The science of developing emotional intelligence and moral foundation is complex. But to oversimplify for a minute, from the time a child is born, they must learn to do four things:
Recognize: Name the emotions they feel
Manage: Take charge of their emotions
Empathize: Recognize the emotions of others
Love: Respond to others with kindness
Unlike other developmental milestones, these four skills don’t change at every phase. Instead, kids and teenagers are in a continual process of improving the same four things. (Actually, most of us adults are still working through this list, too.)
When it comes to the way kids develop these four skills, there are two things to remember:
Mental and Physical Abilities Set the Limits.
Emotional and moral development can’t outpace physical development. You can’t explain how you feel before you know the words to describe your feelings. You can’t make someone dinner before you are old enough to reach the stove. So, remember to consider mental and physical abilities as you set moral and emotional expectations.
Cultural and Relational Experiences Lay the Foundation.
When you feel secure with yourself, it’s easier to affirm others. When you know where you belong, it’s easier to accept others. In the same way, life experience broadens our capacity to relate and empathize. So, you may have to adjust your expectations for moral and emotional development based on each individual child’s experience.
Here’s something else to consider. Moral emotions are instinctive. Moral development is not.
Compassion is part of our genetic code. Babies turn their heads to look at another baby in distress. Toddlers share a favorite toy with a kid who is crying. That’s moral emotion. We are born with the capacity to care for others—but so are animals. What makes us uniquely human is our God-given ability to manufacture and control our emotions and responses simply by thinking about them. Humans have a distinctive ability to consciously form new thought patterns that transform our brain and affect our behavior. That’s moral development.
As kids grow, their emotional and moral abilities can either diminish or increase. Unlike mental and physical development, moral development doesn’t happen automatically. Moral formation begins by influencing motive. And love is the greatest motive.
The trouble is . . .you can’t influence someone’s motives until you know what motivates them. And guess what? Most kids don’t come preprogrammed with love as their primary motive. In fact, at every phase, kids and teenagers have other primary motives at work driving their responses. So, if you want kids to grow emotionally and morally, you need to interpret and respond to their primary motive.
Elementary-age kids are primarily motivated by fun. Elementary school is a season of discovering how the world works and how to have fun in it. Kids want to laugh and play and learn and connect. That’s why you have to engage their interests.
So, if you try to motivate kids with too many restrictive rules, it may work against their primary motive and drive them to find enjoyment somewhere else. But when you guide them with love, you introduce transferable principles that will help them win in life and friendship. Then, you influence them to make wiser choices and treat others with kindness.
God designed our emotional and moral formation to require a relational investment. That’s also why it’s important to help kids grow up and learn how to respond to a relationship with God. He wired every kid so they can know Him as their ultimate guide. That’s why kids and teenagers need the influence of parents and consistent adult leaders. When you influence a kid’s current behavior, you only help the kid respond to the present circumstance. But when you influence a kid’s motive, you set the kid up to win in future circumstances.