What is Reciprocity?

Let’s talk about the word, reciprocity. In essence, it boils down to this:

To go to a more textbook definition, let’s see what the Merriam-Webster dictionary has to say:

Main Entry: rec·i·proc·i·ty ⚖️
Function: noun
Pronunciation: “re-s&-‘prä-s(&-)te
Inflected Form(s): plural -ties
1 : the quality or state of being reciprocal : mutual dependence, action, or influence
2 : a mutual exchange of privileges ; specifically : a recognition by one of two countries or institutions of the validity of licenses or privileges granted by the other

In other words, whatever you “put out there” you “get back” in return.

There is an unspoken law of nature that can be accurately called, The Law of Reciprocity. When people do a kind, generous or selfless act for another person, it

creates in the recipient a certain tension or sense of unrest. It is often quite uncon-scious, but the person on the receiving end does not feel at ease until he or she can do something to reciprocate. The desire to “pay the other person back” is very strong in our human nature.

Use It to Our Advantage:

If we truly understand this law and how it works, then we can use it to our advantage in our families (in an appropriate way, of course). When our children are babies, they pay us back for all of the snuggles, diaper changes and late-night feedings with their smiles and their coos. As they get a little older, they begin to pay us back with their giggles and their hugs. All of these are perfectly wonderful and acceptable paybacks to us, the parents. 👶

Let’s look at another scenario, in the adult world:

A few days ago, a friend of mine did a huge favor for my daughter and myself. My daughter had a cute dress that needed to be lined, as well as taken in about an inch around the waist. I am not a seamstress, so I reached out to my friend for help. She gladly took on the project, and the result was an adorable dress that fit my daughter to a “T.” We were both so grateful!

Even though I knew my friend didn’t expect it, I still felt the need to do something kind for her in return. My daughter and I decided to reciprocate with something within our skill set: we baked her a loaf of homemade bread and added some cherry butter on the side.

The Need to Reciprocate:

I’m sure you’ve felt this same way from time to time. When someone does something nice for you, you feel obligated (or at least, very desirous) to return the favor.

If you don’t do anything in response, you’re often left with a feeling of guilt or pressure, as if something were amiss deep within your psyche.

This sense of pressure is what psychologists call The Law of Reciprocity. I call it “The Law of Not Being a Lousy Friend,” but for some reason, psychologists haven’t adopted my name yet. Ah, well, their loss.

The Law of Reciprocity also makes an appearance in the world of parenting. It’s used primarily to win kids over to your way of thinking or your way of doing things. If you’ve ever struck an unofficial “bargain” with your children, then you’ve experienced the Law of Reciprocity first hand. Or, if you’ve ever heard a child whine, “That’s not fair,” then you’ve witnessed another aspect of this law.

A Few Subcategories of the Law of Reciprocity:

Reciprocity of Emotion:

This law is put into action by your saying something nice to another person, causing them to feel good or more valued. Now this person is going to want to say something kind back to you, in return. This urge actually springs from a deep, unconscious need within themselves.

Here’s an example:

Think about your friend and her new hairstyle. You compliment her on it, and she thanks you and says in return, “I really love that blouse on you.” You have just seen the Law of Reciprocity in action, without even knowing it.

Even just saying, “You look nice today,” and her saying, “Thanks, so do you,” activates the Law.

Now let’s apply it to our teens.

Teens are notorious for being reticent to talk to their parents, and for giving monosyllabic responses. Make sure you compliment them daily. Find things they do right, and point them out. Even comment on those good things in front of others.

Now – even though they want to repress it – they are feeling an inner desire to say or do something kind for you. Make it easy for them to do so, and – whatever you do – don’t tease them about it. You want to make the exchange a positive experience so they’ll be willing to take the risk and do it again.

Reciprocity of the Physical or Monetary:

The story I told earlier about my friend’s altering my daughter’s dress is an example of this aspect of the law. Additionally, you could think about picking up your friend’s tab when you go out to lunch. The next time you go out, she will most likely insist on paying the bill.

This is reciprocity!

We are naturally drawn to it.

This aspect of the law could also be applied to taking a meal to a neighbor when she’s sick; lending your ladder to a co-worker; and giving your friend’s child a ride to school.

How can this aspect of the law apply to our relationship with our children?

We know that we expect them to help around the house, but what if we start by serving them? I know what you are going to say, … “Everything we do as a parent is in service of our kids!”

And, you are not wrong!

But we can do things in such a way that we are gently and subtly pointing out what we are doing for them, and making sure they know that it is backed by love.

They will want to help, and to reciprocate in kind.

[If you’re a business person, you might think about the terms “lead magnet” or “free report” – they have to do with the Law of Reciprocity, as well. More on that at another time!]

Go Ahead and Ask for Something:

When dealing with others – and especially, with our children and teens – go ahead and ask for something in return. This will help our children to identify and recognize that natural desire they feel within themselves. This will teach them to act on it; that it is a good thing to reciprocate.
If we don’t ask and educate, then we run the risk that others will begin to take advantage of us. They will start to expect that they can ‘get something for nothing’ from us, and they will not reciprocate at all.

Final Tip:

Watch for opportunities!

Remember that this whole law is activated by our doing something nice for others – so be on the lookout for opportunities to do (and say) kind things for someone else. Even simple gestures of service, such as smiling or holding a door open for someone, can go a long way toward fostering goodwill.

Happy Reciprocating!

~ Coach Leica

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