How to raise an emotionally intelligent child

When kids can’t fake it or cram for it


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Giving in on limits can teach kids to be emotionally flexible

Image: Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

This column has been paying attention to curriculum since it’s the school year. But not to school curriculum. To parenting curriculum. This is the stuff we need to teach our children because they don’t learn it in school, and it’s important. Maybe even more important than history and geography. That they can Google 24/7. But you can’t Google emotional intelligence, sometimes dubbed EQ. You can’t fake it, you can’t cram for it, and it’s pretty hard to learn once you’re grown up. All of which make the stakes pretty high on raising a child with EQ.

So how to?

The easy part is knowing what not to do. This will seem pathetically obvious to most readers. The first not-do is parenting that does not engage with children’s feelings. Many of us were raised that way. I’m not sure that either of my parents ever knew I had feelings, and if that awkward situation presented itself, they were sure to run the other way. Perhaps because their own feelings were so appalling to them. And each other. But that’s a story for another day, kiddies. You can love your kids to bits, but not attending to their feelings denies them the opportunity to learn to navigate their feelings. The kicker here is research has linked fathers’ involvement in the EQ curriculum with kids’ emotional maturity. In some families mom does the heavy lifting in this department — which can work. But kids whose dads coach them about how to deal with feelings are kids who grow up resilient and emotionally flexible. 

The second not-do is the mirror image of the first. This sounds like: “My daughter is my best friend.… She tells me everything.…” “My son doesn’t open up to anyone but me….” When talking to one’s child who is in distress, it includes offers that sound like this:

“I’ll call the teacher/principal and sort this out.”

“I’ll call the camp and make sure that kid isn’t in your cabin.… Isn’t allowed to: 

“I’ll call his/her mother and.…”

The problem with these offers is they don’t grow children’s capacity. They do the opposite. They express doubt in the child’s capacity.

We all want to run protection for our kids because we’re Mama Bear. Look at me: A friend had to stop me from calling the School of Graduate Studies at Columbia University when my (then) 25-year-old daughter wasn’t having the experience I thought she should have there. Argh! It was awful. For me. I hated not being able to fix it for her.

And that is the core lesson of raising a child with EQ. Don’t fix it. Teach them to fix it. Step One is being an empathic listener. When kids are sad or angry or frustrated, it sounds like: “That’s hard.… You sound sad.… I feel for you.” It’s about taking time to listen empathically without offering judgment or solutions. Caring listening. Empathy. For kids who have trouble knowing their feelings, sometimes a “fishing” expedition helps: “It sounds like you might be feeling mad … sad … frustrated.…” Oftentimes when we’re talking with a child who doesn’t know his feelings, if we give him words and make an accurate guess, he is then able to acknowledge the feeling and label it himself. So Step One is teaching our kids to name their feelings, to bring them into awareness. Being able to talk about their feelings is foundational for EQ.

Step Two is coaching your child to solve her problem. Like any other kind of coaching, coaching for EQ takes time and commitment. Quicker to do it yourself than sit with your child and ask: “How do you think you might solve that problem?” Sports coaches don’t get on the field. They plan strategy and teach skills to their players before the game and then debrief afterwards.

And sometimes it comes down to how we set limits. As parents, many of us are fond of the moving target. We set a limit and our junior litigator is so convincing, and so persistent, we fade at the finish line. When we give in on limits, our kids learn to be emotionally inflexible. We moved, they didn’t. They failed to accept a limit. That’s what they learned to do. Instead, when we set a limit, and they push back, we need to go back to Step One: listening empathically. Encourage them to vent all their ugly feelings about this terrible limit. Help them label their feelings. Acknowledge them. And then move on. This grows resilience, which is core to EQ. They know their feelings, they’re mad, they move on. Shazam! You did it!

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Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine. Follow her on Twitter @JoanneKates.

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