Emotional intelligence, the self-awareness of emotions and the way in which they affect human responses to various situations, is an essential skill we nurture in our children. As parents and caretakers, we may well find that one of our greatest contributions to the future is our purposeful effort to provide children with a greater understanding of their emotions. Our hope is that children will learn to navigate through the intensities and complexities of being human, and develop into capable and empathetic adults.
From contemporary children’s literature to "Daniel Tiger" episodes, the world surrounding the youngest generation is instructing children to identify when they are frustrated, impatient, hurt, left out, anxious, or nervous. These words (that I’m confident I did not hear or understand until far later in life) are being taught to toddlers, mine included. When children can identify intense emotions, they can learn patterns of behavior to help see them through conflict toward resolution and understanding.
The longer I'm a parent, the more I recognize how fortunate our children are to grow into emotional intelligence at a younger age than most of us experienced. At three years old, my son can tell me he's frustrated when his ambitious building project isn't going according to plan. He's learning ways to cope and work through the frustration (tears and tantrums accompany of course, because he is a three-ager). My six-year-old can express when his anger is triggered by anxiety and is learning ways to work through those emotions.
By the time I gave birth to my third child, however, I felt there was a certain void missing among the emotional menagerie being taught to today’s children. However necessary and important and helpful it was to identify and understand certain emotions, there was a huge and wonderful emotion that often was left unspoken.
I’m not speaking of “happy” when it's said while sitting around a circle for nursery rhymes, or while at a party singing “Happy birthday.” I’m speaking of all those genuine moments throughout our day when we are unaware that we are simply feeling “happy.”
Chalk it up to human nature or our interest in the dramatic and difficult but, more often than not, adults and children alike seem drawn to express and remember those emotions which are intense and, for lack of a better word, negative in connotation. We may go the whole day without incident, but wait for one mishap to pop up and often we give it the power to change our attitude regarding the entire day. It’s often the troubles and not the simple joys that we remember and speak aloud.
When we speak things aloud, we give them power to shape our hearts and minds. Among all the books and podcasts and articles we read, we often overlook (as I have) the importance of recognizing and speaking aloud when we are simply happy.
So I decided to do something different by the time I had my third baby. Whenever I felt my heart pouring over with joy or simply resting in contentment while I was holding her or watching her play, I’d quietly say this one word, “Happy.”
There are approximately 1000 ways to express happiness. I wanted to speak aloud one word that even my newborn could begin to hold on to and recognize.
Throughout our days, I’d find myself thinking I was “happy” more and more as I developed the habit of identifying and speaking aloud this fundamental desire we all possess but so often neglect to acknowledge. While I nursed my baby, or saw her discover something new, or watched as she reached out to touch a loved one’s face, I’d increasingly recognize within myself that I was “happy.”
Think of all those tiny moments that parents and caretakers experience throughout the maddening chaos of child-rearing. In sharing aloud this feeling with my child, I felt I was able to retain and share an emotion that would stay with us for longer than the fleeting moment in which it was experienced.
Then something wonderful happened.
One evening while the kitchen lay in chaos after dinner, my toddling girl came up to me with arms outstretched. I picked her up and began to slowly swing her back and forth.
Then I heard her say with a smile, “Happy. Happy.”
My husband and I both looked at each other with elation. This spontaneous but genuine expression she'd spoken went beyond her needs or wants. She was simply expressing her happiness at being held by her mother.
As the months have passed, our family’s habit of speaking aloud our happiness has affected every member of the household. Our older children now identify more often when they are simply feeling good. As my daughter has continued to encroach upon two, her emotions and ability to express them have also expanded. We hear when she is sad, or mad or frustrated.
But we hear more from her than anyone else when she's simply “happy.”
Happiness is an inherent desire. It's not something that must be taught, but it's something that must be actively cultivated and savored if we are to appreciate the positive moments. Being happy is often a state of mind rather than the circumstances that surround us. In sharing aloud those positive feelings that make up our days, we are equipping our children with an ability to recognize and share in a collective and lasting joy.