“If you do X, I will give you Y”

Picture this: a mother strolling through the kids’ book section of a department store; she’s pushing a pram with a child of around 1.5-2 years old in his chair. “If you sit in the pram quietly, I’ll buy you a book,” she bargains with him. But the child wriggles and squeals something in a frustrated little voice that only his mother can decipher.

Is there anything wrong with this picture? It sounds like something you see and hear everywhere. Swap out the age of the child and the prize presented to the child with anything else of value to children (ice cream is a popular choice) and you have an age-old parenting tactic that’s been employed for decades.

It works, right? Well Bravo, parents, you win! You get to have your way all of the time and your children get a consolation prize for obeying.

Happy family, right?

Well, let’s take a closer look.

Let’s try something: picture yourself as you are. I’ll assume you’re an adult. Someone says to you that if you do X you’ll get some sort of reward. You don’t want to do X, it’s not something fun, maybe it’s hard, maybe it feels wrong, maybe it IS wrong. But you’ll get the shiny reward if you do it. See where this is going?

Offering a child a small treat (whatever it may be) might seem unobjectionable, because parent/carer and child both ‘win’. But what’s really happening here is that you’re implicitly teaching them that if they want something that seems appealing, to get it they will have to do things they don’t want to do. You’re essentially supporting a pattern of exchanging one’s happiness/dignity/ethical standards/morals for some prize. When learned at such a young age this is something that can stick with a person long term.

Many parenting solutions are mostly concerned with the ‘now’. How do I change the child’s behaviour now so I can get what I want (often dressed up as ‘what is best’ or ‘for my child’s future’)? What hardly gets a second thought is ‘what does my child think about this?’, ‘how does my child feel about this?’, ‘does my child really need to change their behaviour or am I ignoring a need, wish or idea of theirs?’ and ‘how will this impact my child’s life in the long term?’

The problem with bribe-type tactics is that they’re short term, they only take into account what the parent or carer wants, and never the child. And they can also have long term consequences.

Here’s another example of a common bribe you might see almost daily: you offer your child an ice cream for dessert if they eat their whole meal, even if they’ve had enough of the ‘healthy’ first course and do not feel as if they have room to force the rest of that down in addition to eating the ice cream. When you make these kinds of coercive bargains with children, what you’re teaching them is that their own feelings of satiation and sense of what they should and should not eat can’t be trusted. They are also being taught that life requires them to override their own wishes, even sitting with some discomfort, so that other people can feel satisfied. And you are teaching them that they can’t get what they want, and that people who love you expect you to suffer to please them. And people wonder why so many adults seem unable to find happiness in their lives?!

Kids end up learning that they always have to do what someone else says, they don’t get the chance to have a say, it’s the other person’s way or no way at all. This is essentially hijacking their sense of agency.

What if parents and carers asked their children more questions and became curious about their behaviour rather than penalising the show of needs? What if the toddler in the pram just wanted to use some new skills like walking, talking and exploring? How would you feel if you had eaten enough but were made to continue to eat until your plate was empty? These things hardly seem rational when thought through.

Children use behaviour to express their needs; sometimes they don’t know any other way. Once we take a step back and try to see things through the child’s perspective, we can give knee-jerk reactions a second thought and we may realise these very reactions are actually silencing our beloved children from fully expressing themselves.

Children deserve to express their needs and wishes, as do adults, and it’s our job as parents to uncover these needs as best we can; and not only that, we need to take them seriously. So, forget the bribes, ask your children more questions, get to understand their needs and wishes, and take them just as seriously as you’d like to be taken.

See also:

Natalie Arielle, 2022, ‘“If you do X, I will give you Y”’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/if-you-do-x-i-will-give-you-y/

3 thoughts on ““If you do X, I will give you Y””

  1. This is a major issue and I, for one, have most definitely given way to bribing and my daughter, aged 3, responds to it so I’ll have to try to ask more questions. I’ve already mentioned the words ‘good explanation’ when people tell her things but at this age, it’s hard. I had to other questions:
    1. At what age does taking children seriously actually work? I feel like the whole premise of Deutsche-ian philosophy doesn’t work if your mind cannot create explanations or understand them. What is the experience of parents who do this really well? Like when would a child understand an explanation of not running off on to the street when it’s red because ‘vehicle-momentum-impact-injury-death’ as opposed to don’t run or else you’ll get a big boo-boo? I mean I can take some toys and explain but it’s one of those things in which you don’t want the qualia and can’t explain how serious it is.
    2. If I tell my child that she should brush her teeth, or else I won’t give candy because her teeth will fall out, is that fear-mongering (the antithesis of bribing) or is it not, because teeth do get very bad if you keep eating candy and not brush? Similar to the first question but at a lower, everyday scale.


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