Leading with Feeling
How to nurture emotional intelligence in children
by Pavithra Jaivant
Emotional Intelligence at Home
When I was in business school nearly two decades ago, one of the books that was compulsory reading and constituted a few lessons in our ‘Human Behaviour in Organisations’ course was Daniel Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (EI). At the time, it was still fairly new and interesting to me. However, I was still inclined to believe that you either had emotional intelligence or that you didn’t. The idea that you could cultivate it still seemed a little far fetched to me. But that course had already gotten me changing my mind on that. As I ventured into the workforce after my business degree, it was becoming more and more apparent who functioned with emotional intelligence and who didn’t. It was evident that it wasn’t just a person’s IQ that would determine her success in the workplace but also her EQ or Emotional Quotient. What was the point of being brilliant when you couldn’t be a good boss or team mate? Nearly two decades later, as a parent, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of EI and in the belief that it can be nurtured.
Studies have shown that improved EI also improves academic performance. So convincing are these studies that many schools have EI in some form or other in their curriculum. If this isn’t convincing enough, consider this. Just a year ago, the UNAI hosted an event on using Emotional Intelligence to achieve the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) and a more peaceful and prosperous world. If there is any one thing that underscores the importance of EI in achieving peace and harmony, for me, this was it.
This can be watched online here: http://webtv.un.org/search/could-emotional-intelligence-help-us-build-a-better-world-and-achieve-the-sustainable-development-goals/6038238119001/?term=&lan=english&cat=Meetings%2FEvents&page=16.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Professors of psychology Mayer and Salevoy conceptualized a 4 branch model of Emotional Intelligence. This was further developed by Daniel Goleman who authored several books on the subject, most notably, the best selling ‘Emotional Intelligence’. According to him the five components of EI are
- Self awareness
- Self regulation
- Internal motivation
- Social Skills
Once broken down, it sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? I am no psychologist. Nor am I a parenting expert but to me it actually sounds like the ability to train our brain to manage its emotions and a lot of it can be learnt at home from our parents simply by emulating them. It is not something to take an exam on, pass and forget about. It is a moving target that has to be worked on lifelong and the sooner we start the better. What better way to start than by being good role models for our children. I believe, one of the most effective ways to raise ‘emotionally intelligent’ children is to be ‘emotionally intelligent’ parents and this would go a long way in making the world a more harmonious place.
Identify and Acknowledging Feelings
The first step is in helping our children identify and acknowledge their emotions such as frustration, disappointment, sadness by using the right words in daily life. If one of my children is struggling with a particularly hard origami activity and in frustration crumples up the paper and flings it across the room, the right thing to do would be to say something like “That looks really challenging. You must feel really frustrated”. This helps them build the vocabulary they need to identify their feelings and in acknowledging how they feel instead of just dismissing it with a “Come on! You’re not allowed to throw stuff”.
Which brings us to the next big step Don’t Dismiss. So often we are tempted to just ask our children to not cry or to quickly brush aside their concerns about a situation which is basically dismissing their feelings. In fact we should be acknowledging their feelings and even empathising with them, even if we can’t do anything about the situation so that the stressor can be addressed calmly without everyone’s emotions being all over the place. I personally, after a hard day, feel completely refreshed after venting to a trusted family member or friend but would hate it if that person just dismissed my feelings and said “oh it’s not so bad”. Very often all we need is someone to listen without judgement.
Being under lockdown and socially distant from friends and family has been especially hard on everyone and perhaps even more so for children with hardly any avenues to socialise or run around and play to let the endorphins kick in. Empathising with them about the difficulty of the situation and acknowledging and helping them verbalise the range of emotions they might be feeling goes a long way. My almost double-digit-year-old kept being on a short fuse all day one day but immediately perked up after having a heart-to-heart about how he felt not visiting grandparents and going on a holiday this year. Empathising with our children even if we are helpless and not inclined to give in to a demand for something like more screen time, I believe is the only way to teach them how to empathise.
How we react under pressure especially when our children are around for example when stuck in a traffic jam on the way to school and work is a textbook example of a situation where we could acknowledge our frustration while also demonstrating self regulation and refrain from slamming our hands on the steering wheel or tooting the horn furiously.
How we cope with our negative emotions is also how our children learn to cope with theirs. Listening to music may work for some of us whereas a session of calm colouring or some breathing exercises may work for others. For yet another, counting backwards from 10 to 1 will do the trick. For me many times having a good laugh is all I need. Our children too need to be equipped with similar techniques to deal with their emotions. A quick session at the art and craft corner at home or a session of friendly wrestling with a sibling or even breathing exercises can do wonders and in turn help move the focus of their energies to solving the problem at hand.
Internal motivation or being motivated by something other than money or fame for children can translate into children who are not motivated by peer pressure into wanting the latest toys and gadgets or wanting to enroll in a seemingly ‘cool’ activity just because the others are. Instead they have a strong internal moral compass, self-worth, goals and a desire to do better that pushes them. This can be especially powerful in navigating the tricky teenage years. This I believe only comes after years of making decisions and choices that may or may not succeed in a safe space where they learn things such as the effect of hard work and of doing the right thing and watching parents work hard and make difficult but right choices. One of mine thought practicing math was a complete bore until one day his teacher pointed out how much he had improved. Literally overnight, once the outcome of that ten minutes a day spent practicing ‘boring’ maths was known, it became less of a chore and more a means to making progress at school.
How do we behave with people outside of the family for e.g. waiting at the check-in line at the airport or to buy tickets at the movie theatre? Do we patiently wait our turn or do we hover around other people and look for opportunities when someone is distracted when we can quietly cut the line and get ahead? Are we courteous to the person washing our car or the person collecting our trash or are we being jerks? Our children are watching us and are likely learning how to wait for their turn in a group setting and how to behave with their peers. Are we inclusive or do we have biases that we are unknowingly passing on to our children?
When We Slip Up
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our emotions get the better of us and we may snap at our children or slam a door. We are human after all. Nothing is better than acknowledging what prompted the action and more importantly the negative effect if any it had on the recipient and apologising for the same.
In order to nurture emotional intelligence in my children, I am acutely aware that I need to practice it and nurture it in myself too. It is after all a lifelong goal and life is always throwing up new challenges to test our EQ. In the bargain, we might actually have homes and communities where peace and harmony is not only a priority but also a way of life.