Good parenting requires more than intellect. Good parenting involves emotion. In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships.
For parents, this quality of “emotional intelligence”—as many now call it—means being aware of your children’s feelings, and being able to empathize, soothe, and guide them. For children, who learn most lessons about emotion from their parents, it includes the ability to control impulses, delay gratification, motivate themselves, read other people’s social cues, and cope with life’s ups and downs.
John Gottman calls the parents who get involved with their children’s feelings “Emotion Coaches.” Much like athletic coaches, and says that they teach their children strategies to deal with life’s ups and downs. They don’t object to their children’s displays of anger, sadness, or fear. Nor do they ignore them. Instead, they accept negative emotions as a fact of life and they use emotional moments as opportunities for teaching their kids important life lessons and building closer relationships with them.
Like many Emotion-Coaching parents in his studies, parents see their child’s sad or angry moments as the time she needs him most. Emotion-Coaching parents might be described as “warm” and “positive” toward their kids, and indeed they are. But taken alone, warm, positive parenting does not teach emotional intelligence. In fact, it’s common for parents to be loving and attentive, yet incapable of dealing effectively with their children’s negative emotions. Among these parents who fail to teach their kids emotional intelligence, Gottman has identified three types:
- Dismissing parents, who disregard, ignore, or trivialize children’s negative emotions;
- Disapproving parents, who are critical of their children’s displays of negative feelings and may reprimand or punish them for emotional expression; and
- Laissez-Faire parents, who accept their children’s emotions and empathize with them, but fail to offer guidance or set limits on their children’s behavior.
To give you an idea of how differently Emotion-Coaching parents and their three noncoaching counterparts respond to their children, imagine Diane, whose little boy protested going to daycare, in each of these roles.
If she was a Dismissing parent, she might tell him that his reluctance to go to daycare is “silly”; that there’s no reason to feel sad about leaving the house. Then she might try to distract him from his sad thoughts, perhaps bribing him with a cookie or talking about fun activities his teacher has planned.
As a Disapproving parent, Diane might scold Joshua for his refusal to cooperate, telling him she’s tired of his bratty behavior, and threatening to spank him.
As a Laissez-Faire parent, Diane might embrace Joshua in all his anger and sadness, empathize with him, tell him it’s perfectly natural for him to want to stay home. But then she’d be at a loss for what to do next. She wouldn’t want to scold, spank, or bribe her son, but staying home wouldn’t be an option, either. Perhaps in the end, she’d cut a deal: I’ll play a game with you for ten minutes—then it’s out the door with no crying. Until tomorrow morning, that is. So what would the Emotion Coach do differently? She might start out like the Laissez-Faire parent, empathizing with Joshua, and letting him know that she understands his sadness. But she would go further, providing Joshua with guidance for what to do with his uncomfortable feelings.
Perhaps the conversation would go something like this:
Diane: Let’s put on your jacket, Joshua. It’s time to go. Joshua: No! I don’t want to go to daycare. Diane: You don’t want to go? Why not? Joshua: Because I want to stay here with you. Diane: You do? Joshua: Yeah I want to stay home. Diane: Gosh, I think I know just how you feel. Some mornings I wish you and I could just curl up in a chair and look at books together instead of rushing out the door. But you know what? I made an important promise to the people at my office that I’d be there by nine o’clock and I can’t break that promise. Joshua (starting to cry): But why not? It’s not fair. I don’t want to go. Diane: Come here, Josh. (Taking him onto her lap.) I’m sorry, honey, but we can’t stay home. I’ll bet that makes you feel disappointed doesn’t it? Joshua (nodding): Yeah. Diane: And kind of sad? Joshua: Yeah. Diane: I feel kind of sad, too. (She lets him cry for a while and continues to hug him, letting him have his tears.) I know what we can do. Let’s think about tomorrow, when we don’t have to go to work and daycare. We’ll be able to spend the whole day together. Can you think of anything special you’d like to do tomorrow? Joshua: Have pancakes and watch cartoons? Diane: Sure, that would be great. Anything else? Joshua: Can we take my wagon to the park? Diane: I think so. Joshua: Can Kyle come, too? Diane: Maybe. We’ll have to ask his mom. But right now it’s time to get going, okay? Joshua: Okay.
At first glance, the Emotion-Coaching parent may seem much like the Dismissing parent because both directed Joshua to think about something other than staying home. But there is an important distinction. As an Emotion Coach, Diane acknowledged her son’s sadness, helped him to name it, allowed him to experience his feelings, and stayed with him while he cried.
She didn’t try to distract his attention away from his feelings. Nor did she scold him for feeling sad, as the Disapproving mother did. She let him know that she respects his feelings and thinks his wishes are valid. Unlike the Laissez-Faire mother, the Emotion-Coaching parent set limits.
She took a few extra minutes to deal with Joshua’s feelings, but she let him know that she wasn’t going to be late for work and break her promise to her co-workers. Joshua was disappointed but it was a feeling both he and Diane could deal with. And once Joshua had a chance to identify, experience, and accept the emotion, Diane showed him it was possible to move beyond his sad feelings and look forward to fun the next day.
This is whole-brain parenting. Connecting with our kids’ emotions, demonstrating empathy so they feel seen and heard and then redirecting what needs be done sets the greatest example for emulation in adulthood. This is not only helping to develop their pre-frontal cortex, but validating them as people, worthy of respect.