It has been more than a month since I finished reading Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman (published 1998). By waiting to write my thoughts, I may not have as many specific examples and quotes to share with my readers. However, by letting the book percolate in my mind as I went about my life, I can even better declare that Gottman’s slim volume is a helpful and essential reminder of the role of parents in the lives of young children.
While parents and teachers often devote lots of time to teaching academics and well rounded activities (from music to athletics), how often have parents considered the ways they are helping their children develop emotional intelligence? In a world were people are increasingly pulled in a variety of directions, the ability to regulate emotions and control one self in a complicated world is essential. Gottman’s book helps me see my opportunities for teaching my kids. It also gives me realistic ways to implement the teaching of emotional strength.
Gottman encourages parents to take your children’s emotions seriously, to help them assign meaning to the emotions they feel and learn to regulate them, and to recognize the appropriate times for counseling children on how to control emotions (that is, not when we are overtired or rushed ourselves). I think the most important thing I realized as I read this book was that I need to give my kids the benefit of the doubt. Rather than assuming that they are trying to push the envelope and see how much they can get away with, I should listen to what they are saying. Maybe sometimes they are trying to get away with something, yes. But more often, I’ve found that my son really is distraught by a “no” for some other reason, even if it is “simply” intense disappointment.
Children, especially gifted children, often feel emotions far more intensely than adults do. This is normal. They don’t have such a wide outlook on life, they don’t have as much experience with new things, and they do, honestly, have a self-centered approach of the world.
In the past few weeks since I finished this book, I’ve found myself more sensitive to the responses of my son. And as Gottman suggests, it really is a positive thing to stop, get on my son’s level, give him a hug, and say, for example, “I can see you are really disappointed.” By recognizing his feelings, it may not ease the disappointment of having to leave the fun place that we are (for example), but it does help him feel validated. Validating his appropriate feelings only helps him calm down; telling him to “stop it” or reacting as if his disappointment is wrong only teaches children to withdraw. Note that Gottman does discuss the different between validating the disappointment and validating the behavior. If my son is sad, I can validate the emotion he feels; if he starts hitting and kicking, I cannot accept that response.
I have found in the past weeks that I am not so quick to shut off a “scary” movie when my son says “I’m scared!” 1 As Gottman suggests, I saw how letting him be scared and then calm down helped him. He was so excited about the movie (which he ultimately liked very much) that he told Dad, Grandma, and a friend about it in the next few days. I suspect that getting scared and seeing things resolve will help him when he might be in real-life scary situation in the future.
Similarly, I haven’t objected to rowdy “Dad time” just before bed as I may have in the past. Gottman believes such a parent-child relationship (particularly with a father) is essential for learning to regulate normal emotions: happy-and-rowdy now must transfer to calm, ready-for-bed in just a few minutes. That’s an important skill to understand. 2
Gottman’s suggestions are probably not revolutionary to a wise parent, to someone sensitive to children’s needs, and to other psychologists. 3 What I loved was Gottman’s straight-forward and succinct approach to parents. Some may be reminders, but all of it is essential to understand since we have innocent and needy children looking to us to learn how to react and become a responsible adult. Let’s make sure this rising generation doesn’t grow to become a generation of out-of-control road raging adults, okay?
For me, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child was a revolutionary book to read. It has caused me to rediscover my relationship with my son and to reconsider my responses to his emotional outbursts and tantrums. And although I’m not a child, it has helped me to better define my own “emotional intelligence” as I encounter disappointments. It’s amazing how much we adults have left to learn.
- I would not, of course, show a truly scary movie to my 5-year-old, but trust me when I say this was a normal mean person that was in a Disney movie, and it was not that bad. ↩
- For example, it someone says something nasty to you at work and you must transfer your anger into an appropriate professional response. That’s not easy to do, but the bed time rowdy-to-quiet is similar. ↩
- I suppose I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I haven’t done some of the most obvious things as a mother. I know that when my son was very young, I was a “hover mom” far too often, which means that he is, as I said, scared of some things in even Disney movies, still, at age 5. ↩