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Become a Thinking Mom

Be intentional about developing emotional intelligence

In 1981, several university professors conducted a study of valedictorians and salutatorians in the state of Illinois, following them through college into their initial careers. Surprisingly, though these students performed well in college, by the time they reached their mid-twenties, they were merely average in their level of professional success (Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence)

In Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence, he quoted Karen Arnold, one of the professors who tracked these academic performers: "To know that a student is a valedictorian is to know only that he or she is exceedingly good at achievement as measured by grades. It tells you nothing about how they react to the vicissitudes of life." In other words, these valedictorians and salutatorians knew how to be good students. That's it. Not great people with great character, with great heart and soul. Just good students.

Why, then, do we spend so much time investing in our children's academic success yet come up short in developing the other parts of their lives—the parts with a greater long-term impact on their quality of life and relationships?

Because we don't know we are missing the boat. And in some ways, focusing on academics is easier.

We think we're directing our efforts in the right places, but the truth is, we don't invest in the areas of the greatest impact on our children's quality of life. While nothing is wrong with a mother ensuring her child's potential, she will carry many regrets if she places the lion's share of her energy into an area that will only produce one-dimensional results.

Mothers also tackle academic challenges more easily because they feel a greater sense of mastery over this part of their kids' lives. Academics are measurable; moms can see immediate results and know where to go for assistance. Tutors, learning centers, and specialty groups are readily available resources for us to tap into when our children battle a learning issue.

But where do we go when emotional issues surface in our kids? Most mothers go into denial. Then we escape into fear.

Mothers begin to feel inadequate, overwhelmed, and frustrated when they have to deal with their children's emotional issues. These feelings surface in us because: (1) we don't understand why the emotions have arisen and (2) a child's emotional issues cause us to wonder whether we are good mothers. We also struggle because our children's feelings may not fit into our "logic box." They simply don't make sense to us.

But that's not the point. Our children's feelings don't need to make sense to us. Our job is to recognize our children's emotions—and then to hear them, accept them, and help our kids process them. It isn't our job to fix their feelings, justify their feelings, or deem them worthy.

Let's step back and explore this crucial step in motherhood so we don't lose the opportunity and privilege to create a foundation to help them become healthy adults. We need to do more than embrace what will help them with their careers. We must spend our time and energy in the areas that will help them with their lives.

Christ's Example

All of life is about relationships. Jesus modeled his understanding of that truth in the way he prioritized relationships in the three short years he had to make a difference while on earth. Unlike his religious counterparts, Christ focused on the heart of faith and what it meant to the lives he encountered. He unconditionally accepted people who crossed his path.

Jesus didn't pursue the most academically successful men as his disciples. In fact, the 12 he selected didn't cut it in the rabbinical system of their day. They were the underachievers of their time when it came to religious education.

Instead, Jesus Christ sought out those who were diverse in their levels of relationships and experiences. These 12 men would be credited with changing the world for Christ; they traveled all across the lands, teaching, preaching, and ministering to people they didn't know.

They had to possess great people skills to have impacted so many people in such a short amount of time. Yet their knowledge of Christ grew out of their relationship with him, not a book or school.

Jesus knew what he was doing as he trained the disciples. Time and time again he modeled the things that really mattered:

  • loving people unconditionally,
  • accepting people in spite of what others thought, and
  • meeting people in their place of need.

Jesus wants us to invest in the things that really matter. Rules, earthly success, possessions, they have meaning but aren't life-giving the way relationships can be. Jesus knows that it doesn't matter if people obtain knowledge if they don't first possess heart, character, and faith.

Kids reflect intimate knowledge of our needs as people when we see how children are naturally relational. They're born that way and show us every day that God values the power of relationship. Yet in order for them to achieve their optimal level of human interaction and blessing, we must make the relationship area of their life a main priority. We call this area emotional intelligence.

Defining Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence outlines the five categories that define the term. They include:

  1. Knowing one's emotions: This involves the ability to recognize one's emotions as they are being experienced.
  2. Managing emotions: This skill indicates how well children can comfort themselves in the midst of stress, adversity, despair, and other difficult feelings.
  3. Motivating oneself: Delaying gratification and controlling impulses are strong indicators that a child will be able to focus on a long-term goal.
  4. Recognizing emotions in others: Empathy is a necessary skill for children to enjoy effective relationships.
  5. Handling relationships: This skill allows a child to manage the playground, classroom, or athletic field with his or her personal skills instead of academic or athletic abilities.

These five characteristics form the core indicators to predict your child's future judgments and relationship healthiness. Your child's ability to master these emotional skills will positively impact his or her ability to select good friends, recognize risky decisions, and optimize his or her relationships.

Now, let's be honest. Moms worry about their kids when they don't get along with other children their age. We also grow concerned when they struggle with insensitivity, aloofness, and/or overreaction.

Mostly, we fail to recognize how hard it is for our children to identify their feelings.

Many children I've known have trouble articulating their emotions. When asked how they feel, their typical response is, "I don't know." One reason for their reaction might be that few parents ever ask their children how they feel. You would be surprised at how rarely that question is posed to a child.

By the way, when was the last time you asked your child that question?

Identify Emotions

An intentional mother recognizes that her children may be the vehicle God uses to bring healing into her life. Because she wants her children to be emotionally healthy and spiritually whole, she willingly faces the challenge of her own emotional baggage so she doesn't pass it to the next generation. She recognizes that her example is more important than her words, and that her interactions with her children provide greater potential impact on their future relationships than her instruction.

One consideration every mother needs to remember is that each child is different, and some children require more work than others. Even in healthy circumstances, you may find yourself with an introverted child who struggles to talk about his emotions. Don't let that deter you. Just because he feels uncomfortable doesn't mean he can't learn a feeling vocabulary.

Listen to the conversation in your home one morning at breakfast, in the car, or before bedtime. As you listen, notice how often your family uses words that denote emotion. For example, when your children bicker, do they say, "Stop doing that; it makes me mad," or do they just complain about their sibling? If your child cries and you ask her why, or if something's wrong, does she answer with a feeling word, such as "I'm sad," "My feelings are hurt," or "I'm frustrated," or does she only tell you the "facts" of her problem?

What language does your family use? Factual words or feeling words?

In many families, you could record conversations all day long and never once hear a word that describes an emotion. Yet that doesn't mean the family isn't experiencing emotion. It simply means their feelings aren't identified or acknowledged.

Be Present

Most of the time we don't stay with a thought long enough to let it connect to anything. We're so rushed and active with well-meaning activities that we miss the deeper life issues that can have a huge impact on the quality of our lives and our children's health. We've stopped being present with our children, even in their presence.

A new concept is floating around our culture. This new phenomenon contributes to increasingly empty parent-child interaction. It is called present absence.

A mother is attending her child's Little League game or dance lesson. While on the field or in the studio, she spends her time on her cell phone, chatting with her friends, making plans, dealing with issues, or handling some other life matter. Whenever her child looks over toward his or her mother to gain a sense of support and encouragement, instead that child sees that Mom's attention is directed toward a phone conversation. She isn't engaged with her child even though she's present. Thus, while the mother can satisfy her feelings of "being there" for her child, she isn't really there for her child. She is present absent—her body is present, but her attention and energy are other-directed and not child-focused.

Pay Attention

Most of us mothers will need to pay attention to our children's ability to cope and manage life. Some of our kids handle emotions quite well, while others are drama queens (or kings) who make everything a crisis. When you have a child like this, consider it an opportunity to pay attention to what's happening when she exhibits this behavior. It's another chance to learn about your child.

Dramatic behaviors often get on a mom's nerves because such actions seem manipulative, whiney, and controlling. While dramatic behaviors may contain elements of such negative motivations, I'm more interested in you looking for patterns that may arise in your child's reactions. If your child repeats these actions, that youngster is holding out a clue that he or she needs help in this area, not just tolerance.

Everyone has a bad day, overreacts, and melts down now and again. But if one of your children begins to show a pattern of such behavior—being hysterical, on edge, and/or unable to manage even the simplest of tasks—there's a reason for that child's extreme reactions. Emotions are dominating his or her behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Logic is out the window. The child is unable to rationally respond to situations. You need to understand the reason behind your kid's irrational behavior.

There's always a reason why children do what they do. However, don't expect your children to always know what that reason is. That's why they have you. One of your jobs is to help them figure out the issues.

On many occasions I've watched parents become annoyed because of a problem their kids could not articulate. Instead of reacting in anger or frustration, parents must recognize that talking, time, and understanding will lead them down the path to the correct revelation. Once the problem is revealed, solutions can be found, and your relationship will be enriched.

Excerpt adapted from Regret Free Parenting: Raise Good Kids and Know You're Doing It Right by Catherine Hickem. Published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used with permission.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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