Sunday, January 3, 2016

Zero to Twenty: My Ups and Downs with Parenting and Building Emotional Intelligence

By Mallika Sankaran*

At home this meant simple but dedicated conversations to develop the 5 traits of successful people: self-awareness, self-motivation, self-regulation, empathy and social skills. But this happened only when we discovered, after some eureka parenting moments, that when it comes to EQ not everyone is born equal.

The pre-school soccer field is a good place to observe these five emotional intelligence traits at various levels of development: You’ll see the emotionally mature kids _ born with higher EQ (yes, this can happen – just like higher IQ) and by 4 they have the social-emotional skills of an adult _ they get the rules and play by the rules. They interact smoothly with the kids, the coach and the parents and everyone just loves them. Think Oprah Winfrey or Matt Damon. Oprah is strong, decisive and has a great intuition on what her audience wants and how to make people open up on the most personal issues. Matt Damon, plays socially awkward guys but his real-life personality is exactly the opposite! His marriage is one of the most stable in Hollywood, his friendships last for decades and he is caring and humanitarian*. (source:

Then there are the lost kids on the soccer field _ running or walking around _ aimlessly; not sure what they are supposed to be doing and why they are on the field. But, they have age-appropriate social-emotional skills _  they know how to get through the game without getting in trouble!

And last, the kids who seem ‘so out-of-it’ as described by the smug parents on the sidelines. These kids seem to have their own agenda and it’s definitely not the team or soccer. They’re climbing up the nets, kicking the ball ‘at’ the other kids not ‘to’ them, questioning the coach – and generally being un-cooperative.

What’s going on? Is it that they don't like soccer? Is it that after a day of having to follow the rules in school they just need down-time to play and not have more rules and boundaries? Is it that they are mad at their mom? The coach? Their teammates? Who’s to know, unless you talk to them, and by talk I mean chat in a back and forth, non-confrontational, non-lecturing manner – which is a building block towards higher EQ.

Now, I’m thinking back to my days as a new and short-lived soccer mom. My son had just turned 4. He had never expressed interest in soccer or martial arts or baseball or playing the piano or in learning French or in the numerous other activities I wanted him to pursue. It wasn’t like he didn't have his own passionate interests: he loved reading (taught himself how to read from with Pokeman books), watching movies and repeating pitch-perfect dialogues (my favorite was Han Solo) cooking (he learned how to make California Rolls at age 5 from a Japanese friend) and building houses (we never threw away a cardboard carton, ever and always had a construction in progress.)

 I loved all this about him, but for me it wasn’t sufficiently mainstream – I wanted him to be on the local soccer team, get a black belt in Taekwondo and star in the local production. Without knowing it I was being over-aspirational - not just happy that my son had his own unique interests and talents, I felt that I was short-changing his development if I did not give him ALL the opportunities to “be the best” a “Renaissance Man”. Putting a lot of pressure on him and myself in the process.

The term Renaissance Man is used for a very clever person who is good at a great many different things. The idea comes from a time of history called the Renaissance which lasted from about 1400 to about 1600. One of the most famous people alive during this time was Leonardo da Vinci. Not a bad aspiration in itself, but in today’s world one that can quickly lead to over-scheduled kids and stress, especially for kids who’s EQs have not quite caught up with their IQs. Too many activities, too many challenges and too little time for something really important - parent-child conversations.

Today my son loves soccer – playing for his high school and college, he makes and keeps good friends, works constantly on different teams as part of his film major and he is passionate about his many interests. To a proud (and now wiser mom) that’s sufficiently renaissance. His most defining traits are his confidence and his ability to engage and interact with people productively – vital social-emotional skill needed for success in life. Perhaps he just figured it all out as he grew up. Or perhaps what worked is that when we discovered this new (to us) world of EQ and social emotional learning when he was 4 – we began to work really hard at it as a family.

We used every opportunity (to the point of being bores) to talk about “what happened”, examine feelings, discuss alternate courses of action, use specific kid-friendly words and language – something that at first seemed deliberate and contrived and was difficult for someone like me, who likes things spontaneous. We read books that taught us “how to speak so your child will listen” and played board games that taught “self-awareness”. We used a system of rewards and stars to motivate “self-regulation” We tried many things and one can’t say for sure what worked or didn’t. May be it was just part of growing up. But at the end of the day it all added up to the fact that we spent time a lot of family time talking and listening – which creates a parent-child connection that stays on and says “we have your back”.

As Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Over Scheduled Child,  says, “Don't coach them on how to better throw a baseball – jus throw the ball around. Don't always teach them to be better just teach them to be themselves - research shows that might be the real ticket to success after Harvard. …it was whether they had one good relationship with someone when they were growing up…someone who accepted them for who they were and not for whether they could hit the long home run.”

Today I feel roles are reversed – when I’m having issues with persistently troubling interactions with someone, I find that my son is usually the voice of reason who helps me see the other person’s point of view – which is usually a good way out of negative situations.

*Mom of a 15 year old and a 20 year old.

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