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Feelings Teach Children Powerful Lessons

Returning home after an evening out together, my wife and I recently found our children putting the finishing touches on the house.  Not in a messy sort of way, you understand, but in a surprisingly tidy manner.  It was the kind of deed parents dream of, something undertaken out of a desire to please and surprise us.  Afterwards the children unanimously spoke of their excitement and satisfaction in helping out without being asked.

Engulfed by fatherly pride, my first impulse was to immediately load the children into the car and make a beeline for Disneyland.  Several deep breaths later, I decided a Slurpee at 7-11 might suffice.  Then all my years studying psychology paid off, and I spent time discussing their positive feelings with my kids instead.

I remembered some research on “Attribution Theory,” a theory which tries to explain how we view our own and others’ behavior.  While I couldn’t recall all the details of the research, I remembered that one study found children who were given, say, money for performing a task to be less inclined to continue performing the task than children who didn’t receive money.  These results suggest that the ‘paid’ children attributed their performance to external factors whereas the ‘unpaid’ children saw their behavior resulting from a genuine internal desire to perform the task.

So I decided that the positive feelings my children felt would, on this occasion, be their own reward (although we did make it to 7-11 several nights later).  Now I’m not saying that rewarding children (via praise, time spent with parents, money [e.g., an allowance], etc.) is inappropriate; to the contrary, I feel such external rewards can and should be used on a consistent basis.  My point is that parents should go beyond the mere reward and help their children focus on the feelings they receive when they follow through on a commitment…or obey the first time asked…or are considerate of others.  Such feelings become the child’s guiding compass, long after the praise and allowance and Slurpees vanish.

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An eight-year old client of mine recently confided that he stumbled upon his birthday presents, hidden away by his mother as to surprise him on his special day.  He confessed that he had peeked at them on several occasions, and said he felt horrible about it.  He concluded that he wasn’t sure what to do about his problem, but realized that he didn’t like the guilt he felt.

Emotions, like physiological sensations, are adaptive.  That is, they signal a need to change course.  Like a hand that responds to the heat of a hot stove by pulling away, so too my eight-year old client responded to his wrongdoing with a sense that he should make a correction.

Just as hands have a built-in sensitivity to heat, children can learn to use their ‘built-in’ feelings as sensors of good and bad.  For example, the positive feeling they have when befriending a lonely peer cue them to continue reaching out to others.  In contrast, anxious or rageful feelings can help them know they need to escape compromising or aggravating situations.  While the child may not always understand his feelings in the moment, experience will teach him the value of using them as diagnostic tools.

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A man I greatly admire has a unique ability to make each person he meets feel like the most important person in the world.  Even his children – who are now grown – talk of his knack as a father of finding way to make them feel extra special.  His interpersonal style seems to be patterned after the adage, “People may not remember much of what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel.”

Because I tend to be task-oriented, I often struggle to remain focused on “the weightier matters” (e.g., my children’s feelings).  In contrast, people like my friend are able to, for instance, make their child’s positive experience during a family activity more important than the activity itself.  A good example is the parent who can relax requirements of behavior in church (“I want you sitting up straighter than a starched shirt!), focusing instead on creating a positive experience for the child by (heaven forbid!) scratching his back.  Or the parent who allows the child to “bend the rules” in a game of Checkers, laughing about it rather than adamantly demanding fair play.  The payoff of this more flexible and lenient approach is often an increase in compliant behavior.

Feelings are powerful teachers that educate both adults and children in daily decisions and behavior.  Such emotions are an invaluable tool to parents willing to take the time to school their children in their usage.  Naturally, our effectiveness in this endeavor increases to the degree we are able to put ourselves in our children’s shoes, giving us a view of life from, say, 48 inches off the floor.  Just one pointer, though, in choosing your Slurpee:  the Peach-Lime combination may not give you the euphoric feeling it once did.

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