It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Keeping it balanced

I learned something from a friend and neighbour yesterday. I was venting to her about a family I know in which a teenage son had held an emotional gun to his father’s head: “Do X for me, dad, or I’ll never speak to you again.”

Many parents of teens have heard that threat, or some variant of it, at some point. Lots of teens make such declarations when in the throes of righteous, self-absorbed indignation. They issue their Big Ultimatum, fuming and frothing, and, if you’ve had a teen long enough to develop the parental savvy, you ignore it, because, really? The next time they need something, they’ll have to talk to you. It’s an idle threat. The teen in question might not see it that way, but it inevitably is. You may get a few days of silence — oooo, punish me more!!! — but eventually they start talking again.

(In fact, in this situation, X was not a big deal, involving a small amount of money; the issue was primarily how it had been requested. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was extortion. Not nice. The secondary issue was whose responsibility X was: child’s, mother’s, or father’s.)

In this case, however, it wasn’t an idle threat. The parents are divorced, and another sibling had already broken off contact with the father. The son knows that, obviously. For him, never speaking to dad is not only a real threat, but entirely do-able. Dad was in a dilemma: He didn’t want to succumb to emotional blackmail, but he didn’t want to lose another child, either.

What to do?

There were many parties to this debate. Too many. It is often that way in this particular family: EVERYONE gets involved in all conflicts. (You can imagine how helpful and constructive that is… One might argue that conflict resolution by committee is not the most efficient way to proceed, but one would be wasting one’s breath.) Anyway, one of the many parties suggested that for the demanding teen, the issue wasn’t the presenting issue, but whether dad loved him “unconditionally”. Son wanted proof that dad loved him unconditionally, you see.

I was talking about this with a friend. She snorted. “‘Money’ is not the same thing as ‘love’.” Too often kids get that muddled, and their muddled parents go right along with it. If you don’t buy me this, provide those lessons, pay for that outing… then you don’t really love me.

Which is total crap, of course. That part of our conversation was simple and easy. It’s where she went next that I found interesting.

“Kids have to learn that sometimes in order to get something you have to give something. Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — when my boys (she has two, 17 and 15) ask me to do something for them, I say ‘What’s in it for me?’ Because kids, they need to learn love is not just about getting. It’s about giving. For little kids, love is mostly something they get. But when they get older, they have to learn to give, even to their parents.”

“What’s in it for me?”

It’s not how I’d phrase it, mind you. I find that a bit crass and abrasive… but I really, really like the principle.

It’s akin to the analogy developed by Stephen Covey, of the “emotional bank account“. In every relationship there’s an emotional bank account. You make deposits with each kind word and helpful deed, each respectful action, every thoughtful interaction. You make withdrawals when you’re rude or irritable, when you forget an anniversary, fall short of a commitment. Deposits and withdrawals can be large or small, but the key is to keep the balance. You can’t make ceaseless withdrawals and expect a happy relationship.

“What’s in it for me?” I think I’d be more likely explain the emotional bank account idea, and suggest that a deposit of equal value would be required before they’d have the funds to make that withdrawal.

It amounts to the same thing, though, really.

Balance. Give and take.

More give than take.

Takes a life to learn.


July 11, 2011 - Posted by | parenting, power struggle


  1. I love the Emotional bank account principle!

    As far as the “What’s in it for me?” goes, the Love and Logic people phrase it something like this, “Well, if I do x for you, I won’t have time/energy/money to do y chore around the house. So, if you do y chore for me, I’ll be able to do x for you.” There are endless variations on the theme, of course.

    Comment by Laura | July 11, 2011 | Reply

  2. We’ve had some summer days recently when the kids played, I worked (around the house) and then they began to get bored and wanted me to play with them. I pointed out that if we *all* followed WORK-PLAY-WORK-PLAY then I might have time to play with them, but as they had played and I had worked, there would not be time. I’m trying to point this out to them earlier in the day now, so we all have time to play together and apart. (Moms have their own “play”- mine is right now as I read blogs!)

    Comment by My Kids Mom | July 11, 2011 | Reply

  3. Yes yes YES. Although I don’t say “what’s in it for me?” in so many words (I might though if I had teenagers and they were anything like me when *I* was a teenager) that’s how we run things around here.

    Little kids can be taught this concept, too. Instead of the “emotional bank account” the image is a “bucket” that can be filled or emptied by positive or negative interactions. There’s a great book – – that my son was introduced to in school this year. I’ve since picked up a copy and use the concepts here in my dayhome to start teaching empathy to the preschoolers.

    Comment by hodgepodge | July 12, 2011 | Reply

  4. What did the father do?

    Comment by BethanyBeth | July 12, 2011 | Reply

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