Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

lot of GenXers are loathe to admit we should have been wearing bike helmets as kids. It seems silly to us that our kids see them as essential as a seatbelt in the backseat or hand sanitizer before snack.
When did we get so deliberate in our safety efforts?

While I may forget to remind her about the helmet, I have been very deliberate in a specific realm of Hollie’s life: communication. Charlie and I are really, really good at communication. We expect Hollie to be, too. 
It takes work, though. Especially when she doesn’t always have the vocabulary to express herself.

Hollie and I stood on the stairwell and looked up at the family pictures I’d assembled there.
“What do the words say?” I asked her.
“Caring. Kindness. Love.” She read each one, rolling the syllables over in her mouth. “Honesty. Trust. Integrity.”
“Those are our family values,” I said. “Caring. Kindness. Love. I expect you to treat your friends with those values. Do you understand?”
She nodded. She’s learning. And I’m doing the best I can to teach her. 
So this is an apology to her friends, our neighbors, and any other kids we come in combat with. She’s learning.

I don’t want Hollie to adopt “hug your sibling” apology skills. 

I want her to understand what an apology actually is:
  1. acknowledge what you did
  2. acknowledge the outcome of that action
  3. recognize why the outcome was hurtful or bad
  4. demonstrate remorse.
And if she can do one and two but doesn’t think there is a bad or hurtful outcome, then I won’t force her to apologize.

“Say you’re sorry,” isn’t an effective way to teach a kid how to apologize. If Hollie doesn’t think she did anything wrong, then the “sorry” has no actual meaning. She’s not sorry.
I tell her that frequently.
She’ll have too many cookies. I’ll scold her. She’ll say, “Sorry.”
“You’re not sorry you had too many cookies,” I’ll say, “You’re sorry I’m upset with you. If you had known I would get upset would you still have eaten all those cookies?”

I don’t think it’s fair to teach a kid the vocabulary of peacemaking without teaching them how hard peacemaking really is. 

It takes thoughtfulness and sacrifice.

Hollie’s two neighborhood friends each have siblings. When the three of them fight, which is daily, the other two girls are persistent in their side of the argument. They remind and complain and threaten to get Hollie to do what they want.
When she’s had enough, she runs upstairs and wants to be left alone.

I imagine these friends have learned to fight with their siblings. They’ve learned strategies for getting what they want. I’m not going to judge those strategies, I’m just going to note that these kids have them.
Hollie doesn’t.
She needs time to think of the best way to get what she wants. She needs time to consider how to respond to their persistence without hurting their feelings. She doesn’t want to give in all the time (that’s a good thing) and she doesn’t want to speak unkindly to her friends (another good thing). So she needs space.

Last week she needed the vocabulary to explain to her friends that she needed space.
“I think they may have a hard time understanding if you simply ignore them, Hollie. Try explaining why you need space, tell them you do not wish to be unkind but that you need a moment to decide how to respond. Teach them how to treat you with kindness while you’re trying to treat them with love and respect.”
She took this advice seriously. She practiced a few phrases. “What if they won’t listen?” she asked. 
“Just repeat the same words over and over. Do not engage with their changing retorts,” I said. “Say, I need space. I need space. I need space. Until they give it to you.”
She practiced that. Her own kind of persistence. Then she said. “Well, I’m off to apologize to my friends for ignoring them. I’ll explain why and ask their forgiveness. I understand my ignoring them hurt them because they didn’t understand why I was so quiet.” She looked thoughtfully up at the words on the wall.
“I’m sorry I hurt them.”
I thought about the two girls coming three different times while Hollie was in her room. They asked if she was ready to play. If she could come outside. If she’d gotten in trouble for fighting with them. Each time I told them Hollie would find them when she was ready.
When Hollie finally emerged and told me the trouble and we worked through how she could respond, she was calm and confident in the solution she’d reached.

“I’ll be kind,” she said, “as I explain what it is I want and how I think we can compromise to be sure we all get what we want.”

Then she put on her helmet and left.

When her dad got home, she told him the whole story. How the fight started, how she’d felt overwhelmed, how she’d been hurtful to her friends and how she’d read the words with me and practiced some more appropriate responses for their next fight.
She proudly told him the outcome of the situation.
When we made eye contact, Charlie was visibly impressed. 

I know people discount a kid’s ability to understand complex communication. I know teaching kids that every emotion they have is valid creates entitlement. In a recent article I read one of the reasons for changing the name of Clemson’s Old Main building was that no consolation had been offered to students whose feelings were hurt.

There’s a GenXer in me wanting to shout, “Fuck your feelings. Get over yourself.”

Then I think about how long it takes to really teach people emotional maturity and how most kids now (through college age) have never been given the kind of instruction they really need to take one on the chin and keep going, to recognize a real threat and neutralize it, or to recognize intent and forgive people for being human.

We are all imperfect beings. And yet, being the very best versions of ourselves is how we honor the tremendous gift that is this life. 


  1. Kasie, this is beautifully written and very wise. I really enjoyed reading this piece. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Gail. It's good to see friends here on Clemson Road.


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