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Emotional Intelligence for Kids (and Their Parents)

This pandemic is difficult for kids. They don’t have the same emotional skills and perspective that we do. But there’s one thing that my kids are learning that wasn’t in my curriculum growing up: Emotional Intelligence.

Some people think of Emotional Intelligence as a soft skill and don’t see why it should be taught in school. I see Emotional Intelligence as a way to control yourself in difficult situations and how to motivate others. These are the key skills of leadership.(1)Daniel Goleman bridges emotional intelligence to the business world in the classic article What Makes a Leader (1998) in Harvard Business Review.

My kids are using the Emotional Intelligence curriculum called RULER,(2)RULER=Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating a program developed by the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale. I’ve been following along with the curriculum and learned quite a bit myself. I’d like to share two of my favorite RULER tools: the Mood Meter and the Meta-Moment.

Let’s start with the Mood Meter. If you’ve heard a teacher asking your kids what color they are feeling, that’s the mood meter.

The Mood Meter

It’s a simple tool. The idea is that emotions have two main components: how much energy you have and how positive or negative it is.(3)Emotions that seem very different can be surprisingly similar. Imagine you are at a crowded party. Across the room you see a huge man glaring at you. Your heart starts beating quickly as you feel the adrenaline in your veins. You’re feeling the emotion of anxiety. Now think about the same crowded party but across the room is a beautiful woman smiling at you. Again, your heart starts beating as you feel the adrenaline. Though this time you are thrilled. Thrilled and anxious have the same level of excitement but are polar opposites on the positivity/negativity scale. Are you high energy and pleasant? Then you’re yellow. Are you low energy and unpleasant? Then you’re blue. When talking with children about colors and feelings, the model almost seems silly. But when you give it a try, I think you’ll find it surprising that people aren’t in the mood you think they “should” be in.

But the goal of the mood meter is to go deeper and get more granularity into how you are feeling. That’s why you can’t say that Yellow just means “happy.” You can feel pleasant, enthusiastic, or ecstatic and be yellow.

A More Detailed View of the Mood Meter

That seems great for kids, but what about for adults. I’ve found the mood meter app useful in tracking my emotions. Just looking at the app, I can see where my emotions are and what I can do about them. Like when I’m feeling restless or nervous at work, it’s helpful to take a few minutes to meditate. It’s also useful for me to see how good I feel after meeting up with my friends. Then I can prioritize the things that make me happy (or in Mood Meter lingo, things that make me yellow and green). It’s also fascinating to find out what my family is feeling. When I ask them, they might say they’re depressed or angry. “That can’t be!” I’d think. But that’s the point. I’m not inside their heads, but with this tool, I can have a little more insight.

Another RULER tool I’ve found helpful is the Meta-Moment. While my brain is normally very helpful and knows the right thing to do, sometimes I can be taken off track when my emotions get the best of me.(4)Emotions are far more powerful than we give them credit for. 90% of our brains are the animal instincts that we’ve evolved over millions of years. There’s a small layer of neocortex on top that’s in charge of the thinking that makes us human. It’s that little bit that separates us from animals. We pretend that we can use the neocortex to constantly overpower our animal instincts, but we can’t. We need to figure out how to get our brain to work together with and guide our animal selves. Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of the rider on the elephant. The elephant is all of our animal instincts and the rider is the neocortex. The rider can guide the elephant and train the elephant but it can’t overpower the elephant. The Meta-Moment is a simple skill that takes you away from the emotional self and lets your brain get back in control. It’s a few simple steps: sensing that you’re getting overwhelmed, stopping, planing what outcome you’d like to have, and implementing a successful strategy to get you there.

The Meta-Moment for Kids

It’s difficult but it helps me be a better person. I’m trying to make Meta-Moments into a habit to help me be the parent I want to be. “That’s great Rob!” you might find yourself saying. “But what does it mean to be your ‘best self’ as a parent. Do you have any advice on that?” I do in fact!

In my 10+ years of parenting, I’ve learned that parenting is about guiding a child into being a better person. In order to do this, I need to listen to them and understand what’s going on in their heads. While I can try to overpower them in the short term, I need to work with them to guide them to good long term results. It’s like Judo, using your opponent’s force against them. It sounds strange but it’s a fundamental change in the way I’ve thought of things. One concrete example is the difference between punishments and consequences. I used to think about punishing kids when they did something wrong. Today, I make it clear that there are consequences for their actions. It takes the thinking off of me and onto them.(5)The difference between punishments and consequences changes who is responsible. Stanley McChrystal, head of Special Operations Command, talked about how he would delegate decision making to soldiers. Previously, if it was his decision that went wrong, the soldier would say, “General McChrystal had a bad day today.” But when he delegated that responsibility, the soldier took ownership of the decision. (6)I learned this from my sister Allison showed me the book How to Be the Parent You Always Wanted to Be by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlesh. They have a very short workshop with a book and audiobook (different content) that go over their method. There’s also a very funny video of them role-playing the issues that parents have with their kids.

This is just a little bit about Emotional Intelligence that I’ve learned from my kids. The founder of RULER, Mark Brackett, recently published Permission to Feel, a book that goes quite deeply into all of these principles. He also has many videos like this one from Google and interviews, like this one on Brene Brown’s podcast. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your emotions these days (and who isn’t), go and check it out.

Update on May 24th: I found a great summary of Building Resilience in These Uncertain Times by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg. In response to the needs raised during the pandemic, he’s making this chapter freely available to help support parents and caregivers.

Footnotes

1. Daniel Goleman bridges emotional intelligence to the business world in the classic article What Makes a Leader (1998) in Harvard Business Review.
2. RULER=Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating
3. Emotions that seem very different can be surprisingly similar. Imagine you are at a crowded party. Across the room you see a huge man glaring at you. Your heart starts beating quickly as you feel the adrenaline in your veins. You’re feeling the emotion of anxiety. Now think about the same crowded party but across the room is a beautiful woman smiling at you. Again, your heart starts beating as you feel the adrenaline. Though this time you are thrilled. Thrilled and anxious have the same level of excitement but are polar opposites on the positivity/negativity scale.
4. Emotions are far more powerful than we give them credit for. 90% of our brains are the animal instincts that we’ve evolved over millions of years. There’s a small layer of neocortex on top that’s in charge of the thinking that makes us human. It’s that little bit that separates us from animals. We pretend that we can use the neocortex to constantly overpower our animal instincts, but we can’t. We need to figure out how to get our brain to work together with and guide our animal selves. Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of the rider on the elephant. The elephant is all of our animal instincts and the rider is the neocortex. The rider can guide the elephant and train the elephant but it can’t overpower the elephant.
5. The difference between punishments and consequences changes who is responsible. Stanley McChrystal, head of Special Operations Command, talked about how he would delegate decision making to soldiers. Previously, if it was his decision that went wrong, the soldier would say, “General McChrystal had a bad day today.” But when he delegated that responsibility, the soldier took ownership of the decision.
6. I learned this from my sister Allison showed me the book How to Be the Parent You Always Wanted to Be by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlesh. They have a very short workshop with a book and audiobook (different content) that go over their method. There’s also a very funny video of them role-playing the issues that parents have with their kids.