Looking Beyond STEM: Kids with Emotional Intelligence Will Lead the Future

Looking Beyond STEM: Kids with Emotional Intelligence Will Lead the Future

In recent weeks, there have been a number of high-profile articles floating around social media urging us to look beyond STEM skills when considering how best to prepare our kids for the world they will face in the future. Google came out with a big study of their employees and found that the ones that were most successful were not the ones with the best tech skills, but those with “soft” skills like communicating (and listening), being empathetic to co-workers, understanding others’ perspectives and critical thinking.

A Forbes article claimed that “that useless liberal arts degree” is now in high demand in the tech world. Why? Because those with these degrees often understand better how to work with others, understand the needs of customers, and help folks transition in a tech world that is rapidly changing. In other words, for the next generation of work, our kids not only need to know how to code but how to communicate and empathize. Emotional intelligence is now more important than ever before.

Emotional Intelligence is a Learned Skill

Unlike walking or talking, which normally develops naturally in a child with little assistance, emotional intelligence must be fostered. The brain development necessary for kids to understand the emotions of others does appear quite naturally, but caring adults must model empathy for it to really flourish.

You may have noticed this mental shift in your own kids. Ask a 3-year-old how another person feels about something (e.g., their favorite color), the youngster will inevitably answer what their own favorite color is. This type of egocentrism isn’t a fault of your parenting. It’s simply that in a child this young, the part of the brain used to read other’s feelings has not fully developed.

But, ask that same child the same question only a year later and you will likely get a totally different, less egocentric answer. The mental shift is remarkable. Suddenly, your 4-year-old can understand that what you like is different from what she likes. Researchers call this skill Theory of Mind. Click here and see how they test for this development in the lab.

Pretty amazing, right?

How to Foster EQ

Now that your 4-year-old can actually consider the mind and feelings of others, true empathy and growth in emotional intelligence is possible. Now, our job as parents is just beginning! Like most “soft skills,” emotional intelligence takes modeling and practice. Here are just a few things we parents can do to help:

  • Talk the talk. Our conversations with our kids really matter! Studies show that kids whose parents who discuss how other people might be feeling, have better perspective-taking ability than those who don’t. Perspective-taking just means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (the first step in empathy!). If your child sees another child being teased on the playground, ask how you think that makes that child feel. While watching a movie or reading a book, ask your child how the character might be feeling. Little discussions like this can really foster your child’s EQ.
  • Walk the walk. Conversations about emotions are helpful, but modeling empathy with your kids (and others) is the key to solidifying those brain connections that make empathy a life-long habit. It’s often challenging to show empathy to our kids when they’re behavior is…umm less-than-perfect, but it really does show them how empathy makes them feel. This, in turn, illustrates to them why empathy is important to show to others. In other words, modeling is key. Of course, you can also model EQ with others you interact with as well—spouse, family members, store clerks, etc. Young kids watch everything and absorb all these little interactions during the day.
  • Emotional guidance. In the wonderful book, The Yes Brain, the authors point out that one of the best ways we can foster emotional intelligence is by guiding kids through their own emotions. Our tendency as parents is to solve or fix an issue that causing our kids’ pain. For emotional issues, however, sometimes the best solution is to guide them through their pain or distress instead of immediately distracting them or trying to get them “back to happy” too quickly. If we allow our kids to feel sad or disappointed, over time, they learn to understand how others feel when they experience these emotions too. Sometimes, it is only through our own pain that we come to truly understand the pain of someone else. This is true for our kids as well.

Ironically, as our economy shifts to a more high-tech, information-driven model, the need for emotional intelligence only grows. Simply put, computers can automate tech skills, but computers can’t automate emotional interaction. Even as algorithms dictate more of our daily life, it’s human interaction that still provides meaning to our lives. Fostering emotional intelligence in our children will not only give them an advantage over the computers, it will make for a kinder, more meaningful world.

Amy Webb, Ph.D., is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom who writes about research-based child development topics on her blog, The Thoughtful Parent. When she’s not writing or stepping over Legos, she enjoys playing basketball and hiking with her husband and 2 young boys.

Looking for more ways to help build your child’s emotional intelligence? Check out Wonder Crate, a box of family fun activities for building emotional intelligence.

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