Why Children Need an Emotional Education
The most basic and never-to-be-forgotten fact about any infant is that it is born into a state of radical immaturity. It cannot understand its condition; it doesn’t know how to communicate; it has no way of empathising; it can’t help but be muddled about its own needs. Over many long years, it must be guided into developing into that most prized but elusive of beings: an emotionally mature adult.
The distinction between adult and infant is, confusingly, never assured by age alone. It cannot be determined simply by looking at someone’s face and body, let alone their outward status or profession. There are nonagenarians who, in emotional aspects, are still mired in toddlerhood, and 9-year-olds who rival many so-called grown-ups in their responses to life’s vicissitudes.
The curriculum of emotional maturity, of the journey between infancy and adulthood, encapsulates some of the following transitions:
– An infant believes, touchingly and unavoidably, that it is the centre of the universe. An adult has had to learn, through considerable sorrow and inconvenience, that other humans appear to exist as well.
– An infant insists vociferously on its wants. In its rages it is as categorical as a furious emperor. An adult has had to come to terms with the idea of compromise. It has learnt to be a diplomat. It has come to know that, oddly, there may be other points of view.
– An infant believes that others around it will be able to understand its wants and intentions without it needing to speak, that being loved means being magically understood, and falls into vicious sulks with those who do not correctly intuit its intentions. An adult has learnt the tedious requirement to speak calmly and explain the contents of its own mind: it has learnt to teach the world about itself.
– An infant cannot understand the influence of its body on its moods. It cannot tell that its despair has to do with tiredness or its excitement with an excess of sugar. An adult has learnt to coexist with its own body; it knows that at certain bleak-seeming moments, rather than giving up on humanity and its own life, it may simply need to drink a glass of water or have an early night.
– An infant is a relentless idealiser: those who please it are wondrous creatures to whom it freely gives affection and tenderness. By the same measure, those who frustrate it risk being framed as demons and monsters who deserve to be bitten or destroyed. An adult realises that there is no such thing as a wholly good or bad person; it does not fall in love quite so regularly – or in hate.
– An infant imagines that an adult must know exactly what it is doing After all, it’s so big, it can kick a ball many metres into the air and drive a car. An adult knows how to tread a more nuanced path between trust and scepticism; it knows, in a benign way, that everyone is to some degree making it up as they go along.
– An infant is not aware of the pain or inconvenience it puts others to. It is blithely and beautifully selfabsorbed. An adult has acquired correct measure of the difficulties it causes others, especially those it loves; it can feel appropriate degrees of guilt; it can say sorry.
– An infant is wildly and erratically afraid: of being eaten by tigers, of being destroyed by teachers, of being swept away by the wind. Some of these are its own aggressions projected outwards. The adult has correctly repatriated its fears. It has a sound sense of where terror belongs.
– An infant is often either in tears or delighted. An infant is a creature of hope constantly buffeted by disappointment, and capable of being instantly thrown into rage or ecstasy. An adult has acquired a talent for poised melancholy leavened by wry humour.
– An adult doesn’t mind noticing aspects of its character that aren’t wholly mature. An adult knows that, at moments, it will revert to infancy. A child, especially an adolescent one, will insist with telling and implausible vehemence that it is fully done with childhood.
– An adult is someone who knows how to look after a child – chiefly because, somewhere in a fortunate past, someone else nurtured the child-like parts of them.
These lessons and many others like them belong to the process known as emotional education. Tediously, this cannot be imparted quickly. It may take at least five times as long as learning how to master a foreign language. Patience, therefore, has to be one of the central prerequisites of any parental instructor. The module on the unyielding nature of reality will, for example, have to be taught on a thousand occasions before it takes root: over Nounou’s broken eye, a sudden stain on a favourite pair of trousers, the end of screen time, the miserableness of going to bed, the boringness of the long car ride, the death of Granny, the entirely unnecessary arrival of a sibling – and a thousand other tragedies, small and large, besides.
Unlike a curriculum for a language, the emotional curriculum lacks a well-defined timetable. There aren’t clear sections like those on improper fractions or the use of the definitive article; one can’t limit lessons to Thursday afternoons or Monday mornings. There will be days when five separate learning modules will have to be taught before breakfast is over, and with no warning of an upcoming challenge having been given.
The child is at all times on the journey of striving to become a grown-up. Every waking minute the young brain is pushing on to become the more mature self it is destined to become. This doesn’t mean that emotional maturity is what everyone will eventually accede to, no more than every oak tree will reach the forty metres of which it is biologically capable; it simply means that this is the direction an infant is oriented towards and will be striving for unless impediments are placed in its way.
It is worth emphasising that all elements of immaturity – egocentricity, boastfulness, idealisation and so on – belong to health at a given age. The child has to go through every stage of juvenility in order one day to settle into an authentically mature position.
Parents who succeed at teaching the emotional curriculum should not expect particular prizes or signs of gratitude. The reward, if and when it comes, will be more indirect but all the more sincere for that: an offspring who is inwardly alive, who can be kind to themselves and knows how to care for less mature, still struggling others – perhaps, most touchingly, their own offspring.
This essay is an extract from our latest book The Good Enough Parent. Read on to find out more.
The Good Enough Parent is a compendium of lessons about how children’s minds operate and what they need from those who look after them so they can develop into the best version of themselves.
Written in a tone that is encouraging, wry and soaked in years of experience, The Good Enough Parent is an intelligent guide to raising a child who will one day look back on their childhood with just the right mixture of gratitude, humour and love.