Developing Emotional Literacy

When I see people liking images like these on Facebook, I have mixed feelings. 


At first, these signs tie in to a common fear about the world. Sure, we need more parents to be parents and take care of their child so there will be less chaos. 

But another side of me cringes. Spanking our children won’t get us to that better place. 

Maya Angelou’s sentiment, “Once we know better, we do better,” keeps echoing in my head.

The evidence against spanking is overwhelming. Hundreds of studies all come to the same conclusions: 

1. The more physical punishment a child receives, the more aggressive he or she will become. 
2. The more children are spanked, the more likely they will be abusive toward their own children. 
3. Spanking plants seeds for later violent behavior. 
4. Spanking doesn’t work.

And people through the ages have always worried about the younger generations. Blogger Little Hearts reminds us:
People throughout history have complained about ‘the trouble with kids today’ and they’ve pinned all the ills of their society on supposedly permissive parenting. They’ve ranted about out-of-control children, disrespectful youth, entitlement, spoiling, disobedience, violence, self-centeredness, etc: 

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders…. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.” ~Socrates, 5th Century BC 

“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” ~Plato, 5th Century BC

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” ~Hesiod, 8th Century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.” ~Peter the Hermit, 13th Century AD 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Maybe, though, there isn’t really any ‘trouble with kids today.’ Maybe the problem is with parents who repeat the patterns their own parents set or with societies who view normal stages of development as somehow abnormal.

We are lucky to be parents today. We know better. So how can we do better?

For me, working with preschoolers, teenagers, college students, I’ve come to value how teaching children (yes even one-year-olds) emotional literacy produces solid adults. 

I truly wonder if those school shootings would have happened if those children knew how to label and deal with painful feelings. 

But we can’t model what we don’t know.  Some people believe the problem is that children need more punishment, more discipline. Maybe the problem is that we have a much more complicated world today and we demand more from our children than ever. Most of us are overworked, overstressed, ever busy and we bury lots of our emotions in food, alcohol, or entertainment. We never really process our emotions, especially the painful ones. 

And I am curious if this lack of processing begins as a child. I mean when our babies fall down, we may quickly run over, wipe them off, and TELL THEM they are ok. We really don’t allow them to feel what they feel.  We normally don’t ask,  “Are you ok?” because we want to teach them resilience. And that is a good value to instill, but I think we may be sidestepping a more important skill – emotional literacy: that it is ok to feel, even painful feelings, that I know what I am feeling, and that I know how to deal with it. 

It might seem like I am over-complicating the small issue of falling down, but think about how many other ways we deny opportunities to our children to feel: 

We tell them to share no matter what. And then we don’t allow them to feel angry about it because we want them to thrive in relationships with others. (yes, this comes from a good place but is ineffective at developing true generosity)

We tell them to do what they are told because we are the parent. And then when they are kicking and screaming, not wanting to get in the carseat, we tell them everyone wears a seatbelt in the car. (While modeling is important, there is no mention of what the child is feeling here)

We tell them they must make good grades to get into college. And then we they are floundering in homework, we tell them they can’t drive unless they do the work. (again no mention of the child’s frustration, only the consequences, which are important but no connection with feelings)

I did my own experiment when I taught high school in a tough area where failure was common. We journaled for the first few minutes of class. We didn’t just write anything – I made sure they had this chart:


I made them define each emotion first. Then each day they picked one and wrote about how they were experiencing it. For me, it was an amazing moment as a teacher. The students wrote deeply personal things- well most of them. For some of them, it didn’t feel safe to expose their “vulnerabilities.” They were taught feeling isn’t good. And those were the ones in constant trouble. 

That experience plus now reading several parenting books on giving our children an emotional vocabulary resonates with my heart. 

I sincerely believe our children and our greater world needs emotional literacy. 

Now, when my child screams and cries to get in his carseat, I use the words to explain his emotions and why: “Larsen is angry right now. He doesn’t want to be in his carseat.”

Or when I get him from the gym childcare after a workout: “Are you angry at Momma for leaving you? I’m back now, but you can still be angry.”

The site Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center relates how we parents can foster emotional literacy:

Express Your Own Feelings. One way to help children learn to label their emotions is to have healthy emotional expression modeled for them by the adults in their lives. For example, a teacher who knocked over all the glitter can say, “Oh boy, is that frustrating. Oh well, I’d better take a deep breath and figure out how to clean it up.” Or a parent who just got word that she got a promotion at work can say, “Wow! I am so excited about this! I feel proud of myself for working so hard.” Parents, teachers, and child care providers can make a point to talk out loud about their feelings as they experience them throughout the day. 

Label Children’s Feelings. As adults provide feeling names for children’s emotional expressions, a child’s feeling vocabulary grows. Throughout the day, adults can attend to children’s emotional moments and label feelings for the children. For example, as a child runs for a swing, another child reaches it and gets on. The first child begins to frown. The teacher approaches her and says, “You look a little disappointed about that swing.” Or a boy’s grandmother surprises him by picking him up at childcare. The boy screams, “Grandma!” and runs up to hug her. The child care provider says, “Oh boy, you look so happy and surprised that your grandma is here!” As children’s feeling vocabulary develops, their ability to correctly identify feelings in themselves and others also progresses. 
Play Games, Sing Songs, and Read Stories with New Feeling Words. Adults can enhance children’s feeling vocabularies by introducing games, songs, and storybooks featuring new feeling words. Teachers and other caregivers can adapt songs such as “If you’re happy and you know it” with verses such as “If you’re frustrated and you know it, take a breath”; “If you’re disappointed and you know it, tell a friend”; or “If you’re proud and you know it, say ‘I did it!’”

And this new discourse isn’t something that comes naturally to most. I think becoming a parent is like learning a new language. It’s tremendously challenging. But I have learned so much about myself over the past year and a half – and that’s awesome. Even I have learned at my old age to finally name and process my emotions- and I feel more calm, centered, and in control of my life.

We do need more parental guidance in this world, but it’s not helping our children by being bullies with an open hand or stronger disciplinarians who teach them the meaning of respect with a belt.  We need to be competent emotional mentors with a strong presence as parents to guide our children. 

I think the answer lies with a more psychological approach that comes with understanding human development which acknowledges a child’s sensitive emotional nature and gives them the words to articulate these natural modes of being. 

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