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‘Paying the Piggy Bank’ – The Power of Parents’ Positive Time, Energy, and Attention

You may have heard the saying “paying the piggy bank” or “feeding the parking meter” in relation to a child’s emotional well-being. Essentially, this means that children have an imaginary piggy bank that receives a deposit each time they are noticed, affirmed, or given time or attention. 

When parents put in positive time, energy, and attention with their child, it builds a reservoir of emotional resilience that can help them navigate future challenges and losses. This notion is an essential aspect of parenting because it illustrates that “parenting for the long-term” is essential to attaining the parenting goal of raising children who have resiliency, a sense of competence, and inner well-being. 

As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain in their book, Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “Your time and positive attention are the most important gifts you can give a child. This vital commitment will lay the foundation for a positive and loving lifetime relationship with your child and save you lots of time worrying about your child as she grows older.”

How to Make Emotional “Deposits”

Children’s self-worth grows and thrives within a loving relationship with their parents as it shows them that they are deserving of their parent’s kindness, love, and care. So, when you respond promptly and affectionately to your child’s wishes for your attention, your child will see that he has the power to make himself truly happy. The following are the ways parents can fill their child’s “piggy bank”:

  • Quality Time – Spending quality time with your child means being fully engaged and present. It’s important to keep in mind that this is different than engaging in activities that do not require your direct involvement, such as when your child is painting while you’re talking on the phone. The reason for this is that children need to connect and feel understood by their parents and caregivers. Quality time can encompass many activities, from playing her favorite game together to connecting over family meals or movie nights. 

  • Positive Encouragement – Positive encouragement involves expressing enthusiasm, warmth, confidence, and encouragement towards your child’s efforts. Establishing a pattern of positive interaction helps to nurture self-esteem. This positive reinforcement teaches children to approach challenges with optimism and perseverance as they will learn that regardless of the outcome they can count on their their parents kindness, care, and loving support. Parents can project positive encouragement by using words and actions, such as saying “Good for you,” “WOW,” or giving a thumbs up or high-five. Acknowledging a child’s efforts, helps to promote a growth mindset. 

  • Focused Attention – Giving your child focused attention means actively listening and responding to their needs and concerns. This attentiveness shows your child that their thoughts and feelings are important. Doing so will help your child develop strong internal self-worth, which is vital for fostering inner happiness and well-being.

Throughout your child’s days, however, there will be inevitable losses, which are normal, expected, and a part of life. But children need help navigating the troubling emotions they may have when experiencing losses. Parents will fill their child’s piggy banks by responding positively to their child’s emotional needs when losses occur, like when your child cannot have a desired toy or your undivided attention in that moment. In these moments, when parents respond with empathy and kindness - they communicate that their child is still deserving of love even when they are struggling. The following are some ways parents can “feed the meter” when their child is struggling:

  • Observe & Acknowledge - Try to keep your own emotions at bay as your child is struggling so that you can be attentive to your child’s needs. When children feel heard and understood, they are better able to hear what the parent has to say. It can sound like, “I can see how sad you are because you can’t have that toy.” 

  • Empathize - Normalize your child’s experience, “I know it’s really hard to not be able to get what you want and I’m sorry I can’t give the toy to you.”  

  • Redirect & Offer Your Relationship - By offering your relationship as a substitute, children come to understand that they can still find contentment despite experiencing a loss, “When we get back into the car I can play your favorite song and we can sing it together.” 

Responding positively when your child is struggling contributes greatly to their emotional piggy bank, nurturing their resiliency for when things don’t go their way.

Some parents may worry that if they consistently respond to their child, they will become “spoiled” and constantly seek out adult attention. The reality is that gratifying your child’s emotional needs, through losses and wins, and especially their desire to engage your positive focused attention, will not spoil your child. Instead, as Drs. Pieper explain, “It will not make him hopelessly self-centered or unable to postpone gratification. If you try to gratify your child’s needs and wishes whenever possible, you will help them acquire a lifelong sense of competence and inner well-being.” 


Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999. 




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