Dr. Maria Montessori emphasized that, as adults, we must have the utmost respect for children, because they’re in the process of constructing themselves and are the hope for the future of humankind.

Mutual respect does require maintenance, though. As Montessorians, we’re always tending to the emotional environment of the community. One way we do this is through continuous practice of different ways we can show grace and courtesy toward each other and our surroundings. We do know, however, that situations arise when tensions start to run high, misunderstandings proliferate, and irritation takes over even for our little ones. We’re all human, after all.

Since it’s helpful to have some support when things start to fray, we thought we’d share a strategy that can be helpful when frustrations, fallings-out, or rifts are on the rise. Should we find ourselves in a situation where a progression of misunderstandings and misinterpretations is causing a rupture, it can be a good time to pause and consider the concept of an emotional or relationship bank account.

Dr. Stephen R. Covey explores the idea of an emotional bank account in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families. The essence of this “bank account” is that we have different connections with the people in our lives, and between each of us we have an unseen measure of how we’re connecting. We can visualize that measure as a bank account. Just like with a bank account, we can make deposits or withdrawals.

When we greet a co-worker in the morning with a smile and a compliment, we’re making a deposit. Over time, with lots of deposits, a large cushion of goodwill is created in our relationship bank account. When a large cushion is there, our co-worker is likely to be understanding when one morning we scowl and barely mumble, “morning.” They might wonder if we’re okay and want to do something to help us feel better.

But let’s imagine that instead of making regular deposits into our relationship bank account, we have either not taken the time for a kind greeting, or perhaps have been complaining about something they’ve done. These little acts end up draining our relationship bank account, like multiple small withdrawals, until there is little to no cushion of goodwill between us. If that’s the case, when we scowl and mumble, “morning,” the other person might react with anger and frustration, fed up with our attitude and ready to retaliate.

In other words, we’re making deposits by doing things that build trust in a relationship. Conversely, we’re making withdrawals when we’re reactively doing things which decrease that trust. Our current balance in the emotional bank account determines how well we can communicate and problem-solve with others together. At its core, it’s a framework for creating lasting relationships built on trust and mutual respect.

In simple terms that children can grasp and understand, our relationship or emotional bank account is like a cup that gets filled or emptied. When exploring this idea with young children, it can be helpful to draw or get a real cup or tiny bucket, fill it up while imagining different acts of goodwill, and then emptying it while exploring little thoughtless or unkind acts. Children love to brainstorm different ways to fill the cup, perhaps even creating a poster or drawing together to have a visual reminder.

Older children are often intrigued by the connection to a financial bank account. Even the logical exploration of deposits and withdrawals can help older children shift out of the emotional centers of their brains, which then allows them to approach a potentially tense situation with more calm and clarity.

If you think your child could benefit from a graphic image of making deposits or filling a cup, or what it looks like when lots of withdrawals mean we don’t have a buffer of goodwill, feel free to download this image of a graduated cylinder to use and show filling or emptying our emotional bank account. Sometimes having a visual really helps solidify the concept for children.

Really, though, we can use this strategy in all of our relationships and within our family. If you’re struggling to communicate with your child, you may need to ask yourself, “Do I need to make more deposits?” There are a number of ways to make deposits in your child’s emotional bank account such as:

  • Being kind and patient
  • Keeping  your promises
  • Spending quality time with them
  • Attending their activities
  • Being really present and listening to them
  • Noticing what they’re doing
  • Laughing with them
  • Greeting them when they get home
  • Apologizing when you make a mistake

Relationships take time and lots of love. When we can think about the little acts of kindness, honesty, patience, and unconditional love and acceptance as being ways to build up our relationship bank accounts, we can more easily shift gears in how we relate. Ultimately, this practice can allow us to become more mindful of the actions between us. We can look across the room with warmth. We can acknowledge a mistake and work to make amends. We can listen with acceptance. As the deposits increase, challenges in your family that you may have had in the past become opportunities to build trust.

Children acquire relationship-building skills in the family that will serve them well as adults. By promoting healthy relationships and acting with kindness toward others, parents can have an enduring impact on the next generation.

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