No matter where you are in the world, I'd bet good money that any parent you meet would tell you the same thing: Raising their child is the most important job they'll ever have. Bringing a human being into the world and guiding him or her safely into adulthood is both an awesome privilege and a weighty responsibility -- and if you can manage to ensure that the child is healthy, smart, successful, talented, cheerful and polite, well, you've really done your job.
Here in the United States, we tend to turn that job into something of an obsession. We buy parenting books and educational toys, we provide stimulating mobiles and soothing white-noise machines, we take our children to enrichment classes and soccer practice, we research the best preschools and hire math tutors. But what if I told you it's not what goes on outside the child that's the best predictor of success, but what goes on inside? That it's not your child's IQ you should worry about, but her EQ?
EQ, or emotional intelligence, is the process by which children learn to recognize, understand and manage their emotions. Decades of research shows that children who learn EQ skills are more likely to do well in all aspects of life -- an emotionally intelligent child will find it easier to demonstrate empathy, respect, tolerance and kindness, can make friends more easily and will be better problem solvers. And the ability to recognize emotions is a better predictor of success in first grade than economic or family background. Yet kindergarten teachers report that more than 30 percent of children entering their classrooms are emotionally unprepared, lacking the necessary EQ skills needed for school life.
Here's the good news: You do not need tutors, coaches or guides to teach your child EQ skills. You are your child's first teacher; your home is his first classroom. And it's never too early to begin teaching children about feelings. Nearly every moment in a young child's life offers an opportunity for you to model EQ skills such as caring, empathy, listening, understanding, patience and (OK, this one is tougher) anger management. As your child starts to talk, this is your chance to listen and help her develop a vocabulary for her emotions. Preschoolers can learn simple strategies for managing their feelings that will help them deal with the challenges of everyday life.
Let's start with the easiest thing of all: Just love your children. Show them what love looks like -- when they're being lovable and when they're not! Show them with your body, with your smiles, with your words and with your undivided attention. You're teaching them how to express love.
Add language. Even when children are preverbal, and certainly as they begin developing language skills, you can offer them words for the feelings they are experiencing. "I see you're feeling sad that Grandma has to leave." "That's frustrating when the blocks fall down, isn't it?" "I know you're angry that I took the toy away from you." I once created a program for Pfizer Pediatrics called First Aid for Feelings, designed to help doctors relate to their young pediatric patients. It included a "feelings thermometer" that gave children words to express how they were feeling. A later study showed that those children sustained shorter hospitalizations and required less pain medication. The power of using your words!
Let kids see what their feelings look like. Using a mirror, have them play with facial expressions: "Can you make a sad face? A happy face? A mad face?" When reading picture books, have them talk about what characters in the story might be feeling. How do they know? What do they see? When children can recognize emotions, on their own faces and on others', this is the beginning of empathy, one of the most critical of emotional intelligence skills.
When they talk, you listen. Create a safe, non-judgmental environment where kids can share thoughts and feelings -- and validate those feelings without telling them how they should feel or minimizing their emotions. Be sure to share your own feelings; these are often the most teachable moments.
Teach feelings strategies. Demonstrate that even strong feelings such as anger and frustration can be managed by using simple strategies such as taking a time out, or pausing and taking a few deep breaths to calm down. Sadness -- a valid feeling that shouldn't be dismissed -- can be eased by thinking of things that make the child happy, or even by doing something nice for someone else (they'll be surprised by how good this makes them feel!).
Make time for play. A high-EQ parent knows that when children are at play, they are exploring and experiencing a wide range of emotions. Playing with your child is wonderful for bonding, but also be sure to allow your child time for self-directed play. Self-directed play allows kids to use their creativity and imagination and contributes to healthy brain development. There are lots of other benefits, as well: Kids who have had a lot of time in self-directed play develop leadership skills, make better decisions and have better problem-solving skills.
There's plenty of time later in a child's life for the enrichment programs, the academics, the athletics. The years from 0 to 5 are the key time to lay a foundation of emotional intelligence -- this is the best way you can give your child the tools for a healthy and successful life.
Denise Daniels is creator of The Moodsters.