Sneak peek: We may wonder how to foster emotional intelligence in our children in meaningful, but easy ways. This developmental process happens through everyday interactions.
My older son (3rd grade) has a great social-emotional development learning program at his school. The school understands how to foster emotional intelligence and why it’s important. Each morning, the class gathers and talks about how each student is feeling (e.g., the Zones of Regulation). Then they usually do a short lesson on some topic related to children’s emotional regulation or other skills like growth mindset, dealing with anger, getting along with friends, etc.
One day last week, he mentioned that had talked about empathy. I asked him what empathy was and he said, “it’s trying to understand what another person is feeling.”
I thought to myself, “great! he seems like he really understands this.” While watching a movie later that night, he even said, “I feel so much empathy for that family” about a scene in which the family was in a dangerous predicament. I thought he had.
The next day, we had a new babysitter come over to meet our boys because she was planning to watch them the next day. While she was still present, that same son said, “she’s boring.”
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I was so embarrassed! The girl was new at babysitting and you could tell she was a bit nervous. I couldn’t believe my supposedly empathetic son had said that while she was still within earshot.
I asked him later how he thought that phrase might have made her feel. He was a bit confused at first but then I reminded him that she was meeting all of us for the first time and she was new to babysitting. Then he realized how saying “she’s boring” might have hurt her feelings. He said, of course, that he just hadn’t thought about that at the time.
I explained that I understood that and we all do silly things like that from time to time. I just wanted him to be aware of it so he could see how the words might hurt other people’s feelings. I think he got it.
This illustrates one key idea when it comes to the development of emotional intelligence in children–it’s not a simple linear path. Like many aspects of development, children’s emotional intelligence comes in “fits and starts.” They learn some new skill or perspective but then they are put in a new situation and have to re-learn lessons again. It’s all part of the process.
It’s a bumpy developmental road, so why should we persist in helping our kids grow in emotional intelligence?
Why Emotional Skills Matter
In recent months, there have been a number of high-profile articles floating around social media urging us to look beyond STEM skills when considering how best to prepare our kids for the world they will face in the future. Google came out with a big study of their employees and found that the ones that were most successful were not the ones with the best tech skills, but those with “soft” skills like communicating (and listening), being empathetic to co-workers, understanding others’ perspectives and critical thinking.
A Forbes article claimed that “that useless liberal arts degree” is now in high demand in the tech world. Why? Because those with these degrees often understand better how to work with others, understand the needs of customers, and help folks transition in a tech world that is rapidly changing. In other words, for the next generation of work, our kids not only need to know how to code but how to communicate and empathize. Emotional intelligence in children is now more important than ever before.
It’s not all about the workforce, however. We know from our own experience that being kind and empathetic towards others just makes life better and helps make us happier too. Research bears this out. People with higher emotional intelligence tend to be happier and have stronger relationships. Just listen to Dr. Michele Borba, author of the awesome book Unselfie discuss this research.
The Development of Emotional Intelligence
Unlike walking or talking, which normally develops naturally in a child with little assistance, emotional intelligence must be fostered. The brain development necessary for kids to understand the emotions of others does appear quite naturally, but caring adults must model empathy for it to really flourish.
Related reading: Gift Guide for Raising Kind Kids
You may have noticed this mental shift in your own kids. Ask a 3-year-old how another person feels about something (e.g., their favorite color), the youngster will inevitably answer what their own favorite color is. This type of egocentrism isn’t the fault of your parenting. It’s simply that in a child this young, the part of the brain used to read others’ feelings has not fully developed.
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But, ask that same child the same question only a year later and you will likely get a totally different, less egocentric answer. The mental shift is remarkable. Suddenly, your 4-year-old can understand that what you like is different from what she likes. Researchers call this skill Theory of Mind and the video below shows how they test for this development in the lab:
How to Foster Emotional Intelligence
Now that your 4-year-old can actually consider the mind and feelings of others, true empathy and growth in emotional intelligence is possible. Now, our job as parents is just beginning! Like most “soft skills,” emotional intelligence in children takes modeling and practice. Here are just a few things we parents can do to help:
- Talk the talk. Our conversations with our kids really matter! Studies show that kids whose parents discuss how other people might be feeling have better perspective-taking ability than those who don’t. Perspective-taking just means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (the first step in empathy!). If your child sees another child being teased on the playground, ask how you think that makes that child feel. While watching a movie or reading a book, ask your child how the character might be feeling. Little discussions like this can really foster your kid’s emotional intelligence.
- Walk the walk. Conversations about emotions are helpful, but modeling empathy with your kids (and others) is the key to solidifying those brain connections that make empathy a life-long habit. It’s often challenging to show empathy to our kids when their behavior is…umm less-than-perfect, but it really does show them how empathy makes them feel. This, in turn, illustrates to them why empathy is important to show to others. In other words, modeling is key. Of course, you can also model EQ with others you interact with as well—spouse, family members, store clerks, etc. Young kids watch everything and absorb all these little interactions during the day.
- Emotional guidance. In the wonderful book, The Yes Brain, the authors point out that one of the best ways we can foster emotional intelligence in children is by guiding them through their own emotions. Our tendency as parents is to solve or fix an issue that is causing our kids’ pain. For emotional issues, however, sometimes the best solution is to guide them through their pain or distress instead of immediately distracting them or trying to get them “back to happy” too quickly. If we allow our kids to feel sad or disappointed, over time, they learn to understand how others feel when they experience these emotions too. Sometimes, it is only through our own pain that we come to truly understand the pain of someone else. This is true for our kids as well.
Ironically, as our economy shifts to a more high-tech, information-driven model, the need for emotional intelligence only grows. Simply put, computers can automate tech skills, but computers can’t automate emotional interaction.
Even as computer algorithms dictate more of our daily life, its human interaction that still provides meaning to our lives.
Fostering emotional intelligence in children will not only give them an advantage over computers, but it will also make for a kinder, more meaningful world.