We all want our kids to be happy and successful, so it makes sense to work backward and figure out how to make that happen.
Step 1: To be happy and successful, they need to develop great relationships.
Step 2: To develop those relationships, they need adequate emotional intelligence.
Step 3: To develop emotional intelligence, it helps if their mentors (especially their parents) model good behavior in love and partnerships.
She spoke with Carrie Cole, a Gottman Institute trained therapist, about “how to have a good relationship with your partner and how to model one for your kids.”
1. Teach them to ‘turn toward’
Relationships are dynamic. They’re made up of an uncountable number of small interactions. Julie and John Gottman, a husband and wife team of psychologists who are experts in this area, describe these interactions as “micro-behaviors” and “bids for attention.”
We “bid for attention” with the people we care about by doing things — starting conversations, for example — in the hope they’ll demonstrate interest and warmth. Catching those bids, and showing you value the relationship, requires active listening and empathy.
For example, you might tell your spouse, or another person you care about, “I learned something really cool today.” You hope that he or she will “turn toward” you by replying with something like, “Oh? Tell me about it,” as opposed to shutting you down: “Can’t you see I’m busy?!!!”
So, model this behavior in your relationships, and teach your kids to “turn toward” when the people they care about bid for their attention.
2. Teach them to politely turn down bids for attention
Of course, if we had to “turn toward” every time someone we cared about bid for our attention, we’d never get anything done. Perhaps even a majority of the time, you have to find a way to refrain from “turning toward,” in a way that shows you still value your relationship.
My wife is a master at this — of necessity — otherwise she could spend her entire life listening to me dissect political races, place the names of character actors in movies, and tell her arguably funny stories about things that happened in college.
It’s really a matter of demonstrating interest in what the people you care about have to say, while making clear the practical limits on your time and attention. In her essay, Leigh offers a simple example — turning down her child’s bid for attention simply by saying, “I can’t listen to your story right now, but I can after lunch.”
So when you can’t spend the time you might like responding to a bid for attention, at least turn it down politely — never dismissively.
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3. Teach them to ‘be overwhelmed without freaking out’
Negative situations are often made worse by allowing your negative emotions to metastasize. So, the goal is to maintain control of your emotions even when you’re not in control of the situation.
In the military, we call this “maintaining your bearing.” However, it’s especially important when stressful situations involve the health or feelings of the people you care about most.
As Leigh wrote: “Learning to be under stress without taking it out on your nearest and dearest is a valuable relationship skill.”
I find it helps to think of a quote from author H.G. Wells, and remember that “the crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.”
4. Teach them to ‘make repairs’
One of the most important things I’ve learned from the many articles I’ve read (and written) about developing good life habits is this: It’s okay that you’ll fall short.
You will, I will, your kids will. Everybody makes mistakes — and everybody sometimes hurts the people they love. The key thing you want to model for your kids, however, is how to react when you’ve screwed up.
As Leigh wrote of her conversation with Carrie: “The secret… is in the ‘repair’ — apologizing when you’re irritable or dismissive of someone’s overture. Apologizing or otherwise making amends goes a long way toward telling the other person that you do care about his needs.”
5. Teach them to appreciate others out loud
We talk a lot about learning to be thankful, but I think this is an important difference — learning to say out loud that you’re grateful, and to specific people (namely, the ones you care most about).
I’m horrible at compliments, although I’m learning. That’s important as a father, because I want to model appreciating others in a vocal way.
Once again, Leigh put it well: “In small moments, catch someone doing something well or right. It’s helpful for kids to hear their parents saying that. You’re saying, ‘We have a culture of appreciation in our home. This is what we do. We let one another know what we appreciate about one another.'”
6. Teach them that contempt is verboten
The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s apathy. Contempt is its near cousin. It rears its ugly head in relationships, to the point that the Gottmans think of it as the early warning sign for a marital relationship that is likely to fail.
We all get angry at the people we care about. Sometimes they do things that we don’t know how to put up with. However, the important thing is to show kids that it never overwhelms the underlying love.
As Leigh quoted Carrie in her article: “Emotional abuse is contempt… If a child grows up in a home like that — [for example], if the father puts down the mother, the boys will think this is acceptable behavior. And girls think this is acceptable to be treated like this. If you can’t turn around the contempt, the relationship is in serious trouble.”
7. Teach them not to tell mean jokes
Oh, they can — and should — tell jokes. However, mean jokes are often simply thinly veiled vessels for contempt — and we’ve already seen that contempt is the sign of a dead relationship.
Leigh describes a husband and wife in one of Carrie’s counseling sessions, where the wife began a sentence by saying, “I was thinking… ” and the husband interrupted with a laugh: “Oh honey, don’t think!”
Even if she smiled or chuckled, you can imagine how hurtful her husband’s joke was — and how it hurt their relationship — all because of his lack of emotional intelligence.
Leigh wrote about two other lessons as well — teaching kids to have relationships across generations, and working with you to establish their values and culture at home. However, I think these seven are the most apt.
What do you think? What other lessons are important to teach kids in order for them to develop emotional intelligence and healthy relationships? Let us know in the comments below, and check out the free e-book: “How to Raise Successful Kids: Advice From a Stanford Dean, a Navy SEAL, and Mark Zuckerberg’s Dad (Among Others).”