to their peers who engage in more genuine, unconditional interactions.


Moving away from a transactional approach to parenting, it’s possible to encourage children to engage in positive behaviors through understanding, empathy, and intrinsic motivation. Here are some strategies, along with examples of how parents can communicate effectively with their children:

  • Empower Choice and Explain Consequences: Instead of using threats to enforce behavior, explain the natural consequences of actions in a way that empowers your child to make choices. For example, rather than saying, “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you can’t play,” try, “Eating vegetables helps you grow strong and healthy. How about we choose which ones you’d like to eat together?”
  • Use Positive Reinforcement: Recognise and praise your child’s efforts and good behaviour spontaneously, focusing on the process rather than the outcome. This encourages them to continue acting positively without expecting a reward. For instance, “I noticed you shared your toys with your friend today. That was very kind of you and I’m sure it made playing together more fun!”
  • Create Collaborative Solutions: Involve your child in creating solutions to challenges. This approach fosters cooperation rather than compliance. If your child resists cleaning their room, you might say, “I see cleaning up feels big today. How can we make it fun? Maybe we can pretend the toys are on a mission to get back to their home base.”
  • Model the Behavior You Want to See: Children learn a lot by observation. If you want your child to adopt certain behaviors, show them those behaviors in action. For instance, if you want your child to practice gratitude, make it a habit to express thanks openly, including thanking your child when they do something helpful.
  • Encourage Feelings Expression: Teach your child to express their feelings and desires openly, and respond with empathy. This builds emotional intelligence and reduces the likelihood of resorting to negative behaviors to get attention. If a child is upset about not getting a toy they wanted, instead of dismissing their feelings or offering a bribe for good behavior, you could say, “I understand you’re really sad about the toy. It’s okay to feel upset. Let’s talk about what we can do together that might be fun.”

Here are a few prompt-like suggestions for encouraging children to engage in desired behaviours without resorting to bribes or threats:

  1. “Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue one while we clean up your room together?”
  2. “After we finish our dinner, how about we all share what we loved most about our day?”
  3. “Can you help me set the table? I’d love to see how you decide to arrange everything.”
  4. “Let’s race and see who can pick up the most toys in five minutes! Ready, set, go!”
  5. “I noticed you worked really hard on your homework. How about you choose the bedtime story tonight?”
  6. “If you’re finished with your drawing, could you help me by putting the crayons back? Let’s see if we can organize them by color!”
  7. “It’s almost bedtime. What are the three things we do before bed? Can you tell me what comes first?”
  8. “I need a helper to assist me with cooking dinner. Are you in for a chef’s adventure?”
  9. “You’ve been so great with your chores, how would you feel about planning our family game night?”
  10. “Let’s make cleaning up fun with some music. What song should we play while we work?”
  11. “Would you prefer to do your reading before snack time or after today?”
  12. “I saw how nicely you played with your sibling. How about you choose the movie for our next family movie night?”
  13. “It’s time to get ready for school. Do you want to brush your teeth first or get dressed?”
  14. “You’ve been practicing so hard on your piano lessons. Shall we schedule a mini-concert for the family?”
  15. “Let’s make your bed together this morning. Do you want to fluff the pillows or straighten the sheets?”
  16. “I need a brave explorer to help me find all the dirty laundry. Are you ready for the quest?”
  17. “Tonight, you get to be the dinner detective! Can you guess all the ingredients we used?”
  18. “How about you lead our dog for his walk today? He’d love to explore new spots with you.”
  19. “You did such a good job with your responsibilities this week. Would you like to help me bake cookies as a team?”
  20. “I think your room could use a little sprucing up. What do you think about rearranging it together for a fun project?”


The mirror held up by children’s behaviour reflects not just individual actions but the broader patterns and teachings they’re exposed to. When conditional parenting becomes a primary method of interaction, children may, in turn, adopt similar tactics in their friendships, viewing relationships through a transactional lens. However, by understanding the deep-seated impact of such behaviour and actively choosing to model unconditional love, empathy, and open communication, parents can guide their children towards forming healthier, more meaningful relationships. In doing so, they not only enrich their children’s social interactions but also lay the groundwork for a future where relationships are built on genuine connection, mutual respect, and unconditional support.

This exploration into the influence of conditional parenting on children’s use of threats and bribes in friendships underscores a crucial message: the behaviours we model are the behaviours we teach. Read that again: The behaviours we model are the behaviours we teach!

As parents, caregivers, and educators, the responsibility lies with us to provide the best examples for our children to follow.

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