Building Your Emotional Bank Account with Your Children

Family picnicking together outdoors
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I was in my office in an interview one evening when my cell phone rang. It was our home number and I hit the "ignore" key until my interview was over. I returned the call and heard my wife in a panic. One of our children had been involved with her in a big fight and had stormed out of the house. She went out and could not find him, and was worried sick for him. It was clear that she needed my help, but I had a long line of people waiting to meet with me at the office.

I thought that there was nothing I could do.

I told her that I would leave as soon as I could break away. I hung up and stepped out of the office to greet my next visitor. In a flash of inspiration, I saw in my mind's eye where my son was, and I politely excused myself, asked a coworker to visit with my next appointment while I rushed out to the car and went to get my son.

I drove right to the place where he was, sitting under a tree at a local park and crying. We spent about 15 minutes talking, then I called my wife, told her I had our son and drove him home. We spent another half hour at home talking and working through some conflicts before things were calmed down and I headed back to the office.

Although I have not always been quite as responsive to my family as I was that evening, and the kids would all tell you there were times I did not live up to the expectations of me as a father, that was a time when my reaction to their need showed that they really were first in my life.

Author Stephen Covey shares a powerful metaphor for experiences like mine that evening. He calls his paradigm the Emotional Bank Account. While I heard Dr. Covey teach this principle in a graduate school class in organizational behavior many years earlier, he also wrote about it in his landmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Here is how the Emotional Bank Account works.

Each one of us has an emotional bank account with everyone with whom we interact closely. We have one with our spouse, with our children, with friends and co-workers, and they have one with us. When we have a large balance in our emotional bank account with others, relationships are strong and trust is high. When the balance is low or our account is overdrawn, relationships and trust suffer.

We make withdrawals from our account with others when we are jealous, angry, disappointed or disloyal. We make deposits when we keep our commitments, exceed expectations, meet needs, and do little things that show our love and commitment.

Covey shares six key ways in which we make deposits in the emotional bank accounts of others.

1. Understand the individual. Each person has his or her own preferences about what kinds of activities and actions make emotional bank account deposits. While there are some general approaches, knowing what makes a difference to each person is important. Taking time to listen and learn what is important to each of your children is a big deposit in their emotional bank account. It is a little like learning each child's love language.

Listening before we respond; diagnosing before we prescribe. These are powerful ways we make emotional bank account deposits.

2. Make and Keep Commitments. If you tell your son that you will be at his baseball game, you had better be there. If not, you make a big withdrawal. It is a smaller withdrawal to tell him you can't be there than it is to promise to be there and break your promise. But it is a huge deposit when you make and keep your promise. Giving your word is a big deal, but only if you keep it.

3. Clarify expectations. One of the biggest challenges we face as fathers is to make sure that expectations are clear. For example, if we ask our son to “mow the lawn,” we have not been very clear. But if we walk around the lawn and say, “Son, I want you to mow the lawn. I want there to be no strips of unmowed lawn, so you will have to be careful and overlap each strip of the lawn you mow.

I want you to pay careful attention when working around the tree so you get as close as you can without damaging the bark. When you mow up against the fence, make sure that you get as close as you can. And when you are done, fill the mower with gas, brush the grass clippings off the top and put the mower away.” If your expectations are clear, when the job is done, you can give specific feedback and praise success where appropriate.

4. Remember that the little things are big things. A smile, a warm greeting on a cold morning, making waffles, going for a walk -- these are all little positive things, but they make big deposits in your child's emotional bank account. Take time for the small stuff.

5. Show personal integrity. Your emotional bank account with your kids is all about trust. So just like making and keeping commitments, showing personal integrity in every relationship is important. For example, don't talk about other people behind their back with your children. The message it sends them is that when they are not there, you will likely talk about them in the same way. Integrity is the foundation for any good relationship and you will make big emotional bank account deposits when your children see your personal integrity at work.

6. Apologize sincerely. Withdrawals from your kids' emotional bank accounts are inevitable. There will be times when you have to make decisions or you respond in ways that violate their trust. If you make a withdrawal, take your child aside and apologize. I can remember times when I just lost it with one of the kids. When that happens, it is critical to head up to their room, sit on the bed and tell them you are sorry. Don't make excuses (“I had a bad day at work.”) Just apologize and ask forgiveness, letting them know that your relationship is important to you. It may not entirely erase the withdrawal, but it will make a quick deposit.

Your children value your relationship with them above most others. Making deposits and minimizing withdrawals from their emotional bank account with you will help that relationship improve steadily.