If you could teach one set of skills to every child in the world, what would it be? What if it could be something that would bring intelligence and compassion to decision-making, reduce (or end?) violence, embed within humanity a drive towards kindness, empathy and create relationships that connect, heal, nurture and flourish those who are in them? Social-emotional intelligence could do this, and if we could teach it to every child on the planet, by the time the world was in their hands we would be living in an amazing one.
The thing is, we don’t need to teach it to every child on the planet. We only need to teach it to one.
Social-emotional intelligence involves being able to recognise and manage feelings appropriately in ourselves and our relationships, as well as understanding what other people are feeling.
The emotional centres of the brain are closely connected to the areas that are involved in cognitive learning, so it’s not surprising that there is an abundance of research highlighting the importance of social intelligence for success.
Supporting children in developing social-emotional intelligence will boost their chances of success at school, at work and in life. A recent study found that the kindergarteners who were regarded by their teachers to be more socially competent – as measured by helpfulness to others, willingness to share and a capacity to resolve their own peer problems – were, by age 25, more likely to have graduated from college, be in full-time employment, less likely to have been arrested and less likely to be in public housing or on a public housing waitlist than students who weren’t as socially able. The results of the study were independent of the effects of poverty, race, being born to teenage parents, family stress and neighbourhood crime.
When it comes to our children, we’re the ones who can fuel their flight and building their social-emotional intelligence is a sure way to do this. We can’t choose their temperament and we can’t choose their personality, but we can shape it. Here’s how:
The words have it.
Words set the culture. Our kids won’t always remember our words, but they’ll remember how the words made them feel, and those will be the feelings with which they relate to the world. As the parent or important adult, you represent to them the very best the world can be. If they interpret that as judgemental or critical, they’ll approach the world with a defensiveness and disconnection that will stifle them.
Own your humanness – it’s beautiful and you’re the only one on the planet that does human the way you do. Embracing your own imperfection will help your children to embrace theirs. Give them permission to fail and to get it wrong, and give it to yourself while you’re there. You’ll have off days, off moments and sometimes you’ll stuff up spectacularly (I regularly tick that one-off the list by breakfast) – it’s part of living and relating to the world in full colour. When you do, let your kids see you own it, and when they come to you to talk about their own mistakes, be grateful for the opportunity to strengthen the connection. Nothing feels better than someone embracing us when we’re not that deserving of that embrace (even if their shaking their head a little as they squeeze).
Make kindness a priority.
Most parents will say that kindness is important but kids aren’t getting that message, believing that grades are the most important thing to parents. Though grades are very important, kindness is at the heart of social competence, relationships, and connection. Telling them to be kind is one thing, but letting them see you be kind to yourself, to them, to people you know, to strangers – that’s where the magic is.
Teach them how to listen.
Listening is the key to being someone people love being with. It’s magnetic. To teach this, reflect back what you hear when they talk to you, ‘So what you’re saying is …’ I understand that’. Create plenty of time where you can be with them fully while they’re talking, so they can see how this listening thing it’s done.
Disagree. But don’t stop listening.
Being able to effectively negotiate different points of view is an important part of maintaining relationships and preserving a sense of self in those relationships. Let them disagree with you sometimes without trying to change their mind: ‘I understand what you’re saying, though I see it a different way.’ Understanding someone doesn’t mean you agree with them. What it means is that you respect their right to their opinion, and that you want to keep the connection and dialogue open. People will always value those who respect their opinions, even if they disagree.
Empathy is the ability to understand what other people are experiencing and it’s at the heart of thriving relationships. The best way for children to learn this is by watching you. Notice what they’re feeling, name it, and let them know that you get it. ‘You seem really mad/ sad/ confused. I understand that.’ By doing this, they’ll experience first hand the difference empathy makes.
Share your own feelings.
We all get sad, mad, scared, jealous, insecure – and pretending that you don’t runs the risk of your kids feeling ‘less than’ when they feel off-balance. Whenever it’s appropriate, share your feelings with them, but be careful not to dump your own troubles onto them.
Relationship is critical.
Staying connected is the biggest and best way to ensure you have influence, so let the relationship take priority over pretty much everything. If they’ve come to you with a confession that has you scrambling for breath, take a moment, breathe, and focus on the behaviour you want increase (their honesty, the connection, their willingness to talk to you), rather than the behaviour you want to decrease. Acknowledge how much their honesty means to you, then gently discuss the behaviour you want to change. You’ll always have more influence when they feel connected to you. Their relationship with you will form the foundation for their relationships with the world.
Don’t try to change what they’re feeling.
All feelings have a reason for being there and it’s okay to feel every one of them. The more feelings are pushed down, the more those feelings will push for expression. Give your children the space to feel their feelings without trying to change or talk them out of the feeling. Letting feelings come is the key to letting them go. When feelings are denied and buried, their way out is obstructed. This invites depression, general anger at the world or an angry, fiery explosion when the pent up energy is done with being stifled.
Explain what feelings do.
All feelings have an important reason for showing up:
♥ Anger is a clue that something is wrong and gives us the energy to put things right.
♥ Sadness makes us step back from the world for a while and reset, recharge and heal, and lets others know that we might need some loving.
♥ Fear gives us the energy and physical resources to fight or flee something dangerous if we need to.
♥ Anxiety fuels us to deal with a potential threat. (When it’s related to performance, if it can be reframed as ‘excitement’ it can energise and work for, rather than against).
♥ Jealousy lets us know that something is important and points us in the direction of what we might need to invest in.
♥ Bad feelings around friendships alert us to the possibility that those friendships aren’t good ones to be in, that we deserve more, and that it might be time to let go.
Attending to the feeling will often give clues about what’s needed to find balance. Encourage your child to find the words or images that are attached to the feeling. It doesn’t matter if there aren’t any, what’s important is that they are opening up their self-awareness and their capacity to notice their feelings and become aware of what they need.
Be savvy with discipline.
If punishment involves shaming, smacking and yelling, that’s how the kids on the end of that will learn to control the world and the people around them. We’ll all have bad days and lose it from time to time – that’s completely okay, we’re all human – but when shame is consistent, it changes people and the way they see themselves and respond to the world. Shame never changes anyone for the better. It’s important to have boundaries, but it’s also important to show our kids how to protect them with grace and without compromising anyone else’s. People (including our kids) will always give you more of what you need and want if their boundaries are kept intact and if they feel respected, liked and valued.
How does this friendship feel?
A fundamental part of social and emotional intelligence is being able to read and respond to relationships. The decision about who we let close is always ours to make. Encourage your child, without judgement, to think about their friendships in terms of how they feel in those relationships. What do they get from the relationship? Would they feel better or worse without it? Does it bring out the best or the worst in them? These aren’t easy things to think about, or to answer, but the earlier they can develop this mindset, and own their power to choose the people they let close, the happier they’ll be.
When a friendship feels bad.
When relationships feel bad, it’s generally because they are. When those relationships do damage is when it’s taken as evidence of a personal deficiency. It’s not – it’s so not, and our kids need to know this. When people treat others badly, it’s often because they are driven by their own history and hurts. That hurt can be contagious, and it’s not up to any of us to take responsibility for another person’s healing. It’s important that we don’t get in the way of it, but we don’t need to be a target for anyone else’s pain or dysfunction.
Encourage your kids to look at their own behaviour with an open heart, but if there is nothing they can change to make the relationship feel better, then it’s likely the friendship is one that doesn’t deserve them.
Give them permission to keep the friendship if they want (often, the more you fight their friendships, the more they’ll defend them and this will tie up the energy they need to explore the friendship and what it means for them) but empower them as the ones who have the ultimate decision about whether or not to stay. Being alone isn’t a sign of popularity, or lack of, it’s the gap between leaving friendships that don’t deserve them, and finding the ones that do.
Build them up, but …
Kids need confidence to experiment with relating to the world, but be careful not to over-inflate them. Praise their effort and what they do, rather than who they are. You’re trying to shape behaviour, so that’s where the focus needs to be. Overly praising without substance runs the risk of raising kids who lose their humanity because they genuinely believe that they are better than everyone else. Love them hard and without limits, but when you praise them, let them know why, so the praise is building behaviour. Praise is a kind of currency and they have the capacity to earn plenty of it. You don’t want to flatline their growth by giving it to them too often for nothing. They are awesome humans because of what they do – how hard they work, how respectful, kind, funny, strong, brave they are.
Don’t force an apology.
Making kids apologise too quickly might mean they have no idea why they’re apologising. Empathy is at the heart of an apology and will be missing from a forced one. Apologies don’t automatically heal a connection and they don’t automatically fix everything, and it’s important for kids to learn this. Instead, ask how they see the situation and how they think the other person might see the situation. If there’s something they’ve missed, gently point it out. Then, rather than telling them to apologise, ask them what brave steps they might take to put it right. It might not always be an apology. If they’ve hurt a sibling, they might think a cuddle is the way to go. If they’ve accidently pushed someone on the sports field, it might be saying ‘Are you okay? I didn’t mean to hurt you.’ Don’t shame them, but give them a chance to be a hero. There are usually two sides to every story. Validate theirs and support them in realising the full impact of whatever it is that they’ve done. The more shame they feel, the harder it will be to own whatever they’ve done wrong and to put it right. The idea is to nurture them towards being responsive when they get things wrong, not defensive.
If they are the ones apologising for something, show them how to do ‘forgiveness’. Not every bad behaviour has to invite a consequence to teach an important lesson.
Responsibility isn’t about blame. It’s about response-ability – having the ability to respond. Taking responsibility for something means owning the ability to respond and to put things right. It’s done from a position of strength, not shame. When you’re the one who has made a royal stuff-up, be quick to own it and to put it right, ‘I wish I didn’t yell when you were late home. I’m sorry. That must have been scary for you walking into that.’
Make it easy for them to talk to you.
If they confess something they’ve done, breathe, take a moment, and respond in a way that teaches them telling you was the right thing to do, and nurtures a willingness to come to you again next time. Sometimes they can take your breath away with the things they do (actually we all have that in us), but all you’ll teach them by punishing or screaming is not to tell you next time. They’ve given you a prime opportunity to talk to them about the dangers or stupidity or whatever of what they’ve done. Use the opportunity to grow your relationship and your influence, not shrink it.
Create a calm down space.
Teaching kids how to calm down will strengthen their resilience from the inside out. Support them in finding a place in their room or at home where they can go when they are overwhelmed, stressed or angry and need to regain control. Let them decorate their special space however they want to – cushions, photos, pillows, soft toys. It’s not a time out, and time there is always under their control. Explain why it’s important by telling them how anger works: When people are angry, the part higher part of the brain that is reasonable, sensible and great at making decisions and finding solutions disconnects from the lower part that is more impulsive, primal and automatic. The lower part does crazy things when the higher part isn’t there to take charge. Calming down is about re-establishing the connection between the two. Mindfulness, listening to music, and strong breathing are ways to do this and to help them be the boss of their brain.
Our kids watch everything we do (except how to stop clothes from hurling themselves on the floor – they don’t seem to watch that). If there are things you do that don’t work, or if you’re carrying your own scars, this is the single biggest reason to heal your own wounds and try doing things differently. You can the beginning of something extraordinary, making sure everyone who comes after you is able to connect with the world in a more fulfilling, effective, adaptive way.
Our kids have it in them to find the answers, but by directing too much, we can stifle their inherent capacity for connection and growth. Being a human is hard work and it takes time. One of the most loving things we can do as parents is to give our kids the space and support to experiment and find the answers. They aren’t perfect, and neither are we and the more we are able to receive their mistakes with love and compassion, the more open they’ll be to finding another way, and to our influence, our guidance and our wisdom