Did you catch Diane Rehm’s program on NPR last Thursday?  Come spring, a group of schools in California will begin testing students on their social emotional skills.  The debate among researchers and educators on the show was heated.  What is the best way to assess how well these non-academic skills are being taught? How do we measure student progress? How can we improve our teaching methods?

Here’s our question:  are schools the place to teach this stuff in the first place?

Thanks to Daniel Goleman who popularized the term emotional intelligence (EI) in his 1995 book, the radical idea that emotional skills are as important as IQ has become more mainstream. Though the details of EI are still under scientific debate, the overall concept makes a lot of sense. As complex human beings, how we treat our fellow man and how we deal with adversity matters.  It matters to our personal lives and our professional success.  This is the stuff of life.

The fact that many schools are acknowledging the importance of emotions is a good thing. Teacher training in child development and curricula that value the inner emotional life of the child can create empathic, supportive environments for learning. Kids spend a lot of time at school.  They deserve an empathic, supportive environment.

But along with the realization of the importance of EI, there is an assumption, implicit in the measurement debate on Diane Rehm’s show, that if we just put on our thinking caps and sign up for the right class, we can learn to be emotionally intelligent.  We can learn resilience.  We can learn empathy.  We can learn good social skills.  With a good education, with enough education, with the right teaching model, with the right teacher, if we pay attention, if we just try hard enough — even emotional intelligence can be taught.

But is this wishful thinking?

The reality is that emotional skills are the products of long-term experiences and relationships. They are acquired through feeling, rather than thinking.  And given that the most important experiences start at birth and are formed through a child’s relationship with his parents, it is safe to say that our emotional blueprint is created in the home.  Our child’s emotional intelligence flourishes with us and the time we are able and willing to spend on this grand apprenticeship of life.  There is no shortcut.

But in our country which ranks near the bottom of the developed world in work/family balance, time at home is hard to come by. So, we have no choice but to look for shortcuts and convince ourselves that they will do.  Just as we feel the need to outsource more hands-on caring than we would like, from birth on, so too we pass the work of emotional intelligence onto teachers. Can teachers do this work for us?

Let’s unpack it. Take resilience. Resilience and grit are a big topic of conversation in schools these days.

What’s the foundation of resilience? Knowing that the world is safe, good, abundant.  That all will be okay.

But here’s the problem. The United States ranks last in the world for paid parental leave. Last.  The closest thing we have is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which became law in 1993 and allows qualified employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons.  If we want to keep our job and advance, there is too often little choice but to significantly outsource the caring of our children at a very young age.

What are our babies feeling when parents drop them at daycare or leave them with a paid parent substitute to suckle plastic nipples at 4, 8, 12 weeks old? Does their world feel good, safe, and abundant?  The cortisol levels of infants separated early from parents suggest otherwise.

How long does that feeling last?  If we let ourselves listen to the grown-ups who started out this way as babies, we’d hear the answer:  a lifetime.  And how does it get reinforced, especially if time with parents continues to be scarce and pressurized as children grow and need consistent, trusted, and loving presences to work out their place in this rapidly changing world? And how does it affect the parents and their work in the world, when they can’t shake the nagging feeling of coming up short on time for what matters?

These are painful but important questions. Painful because without more flexible work schedules, we are stuck without a solution. Important because we can no longer afford not to ask them.  Our policies and systems must support us – by helping us rightly value and allocate the time we need at home.  No one can do the work for us.  It’s the most important homework of all.


Photo credit:

Thanks to Eva Basilion for her contributions to this post. 

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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