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The Big Answer


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Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

a book by John Gottman

(our site's book review)

Gottman reports that over the last few decades there has been a long-term trend for children, on average, to be dropping in basic emotional and social skills, and their overall levels are dropping in over 40 indicators. They’ve become more nervous and irritable, more sulky and moody, more depressed and lonely, more impulsive and disobedient, etc. The many factors that have contributed to this deterioration include both parents working, economic hard times, and less social support networks for families. Confusing anxiety and hunger, girls end up with eating disorders. Boys’ poor impulse control leads to violence and delinquency. For all our young, “an inability to handle anxiety and depression increases the likelihood of later abusing drugs or alcohol,” according to the author.

Children's basic emotional and social skills are dropping in over 40 indicators—they're more nervous, irritable, sulky, moody, depressed, lonely, impulsive and disobedient
Children's basic emotional and social skills are dropping in over 40 indicators—they're more nervous, irritable, sulky, moody, depressed, lonely, impulsive and disobedient

In Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman offers a scientifically grounded, eminently practical way for parents to give their children an essential toolkit for life.

It turns out that “Emotion-Coached”* children had more emotional abilities than children who weren’t Emotion Coached by their parents. These abilities included regulating their own emotional states, soothing themselves, calming down their hearts faster. Because of superiority in the area of calming themselves, they suffered from fewer illnesses. They were also better at focusing attention, relating to other people, handling teasing, understanding people, maintaining friendships and academic performance. In short, they had developed a kind of "IQ" in the world of feelings. They had attained emotional intelligence.

*EMOTION COACHING:
1. become aware of the child's emotion
2. recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
3. listen empathetically, validating the child's feelings
4. help the child find words to label the emotion he is having
5. set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand

learn to handle teasing
Learn to handle teasing

Although these research-validated methods are the right way to raise kids and relate to them, they are essentially what Authoritative Lite methods like P.E.T. and Aware Parenting and Unconditional Parenting have been saying all along (with their active listening and problem solving). P.E.T. predated Gottman, but Gottman’s good researches were very helpful in confirming what Thomas Gordon of Parent Effectiveness Training determined earlier—and therefore taught—about parenting. It’s nice to have additional scientific confirmation, however! (There are other confirmatory studies.)

He incorrectly states that non-Emotion-Coached parenting theories offer a “scattered hodgepodge of strategies for trying to control children's behavior.” This is true for Authoritarian methods, not even slightly true of Authoritative Lite methods like P.E.T. and Aware Parenting and Unconditional Parenting, and only slightly true of Authoritative (plain) methods that use mainly natural and logical consequences, Active Listening, win-win conflict resolution, family meetings, mediation, and emotional connectedness and closeness to their children to elicit behavior both parent and child accept. Emotion-Coached parenting theories mostly object to controlling strategies like rewards, punishments, praise and time-outs, preferring to, as Alfie Kohn puts it, “work with kids”, don’t “do to kids.” But Gottman’s statement turns out to be accurate when Authoritarian parenting is evaluated. Authoritative Lite methods are not trying to control kids' behavior—they're trying to teach kids how to do it themselves, while Authoritarian methods are obsessed with controlling kids.

Praise is a bad way of instilling self-esteem—it  produces not self-esteem but dependency; verbally encouraging is bad for kids if it is done with You statements but good for kids if it is done with I statements ('I'm wondering how you felt when you drew that' or 'I appreciate it when you help with dishes')
Praise is a bad way of instilling self-esteem—it produces not self-esteem but dependency; verbally encouraging is bad for kids if it is done with You statements but good for kids if it is done with I statements ("I'm wondering how you felt when you drew that" or "I appreciate it when you help with dishes")

The author says that: “Over all, children who are Emotion-Coached experience fewer negative feelings and more positive feelings. In short, they're more healthy emotionally.”

He states that in the last 25 years, there has been tremendous growth in our understanding of child psychology and the social behavior of families, which has led knowledgeable parents toward Authoritative parenting.

However, in spite of his acknowledgement that authoritative parenting is best, Gottman subscribes to controlling behavior by rewarding “good” behavior with positive attention, praise, privileges, or rewards, and dealing with “bad” behavior with denial of attention, loss of privileges, or the absence of rewards. This is not good authoritative parenting strategy! This reward and punishment stance is behaviorism, and it uses disproven parenting ideas to control and manipulate behavior. He should study the books of Authoritative Lite methods like P.E.T and Aware Parenting and Unconditional Parenting and then check out the results they achieve compared to the reward and punishment methods. His “good” and “bad” behavior concepts are unexamined authoritarian constructs and religious dogmas that have no place in parenting, regardless of the fact that most people hold such harmful ideas. Most people also spank, which he's against.

For example, Alfie Kohn's Beyond Discipline cites research supporting the Democratic model for parents as well as schools. And real democratic parenting has no room for behavior manipulation of the type Gottman encourages. Another good source of research-supported real democratic parenting is Thomas Gordon’s Discipline That Works which has shown the results of dozens of researchers who've confirmed how effective democratic parenting is compared to autocratic parenting, how parent-empowered self-control in kids promotes autonomy and self-actualization better than parental controls. It would be well if Gottman modified his support for behaviorism and said how great it is for dog training, not parenting!

Control which parents exercise over kids is appropriate for dogs, not children
Control which parents exercise over kids is appropriate for dogs, not children

Gottman advises that we do what we can to ensure that our children have other trustworthy adults around them such as coaches, teachers, aunts, uncles, neighbors, grandparents, and friends' parents whom they can turn to for nurturing and support. Even though younger kids lack the mobility to seek emotional support outside their homes, that doesn't mean they don't need such refuges as well. He's referring of course to the “social support networks” that sociologists have been enamored of so much in the last few decades. A great number of social problems trace back to a lack of adequate social support networks.

Since so many families find social support so sparse and so many kids end up with non-nurturing babysitters or non-nurturing daycare or homecare personnel when they need nurturing the most (due to parents being so busy putting bread on the table or impressing friends at golf courses, etc.), it stands to reason that a better way must be found if we truly care about our children, and his instincts, as usual, are spot-on. Families are not islands!

Families are not islands
Families are not islands

But when he advises us to do what we can to ensure that our children have other trustworthy adults around them, what happens when—try as we might—no such people materialize? These days everyone seems busy, relatives are often distant, most other adults are either not trustworthy or not interested, and daycare personnel have too high a turnover rate and too little training. “Oh well, we did what we could” is hardly a reassuring phrase to tell oneself. It helps guilt repression but does little for our kids. Their needs cannot be expected to vanish simply because we utter the infamous phrase “we did the best we could” when they cry, complain, symptomize, and act out unfilled needs. His Emotion Coaching insights are wonderful and reassuring, but they assume the parent or someone who cares very much for the child is available, not too busy, not too tired, not too upset, and has both the time and the receptive mood the child needs currently. This may happen occasionally, but, as a practical matter, will it happen always or even often? Most parents have enough experience to know the unhappy answer to that question.

Of course the solution in the short term can be babysitting co-ops with known and trusted adults, not teens, doing the caregiving. But the only viable long-term solution is MCs (microcommunities) See Why Register for an MC?. The co-ops will often be more viable and nurturing than the more common alternatives, but their nurturing is usually a far cry from the nurturing provided by MCs. By all means, investigate why this is!

Registering for MC search and match
Registering for MC search and match

The author gives a great block of advice about giving kids choices and as much control as possible, so that commands (which are not good for kids) are replaced with choice questions (“do you want the cookie now or after dinner?). Autonomy results when kids get to be in control to a reasonable degree. We feel that caregiver choice is one of the most important types of control to give a child, even though it is not usually convenient for parents in normal family scenes. It’s quite convenient in an MC.

Gottman himself concurs—to a point: “Because we cannot be all things to our children—and especially not during adolescence—I advise parents to give their children the support of a caring community.” Utterly flawless advice! And where he advises finding such people resources (churches, schools, neighborhood groups) is reasonable, but will this really work adequately for most families? Unlikely, and we also need to always keep in mind the idea that the most important criteria is not if it’s convenient for the parent but sufficient to fill the nurturance needs of the child.

Gottman’s fine work with Emotion Coaching is flawless, spot-on, and represents a large body of research-proven parenting wisdom that he is—and should be—very proud of! And the way he makes the case for the need for his emotion coaching by citing social symptoms is brilliant. His logic is as flawless as his emotion coaching method itself.

The Bible is a book written to provide spiritual guidance and inspiration—those who think it has all the answers anyone needs should try to use it to guide fixing their cars
The Bible is a book written to provide spiritual guidance and inspiration—those who think it has all the answers anyone needs should try to use it to guide fixing their cars

We need more researchers like Gottman, and less researchers finding new ways to drug our kids into compliance or new ways to control behavior by various manipulations, and we need less behaviorism-based thinking, and fewer people misapplying religious ideas to the area of parenting—as if the Bible was written to be a parenting manual. It was not, and it never ceases to amaze us that people could be naïve enough to buy into such a ludicrous idea. It is, was, and always will be a book written to provide spiritual guidance and inspiration. All those who subscribe to the belief that it has all the answers anyone needs in this incredibly complex world should try to use it to guide parliamentary procedures in Congress, or to guide fixing their cars, or to guide baking a soufflé or even muffins!

Baking muffins being guided by the Bible; instead of praying not to burn them, she could set a timer instead; gosh, we're hoping this idea isn't blasphemy!
Baking muffins being guided by the Bible; instead of praying not to burn them, she could set a timer instead; gosh, we're hoping this idea isn't blasphemy!

See also:

How to Raise a Brighter Child
How to Raise a Responsible Child
Parents' Guide to Raising a Gifted Child
Parenting the Young Gifted Child: Supportive Behaviors
Raise Your Child's Social IQ
Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ