The Family Crucible

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Goleman writes that research has shown that the three most common emotionally inept parenting styles are:

*Ignoring feelings altogether. Such parents treat a child’s emotional upset as trivial or a bother, something they should wait to blow over. They fail to use emotional moments as a chance to get closer to the child or to help the child learn lessons in emotional competence.

*Being too “laissez-faire.” These parents notice how a child feels, but hold that however a child handles the emotional storm is fine—even, say, hitting. Like those who ignore a child’s feelings, these parents rarely step in to try to show they child an alternative emotional response. They try to smooth all upsets, and will, for instance, use bargaining and bribes to get their child to stop being sad or angry.

*Being contemptuous showing no respect for how the child feels. Such parents are typically disapprovingly harsh in both their criticisms and their punishments. They might for instance, forbid any display of the child’s anger at all, and become punitive as the least sign of irritability. These are parents who angrily yell at a child who is trying to to tell his side of the story, “Don’t you talk back to me!”

The default method of parenting most parents adopt is how they were raised. Unfortunately this propagates many poor parenting methods yielding low emotional intelligence. Effective parenting requires a fairly good grasp of the rudiments of emotional intelligence. Reading Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence” provides the base knowledge, but being emotionally intelligent also requires substantial practice. As will be come apparent, even if parents know what to do, it can be quite demanding.

A child’s readiness for school depends on the most basic of all knowledge, how to learn. A report from the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs makes the point that school success is not predicted by a child’s fund of facts or precocious ability to read so much as by emotions and social measures. The report lists seven key ingredients of this crucial capacity—all related to emotional intelligence.

Confidence. A sense of control and mastery of one’s body, behavior, and world; the child’s sense that he is more likely than not to succeed at what he undertakes, and that adults will be helpful.
Curiosity. The sense that finding out about things is positive and leads to pleasure.
Intentionality. The wish and capacity to have an impact, and to act upon that with persistence. This is related to a sense of competence, of being effective.
Self-control. The ability to modulate and control one’s own actions in age-appropriate ways; a sense of inner control.
Relatedness. The ability to engage with others based on the sense of being understood by and understanding others.
Capacity to communicate. The wish and ability to verbally exchange ideas, feelings, and concepts with others. This is related to a sense of trust in others and of pleasure in engaging with others, including adults.
Cooperativeness. The ability to balance one’s own needs with those of others in group activity.

Two examples of getting the emotional basics follow: one is how to and one is how not to:
“Say a two-month-old baby was up at 3 A.M. and starts crying. Her mother comes in and, for the next half hour, the baby contentedly nurses in her mother’s arms while her mother gazes at her affectionately, telling her that she’s happy to see her, even in the middle of the night. The baby, content in her mother’s love, drifts back to sleep.”
“Now a comparable baby, who also awoke crying in the wee hours, is met instead by a mother who is tense and irritable, having fallen asleep just an hour before after a fight with her husband. The baby starts to tense up the moment his mother abruptly picks him up, telling him, “Just be quiet—I can’t stand one more thing! Come on, let’s get it over with.” As the baby nurses his mother stares stonily ahead, not looking at him, reviewing her fight with his father, getting more agitated herself as she mulls it over. The baby, sensing her tension, squirms, stiffens, and stops nursing. “That’s all you want?” his mother asks. “Then don’t eat.” With the same abruptness she puts him back in his crib and stalks out, letting him cry until he falls back to sleep exhausted.” Goleman notes, “Of course, most babies get a least a taste of both kinds of interaction. But to the degree that one or the other is typical of how parents treat a child over the years, basic emotional lessons will be imparted about how secure a child is in the world, how effective he feels, and how dependable others are. Erik Erikson put in terms of whether a child comes to feel a “basic trust” or a “basic mistrust.”

All the small exchanges between parent and child have an emotional subtext, and in the repetition of these message over the years children form the core of their emotional outlook and capabilities. A little girl who finds a puzzle frustrating and asks her busy mother to help gets one message if the reply is the mother’s clear pleasure at the request and another if it’s a curt “Don’t bother me—I’ve got important work to do.” When such encounters become typical of child and parent, they modify the child’s emotional expectations about relationships. They mold the child’s emotional expectations about the relationships, outlooks that will flavor her functioning in all realms of life for better or worse.

It is clear that a mother loving and wanting a child is key to developing an emotionally intelligent child. This is also true for the father. The absence of this love and desire to have a child, and the absence of a father make this difficult. It is one matter to be pro life, but perhaps more important to be pro quality life.

During the first three or four years of life are a period when the toddler’s brain grows to about two thirds its full size, and evolves in complexity at a greater rate than it ever will again. During this period key kinds of learning take place more readily than later in life—emotional learning foremost among them. During this time severe stress can impair the brain’s learning centers, damaging the intellect.

Child abuse results in the extinction of empathy. Goleman writes that what is perhaps most troubling about abused toddlers is how early they seem to have learned to respond like miniature versions of their own abusive parents. The next post will discuss Trauma and Emotional Relearning.

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