Saturday, December 5, 2009

Emotional Accounting

We’re now into week five of my latest experiment in parenting. The idea came from listening to a couple of “Love and Logic” CD’s. On the surface, this experiment seems as manipulative and controlling as many of the L&L techniques that made me so uncomfortable. But, so far, it has had a positive impact on our overall household and relationships, and it’s taken me a couple of weeks to figure out why. It’s because this experiment is a reflection of the Emotional Bank Account described by Stephen Covey.

Covey’s concept of the Emotional Bank Account goes something like this. Between two individuals, there is an account into which each party may make deposits or withdrawals or both. A deposit is something that the other person will appreciate, which contributes to the pleasant and loving feelings between them. A withdrawal is the opposite; something that the other person dislikes, which undermines the pleasant and loving feelings and damages the relationship. A strong, healthy, loving relationship requires both parties make regular deposits and limit withdrawals. Simple.

One of the behaviors that I find most irritating, and which has historically diminished our Emotional Bank Account more rapidly than anything else, is when I ask one of the kids to do something, like get out of bed or come eat lunch, and it doesn’t happen. Usually it’s not that they’re flat-out refusing to do what I ask. They acknowledge my request, then get distracted by something else and forget I asked them to do it. “Come down to lunch, guys.” “Okay.” Ten minutes later, “Hey, guys, lunch is ready. Please come down now.” “Okay, we’ll be right there.” Ten minutes later, “Get your hineys down here right now and eat your lunch!” Something to that effect. Makes me nuts, not just because they’re ignoring me and I feel disrespected. But, I realized, mostly because they’re wasting my time and messing with the flow of events I have envisioned for the day. First, this needs to happen; then, this needs to happen; then, this needs to happen, so that, ultimately, everything gets done that I feel needs to get done. Without cooperation, we end up at the end of the day and nothing has been accomplished that I feel is important. Like getting the beds made, keeping the house tidy, getting to appointments on time, and studying. And, more important, this lack of cooperation around mealtimes makes it very difficult to keep T-Bear’s BS balanced and in his target range. Long delays between meals mean lows, each subsequent meal gets pushed back, dinner ends up being at 8:00 pm, which means we can’t get our bedtime routine started until after snacktime at 10:00 pm when I’m too tired to read to them. Frustrating.

So, I worked up a basic accounting sheet with columns for the date, a description, and each family member's name. On Monday, each child is credited $5.00 for allowance. The first week was mostly spent establishing some ground rules and determining a point of focus for each child. I’ll ask you to get out of bed once, and if it hasn’t happened in a reasonable time and I have to stop what I’m doing to come tell you again, you’ll pay me a dime for wasting my time, deducted on the accounting sheet. If you do an extra chore, like bring in firewood or sort socks (a task I detest), I’ll pay you a quarter, added on to the accounting sheet. It sounds really snarky, I know. But, as I watched the totals accumulate on each child’s column, I noticed a correspondence between the running balance for each child, and the tone of our relationship. Yes, there have been moments of push-back about the whole thing, but not nearly as many as I anticipated. And, overall, there has been less arguing and fighting. Brother Bear in particular has been much more helpful and cooperative, T-Bear has been better about getting up and dressed in the morning, and even BooBoo Bear has taken the initiative to make the bed a few times. And, the inter-sibling bickering has diminished, since I now charge each bickering party a dime each time I am compelled to intervene or am called upon to negotiate a settlement.

This only works for us because it is an extension of an existing agreement between each child and I. They have a list of basic chores they are responsible for, and that they have agreed to be responsible for, mostly related to taking care of themselves (getting up, getting dressed, grooming, etc.), their spaces (bedroom, bathroom, study, etc.), and their own stuff (clothes, toys, study materials, etc.). It also works because our kids all really like having their own money. This gives them a reliable way of accumulating their own money, including earning additional money beyond their weekly allowance. It gives them the means to “pay” someone else to do their chores should they choose to, if they can find someone willing to do their chore for some extra money. It provides a means for “making right” damage to another family member’s property; a broken toy or borrowed item that goes missing. And, it helps the kids understand that my time is valuable whether I'm paid or not. I'm not a servant or waitress, my time is my own, and I give it in ways and amounts that I feel are appropriate for the wellbeing of the family and each family member. Wasting my time is wasting a valuable family resource.

They’re also learning about our banking system. Dad doesn’t get handed a wad of cash every other Thursday on payday; the money is automatically transferred from the company into our checking account, and sits there until we transfer the money to someone else, usually electronically. Eliminating the cash allowance has helped the kids accumulate funds, rather than automatically spending their allowance as soon as it’s placed in their hot little hands. They can save up, then purchase something “electronically”; I use my bank card, then make the appropriate deduction from their “account” just like the bank does. Much simpler than a cash transaction when ordering online. And, they’re not losing their allowance by carrying cash around and forgetting where they left it (usually in a pants pocket).

It’s quite possible this little experiment will blow up in my face in the near future, but for now we’re all enjoying more peace and good feelings, we’re getting to appointments on time with less stress and yelling, and we’ve got a tidier house to boot. As long as I remember to do my accounting, we’re all benefiting.

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