As a teenager, I received lots of phone calls from guys. It bugged me when my mom would say, “I can’t understand why all these boys keep calling you. I guess it’s because you’re a good listener.”
Granted, I was no raving beauty, but in my thinking, guys were drawn to the sound of my voice because I was fascinating – not just because I offered a willing ear!
It was years before I realized that my strong interest in listening to others was a marvelous blessing. Like so many baby boomers, I grew up thinking that what I had to offer in life could be summarized by my IQ and SAT scores.
Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence (Bantum), points out research indicating IQ, at best, contributes about 20 percent to factors that determine life success. Just as significant, if not more so, says Goleman, is a different kind of “smart” – what he calls emotional intelligence: “People who know and manage their feelings well, and who read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings, are at an advantage in any domain of life, whether in romance and intimate relationships or in picking up the unspoken rules that govern success in organizational politics.”
Emotional intelligence includes a range of specific skills that help people survive and thrive in almost any setting: self-awareness, empathy, anger management, the ability to shake off anxiety and bounce back from failure and rejection, and the willingness to persevere and delay gratification in tackling challenges.
It would be tough to find a parent who doesn’t want to raise a kid with such emotional smarts. The good news, according to Goleman, is that emotional skills are learnable, and parents can play a strategic role in teaching them. The middle years of childhood are a particularly important time for parents to encourage emotional skill building. Not only are ‘tweens and young teens dealing with puberty, friendship complications, peer pressure, politics, school transitions and upped academic demands, but their biological development makes these years an opportune time to learn these skills.
As Goleman explains: “The frontal lobes of the brain – the seat of emotional self-control, understanding and artful response – continue to develop into late adolescence. The habits of emotional management that are repeated over and over again during childhood and teenage years will help mold this circuitry. This makes childhood a crucial window of opportunity for shaping lifelong emotional propensities.”
What can parents do to help?
Encourage Your Child to Name and Claim His Feelings
Emotional intelligence starts with self-awareness. The more we are aware of our feelings and needs, the easier it is to make personal decisions and understand other people’s feelings and needs.
As parents, we can help our children develop self-awareness through non-judgmental, empathetic listening. When we take our children’s feelings seriously, they take them seriously, too.
Enormous harm is done by well-meaning parents who discount their children’s feelings as trivial or bothersome, or worse, are harshly critical or punitive when a child expresses intense emotion such as anger.
Use Upsetting Incidents to Teach
Whether your child didn’t make the team, failed a test, had a falling out with his closest friend or got left off the invitation list for a party, the party of the century, chances are he’s upset. Parents who use these incidents to act, as what Goleman calls, “emotional coaches” can help a child develop vital emotional survival skills. By taking a child’s feelings seriously, helping him identify what’s upsetting him, talking about how others in the situation might be feeling, and brainstorming options, parents are teaching a variety of lessons for life:
- Feelings are real, but we always have choices in how to interpret things and react.
- Other people may view things differently, and we can’t assume we “know” what they’re thinking or feeling.
- Before acting, it’s better to take some time to calm down and identify alternatives and their consequences.
- Failure and rejection are not permanent conditions; they are setbacks that give us valuable information for “the next time.”
In other words, parents can encourage their children to do some positive “cognitive reframing” about life’s inevitable “downs.”
Model Emotional Competence
As Goleman points out, family life is an “intimate cauldron – our first school for emotional learning.” Children pick up cues from us on how to handle disagreements, deal with feelings, cope with setbacks and treat others. Whenever I teach a child who seems particularly hostile or locked-in to a “victim” mentality – “Everybody’s out to get me, and there’s nothing I can do about it” – I almost always feel greater empathy and understanding after meeting the parents. It is sobering to recognize how thoroughly our children observe and absorb how we live our lives.
Of course, parental perfection is unrealistic. Even the best parents have times when they “lose it” or feel anxious and depressed. What matters is modeling the commitment to improve our own emotional competence.
Encourage Your Child to Identify and Pursue His Own Interests and Abilities
As I write this article, my 10-year-old is in the next room busily at work on a writing project – a story about sharks. In the last two weeks, we’ve visited two maritime centers, gone to the library to pick out shark books and interviewed an aspiring marine biologist. While sharks don’t thrill me, they are a source of endless fascination to my son. By encouraging him to pursue his passion and become a mini-expert on sharks, I’m fostering a “can do” optimistic outlook. As Goleman explains: “Developing a competency of any kind strengthens the sense of self-efficacy, making a person more willing to take risks and seek out more demanding challenges.”
Lynn Slaughter is a freelance writer.
BOOST YOUR CHILD’S EMOTIONAL SMARTS
- Take your child’s feelings seriously, especially when you think his problem or concern is trivial.
- Set a positive example of emotional competence yourself. Children watch parents closely in situations that are emotionally upsetting. If you “snap”, allow your child to see that you can make a strong effort to improve your own emotional competence.
- Encourage your child to pursue interests and hobbies. Actively assist in his endeavors (trips to the library, museum, etc.) and show your enthusiasm about his interests, even if it doesn’t interest you.
- Help your child learn how to handle conflicts, manage his anger and make decisions.
Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ
By Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk
By Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
(Avon Books, $13.95)