Smart . . . With a Heart

How to raise an emotionally intelligent child.
By Maurice J. Elias, PhD
Sheila Wilson* and her husband are busier than they would prefer to be and spend much less time with their children than they would like. When Sheila finally carves out moments to be with her kids, she often feels overwhelmed with all the things she wants to teach them and the values she would like to convey.

Sound familiar? What Sheila is seeking are ways to raise children with “emotional intelligence.” That’s the term experts use to describe the skills and attitudes people need to be successful in life. In Daniel Goleman’s bestseller Emotional Intelligence, the psychologist showed that understanding our emotions and those of others, knowing how to build and maintain relationships, being a good problem solver, and knowing how to overcome obstacles are the keys to doing well in school, having a satisfying family life, and progressing in the workplace. Like most parents, Sheila realized that she wanted her children to be wise in their intellect and their hearts. From over two decades of research and practice, my colleagues and I have found that accomplishing this is often a matter of providing kids with A, B, and the two Cs:

Appreciation What do your children have to do to gain your appreciation? Too often, we withhold our appreciation from children unless they do something extraordinary. But as adults, we like to be appreciated for doing what is expected. That’s not to endorse false praise, but rather to encourage recognition. Saying, “I notice you cleaned your desk,” “I appreciate that you washed the dishes,” or “Thank you for calling when you got to your friend’s house” all go a long way to add appreciation to our children’s lives. Too many schools only seem to recognize “the best.” We need a more reasonable threshold in our homes. It does not hurt to see the glass as half full or even 10 percent full. As Mother Teresa said, “There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

Belonging Children need groups to belong to, especially as teens. They are looking for places where they have a role, feel a sense of purpose, discover positive peer relationships, join others who have similar interests or abilities, learn things, experience inspiring leadership, and find a safe, comfortable, accepting place to be. Sounds like an ideal extended family, doesn’t it? When your children are considering what clubs, teams, youth groups, and community organizations to join, help them choose those that foster a sense of belonging for all participants, not just competition to see who will be the star. Also avoid over-scheduling teens. College admissions officers will tell you that they prefer seeing genuine belonging and commitment to a smaller number of groups rather than a revolving door of resume-fattening memberships.

Competencies In our global world, children need sound life skills to deal with a range of challenges and opportunities — from peer pressure to AP classes — and the confidence to put their talents to use. These skills include emotional intelligence, so they have the balance of “smart” and “heart” to manage in school, the community, and the workplace. An especially important skill is how to bounce back from roadblocks, so don’t be too quick to rescue them from all difficulties they find themselves in. Overcoming obstacles can be kids’ most powerful learning experiences. Resist the temptation to jump in when your children are struggling with homework or hobbies. With a little time, they often can solve the problem themselves, and they derive a tremendous amount of self-confidence and willingness to take on challenges as these small successes accumulate. If they are highly frustrated, try to guide them to think about different ways to approach the problem before giving them the answer.

Contribution Children actually thrive on helping — contributing to causes, saving the environment, helping senior citizens, teaching what they know to younger kids (even siblings, if you are lucky!), working in soup kitchens, assisting political campaigns, raising funds for people who are suffering, and helping their religious institutions reach their charitable goals. They even need to have meaningful helping roles in your home. Making contributions helps all children, especially teens, feel a sense of fulfillment. And a positive sense of fulfillment can often be strong enough to compete with the thrill of influences that can be antisocial.

Like all moms, Sheila can’t avoid day-to-day family crises. Handling each specific situation perfectly is impossible, even if we knew what “perfect” was. What matters is the overall parenting approach. Keeping love, laughter, and limits in balance, showing your children appreciation, encouraging a sense of belonging to their families and schools, developing their confidence and competencies, and helping them to make contributions to the well-being of others will bring the best results. Your relationships with your children will be stronger, especially in their teenage years, and they are more likely to be positively connected to family, school, and community.

* not her real name

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University. He is the co-author of
Emotionally Intelligent Parenting and Raising Emotionally Intelligent Teenagers (

Bookmark and Share