Finding Their Voice

By empowering our children to both embrace their feelings and understand the control they have over their behavior, we are raising up men and women who will be truth-tellers and upstanders in their generation.

A few days ago, I posted part of my #metoo story along with some thoughts on what consent is and what it is not. To date, it has been the most popular essay on this site with nearly 1,000 views. Considering this little blog has only been live for a few months, I think that’s pretty cool. More than that, I think it speaks to the significance of the #metoo movement and how its values resonate with so many people spanning gender, race, religious and socioeconomic differences.

Within a day of that essay publishing, my inbox was full of messages from parents looking for practical ways to help their children understand consent and boundaries. In my follow-up post on Thursday, I shared from my own personal experience just why I think these two topics – consent and boundaries – are so important for parents to model and discuss with their children. If you haven’t yet read those posts, I encourage you to do so.

I had no idea what to say or do to prepare my sons for a life with so many question marks.

As a young mama trying to wrap her head around the idea that my boys would eventually become teenagers making big decisions like where they should go to college and who they should kiss and if they should get naked with someone or not, I found myself in the middle of my bedroom floor in the fetal position, clutching my insanely unkempt curls and begging God to keep my sons little forever. I had no idea what to say or do to prepare them for a life with so many question marks.

And so I decided to do what I always do when I feel overwhelmed or panic-stricken about something… I went back to the basics. I asked myself, “What skills did I need as a teenager to make good decisions?” “How did my parents prepare me for adulthood?” “What can I teach my sons now that will matter most when they are growing facial hair and holding hands with someone they reallyreallyreally like?”

I tore out a blank page from my journal and started a list. I thought of things like thoughtfulness and sincerity, hard work ethic and persistence. Once I wrote down all the things I could possibly think of that seemed like something my kids needed to be successful, I started narrowing down the list to the things I felt mattered most. And here’s there’s the top two things I came up with: emotional intelligence and empathy.

I figured if I could teach my kids how to navigate their emotional world and put themselves in other people’s shoes, they could pretty much do anything else. I’m not saying these are the two most important things a kid ever learns from his or her parents. But I think these life skills open up a world for a child that lots of others don’t.

If a child develops emotional intelligence and empathy, they will be better prepared to not only set healthy boundaries for themselves but also to advocate for others whose boundaries have been violated.

I believe that these practices – emotional intelligence and empathy – together build the foundation of consent. If a child develops these two significant, life-sustaining skills, they will be better prepared to not only set healthy boundaries for themselves but also to advocate for others whose boundaries have been violated.

In this essay, I will be focusing on emotional intelligence – what it is, what it has to do with consent, and how we can build emotional intelligence in the lives of our children. Let’s start with a working definition of this important life practice.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence, as defined by psychologist Dr. John Gottman, is a person’s ability to be aware of their emotions, to understand their emotions, and to also express and manage their emotions in a healthy way (Gottman, Declaire, & Goleman, 2015). The development of this critical ability starts early in life (even before the age of four or five), and there are many ways that parents can strengthen their child’s emotional intelligence.

Here’s a picture of what it looks like in the life of an adult:

Two people get angry while driving home from work. They are both fighting mad, but one person is emotionally intelligent and the other is not.

When the person who is not emotionally intelligent returns home, his kids are making a bunch of noise upstairs like they usually do. He reacts angrily, yelling at them to be quiet.

The person who is emotionally intelligent returns home to the same scenario, but his reaction is very different. Instead of reacting to the emotions he feels from the drive home and taking his anger out on his kids, he tells himself, “My children aren’t the ones to blame for my feelings. They’re usually loud when they’re playing. Right now, I’m upset at the driver who cut me off earlier, and that’s where my bad feelings are coming from.” 

The second person took the time to think about his emotions, understand where they were coming from, and then acted in an emotionally intelligent way towards his family.

As you can see, emotional intelligence is an important factor in healthy human relationships. It requires mindfulness, introspection and self-control, and it empowers people to better understand their emotional selves and respond appropriately to life events.

Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to be aware of their emotions, to understand their emotions, and to also express and manage their emotions in a healthy way.

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What does emotional intelligence have to do with consent?

Lots.

One of the first ways we can empower our children to give or withhold consent is by helping them understand their feelings and react to them appropriately.

Several years ago, I started seeing a therapist because I was struggling in my marriage and with life in general. During our sessions, I started to gain better insight into who I was as an emotional being. For years, I had feared my feelings. I felt imprisoned by them. They made me feel out of control.

My therapist helped me understand that my emotions are actually a very necessary set of tools for my life. Feelings serve a purpose. They both alert us to what is happening in our lives and motivate our behavior.

Teaching our children how to feel and understand their emotions is one way that we can help them react to things that happen in their lives. We must allow our children to express their emotions and guide them through the important steps of labeling their feelings and solving the problem they are facing.

By doing this, we tell our children that their feelings matter. We tell our children that they should pay attention to their feelings. We tell our children that they have control over their reactions and a say over how they respond to life events.

The first step toward helping our children develop a healthy understanding of consent is teaching them to discern what they are feeling and why. As children grow in this skill, they will be empowered to communicate to others what they want and what they are comfortable with.

It is not enough to teach our children to say “no” to strangers.

It is not enough to teach our children to say “no” to strangers. According to the US Department of Justice, seven out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim (2015). More often than not, our children are being molested and sexually assaulted by people who are not strangers to them. This requires us to think more strategically about how we prepare our children to navigate relationships and give consent to others.

By helping our children develop emotional intelligence, we are empowering them to analyze their feelings and with their voices say what they do and do not want. This is no small thing. This is life saving.

By helping our children develop emotional intelligence, we are empowering them to analyze their feelings and with their voices say what they do and do not want. This is no small thing. This is life saving.

How can we teach emotional intelligence to our kids?

Dr. Gottman gives five practical steps to follow in order to coach your child through their emotions and help him or her develop a stronger emotional intelligence:

  1. Be aware of your child’s emotions. This requires you to not only understand your own emotions but to sense and interpret the emotions of your child before they get amped up as well.
  2. See emotions as an opportunity for connection and teaching. Many parents shy away from their child when he or she is acting emotionally. Instead of seeing your child’s emotions as an inconvenience, lean into them. Use their feelings and response as a teaching opportunity.
  3. Listen and validate your child’s feelings. Instead of writing your child off or chalking their emotions up to “childlike behavior,” give your son or daughter your full attention. Let them know that you are with them in their feelings.
  4. Help your child label their emotions. If your child is behaving in a way that shows you they are angry, help them find the words to express that. Guide your child down the path of understanding what they are feeling and why.
  5. Help your child problem-solve with limits. Your son or daughter should understand that while all feelings are okay, not every behavior is okay. As you teach your child how to solve their problems, you are also helping them understand that our behaviors must have limits.

If you’re anything like me, you are probably thinking, “Holy sweet fancy Moses. This is too much!” And that’s okay. If all of this (or even some of this) is new to you, it can feel very overwhelming.

It might help you to know that according to Gottman, most parents who are really good at this only follow all five steps about 20-25% of the time. What’s important is that you try at least one or two of them when you have the opportunity. Now that’s something I can work with!

A few last words…

Developing emotional intelligence is a life-long process. You will not get it right every time, and that is okay. I make mistakes every day with my own emotional intelligence and helping my sons develop theirs. Such is life. I am notorious for riding back seat of the struggle bus, but at least I’m trying!

What I remind myself is that I am doing important work. And the things that matter most take time. I remind myself that even my failures give me an opportunity to model emotional intelligence as I navigate my feelings out loud for my kids, help them see the mistake I made and ask for their forgiveness.

By taking time to coach your children through their emotions in childhood, you are setting them up for success as adults.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a strong sense of emotional intelligence and self-control. Statistically, children who develop self-control grow into adults who are healthier, wealthier, and less likely to develop substance abuse or go to jail (Young, 2017). By taking time to coach your children through their emotions in childhood, you are setting them up for success as adults, particularly in their relationships.

You are doing holy, important work.

Know that you are doing holy, important work. Know that in taking the time to do this holy and important work, you could quite possibly be saving your child and other people’s children from a lifetime of pain and sorrow. Know that by being willing to do the hard work right now, you are investing in the wholeness of your child and empowering him or her to be a bright light that shines on the darkness in this world. And I can’t imagine a higher, more noble calling.

Glennon Doyle, one of my favorite writers, has some important words for us as we start this brave journey of intentionally teaching and modeling consent and boundaries in our families: Just do the next right thing one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.

You are not alone in your desire to raise your children with a clear understanding of consent and respect for boundaries. Along with you are hundreds of others reading this who want to raise their children to make a difference, to be advocates for women and to speak truth in the darkness. We’re all in this together.

Are you ready to raise up a generation of men and women who are willing to stand in the face of abuse and misogyny and assault and demand justice? I am. And I hope you are, too. Let’s get to work!

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Gottman, J. M., Declaire, J., & Goleman, D. (2015). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2010-2014 (2015).

Young, P. B. (2017, September 11). How to Increase Self-Control in Children – And Why It’s So Important for Their Success. Retrieved January 12, 2018, from https://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-increase-self-control-in-children/