Emotions and empathy and expression—these are the important lessons that will serve your child best in the years ahead
From the time babies are born, it seems we’re trying to teach them something—to sleep, to smile, to say “Mama” or “Dada.” To recognize shapes and sing songs. To say their ABCs and count to 100. We think that this will prepare them for what’s ahead, and to succeed in school and in life.
Of course, all of those things are important, not to mention delightful. What’s sweeter than hearing your child call your name, or recite the alphabet with a slightly garbled “em-e-nen-o-pee” in the middle? But when it comes to being ready for that all-important first day of kindergarten, and all of the years ahead, nothing will prepare your child better than knowledge of what I call “The Three E’s.”
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Three R’s: “Readin’ and ’ ritin’ and ’ rithmetic” have been at the center of education since way before the Common Core was a gleam in someone’s eye. The three E’s are quite different. A child’s understanding of emotions and empathy and expression—being able to articulate what they’re feeling, and why—is the real key not only to her school success, but her social development and her physical and psychological well-being. All of this is known as emotional learning or emotional intelligence, which we call “EQ.”
Decades of research has shown that children who are able to recognize, understand, and manage their own emotions are better equipped to handle the everyday challenges of growing up. Those challenges include starting school, making friends, and learning to deal with their feelings in socially acceptable ways.
Unlike IQ, which is pretty much fixed at birth, EQ can grow with time and training. For instance, one of the most important elements of EQ is empathy—and empathy can, in fact, be taught. When a child learns to recognize her own emotions, she can see them in others; she can appreciate the anxiety of a new student who doesn’t know anyone, and reach out to make that child feel welcome and comfortable. When you help a child understand that crying is a perfectly healthy way to express sadness, he’s more likely to empathize with and console another child who is feeling upset. And when a child is taught to manage anger—that most dreaded of preschooler emotions!—with strategies such as counting to ten, running around outside, or expressing verbally how she’s feeling, she is much less inclined to throw disruptive tantrums or take her anger out on someone else.
All of this gives the EQ-equipped child a true head start when he enters a classroom for the first time. Kindergarten teachers have long said that EQ skills are much more important to a child’s success in school than knowing how to hold a pencil, or even knowing how to read!
This is why I urge parents to start teaching their children at a very young age what it means to have certain feelings (love, anger, sadness, happiness, fear) and what to do when those feelings bubble up. Here are a few things any parent can do to teach her child The Three E’s.
Show your child what emotions look like: You can literally use a mirror to show him what an “angry” or a “sad” expression looks like. Then he’ll recognize them in others.
Teach her about empathy: I believe that we’re actually hard-wired for empathy, and that once a child understands what another person is feeling, she is naturally inclined to reach out with care and concern. You can start with the stories you read at night: Ask your child, “What is this character feeling? How do you know? What would you want to say to her?”
Give him a vocabulary for expressing his feelings: Maybe he’s feeling mad, or angry, or frustrated. Thunder and lightning might make him feel scared, or nervous, or anxious. Feelings are so much more understandable, and manageable, when you can express them in words.
Then, when the new school year starts, your child will walk into his or her classroom with a full backpack and a well-stocked emotional toolkit, fully prepared for the year ahead.