When I taught third grade in a public school, I learned that many children didn’t understand their own emotions. I saw this play out every day in the classroom, and read research to support it. At a staff meeting, I learned that the majority of third-graders could only identify happy and sad emotions. Children need to be able to identify their emotions in order to deal with them properly. A child’s mental health can affect their social and cognitive development, which is why educating children about their emotions during the early years is so important.
Why Teaching About Emotions is Important
When we can identify our emotions, then we know how to better deal with them. For example, some people eat out of boredom. Identifying that the feeling you’re experiencing is boredom and not physical hunger can prevent emotional eating and preserve your health.
Charlotte Mason said:
In Educating the Feelings we Modify the Character– But our feelings, as our thoughts, depend upon what we are; we feel in all things as ’tis our nature to,’ and the point to be noticed is that our feelings are educable, and that in educating the feelings we modify the character. A pressing danger of our day is that the delicate task of educating shall be exchanged for the much simpler one of blunting the feelings.” (Parents and Children)
We all feel emotions differently, and that is in our nature. How we handle them builds our character. It might be easier to teach children to distract themselves from uncomfortable feelings, but it’s important to teach them how to appropriately manage them.
With young children, modeling this art of identifying our emotions is the best place to start. I often say, “I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need to go have some quiet for a little bit.” When one of my children is experiencing a strong emotions, I say, “It seems like you’re feeling overwhelmed. What are you feeling?” They begin to learn the names for different emotions that they might experience.
While reading books, we often stop and identify how the main character might be feeling. Not only does this teach them how to identify emotions, but it teaches empathy, too.
I think the best way to teach children how to manage their emotions is to set boundaries. Forcing them to stop feeling or stop reacting only teaches them to blunt their emotions. Instead, we can give them parameters. Here are some examples:
- It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hit. How else can you use your body when you’re angry?
- I understand that your frustrated, but your toy did nothing wrong. How can we solve this problem together?
- You are in a super silly mood right now! Let’s go get our wiggles out so we can sit nicely.
- I’m so sorry that you’re feeling sad. You’re welcome to cry, but it is not going to change my decision.
Once we understand our own emotions, how we react to them is what will build our character. Charlotte Mason said that,
The habits of the child produce the character of the man.”
Over time, how we learn to react to our emotions becomes habit. We learn to explode when we’re angry or zone out when we’re sad. OR, we learn to take a walk when we’re angry and talk about it when we’re sad. When we seem to be swimming in our children’s big emotions, we need to remember to stick with them and help them navigate through whatever it is, rather than grabbing the iPad and running to the closet (it’s tempting.)
Stoicism in the Victorian Era
What surprises me the most about the passage above is that stoicism was a dominating virtue in the Victorian Era, when Charlotte Mason lived. People were taught to not react emotionally. The Poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling is a good example of this attitude. Throughout Charlotte Mason’s volumes, we see reflections of Victorian Era stoicism. In Home Education, she urges mothers or nurses not to react when children are hurt:
A baby falls, gets a bad bump, and cries piteously. The experienced nurse does not “kiss the place to make it well,” or show any pity for the child’s trouble- that would make matters worse; the more she pities, the more the child sobs. She hastens to ‘change his thoughts’, so she says; she carries him to the window to see the horses, gives him his pet picture-book, his dearest toy, and the child pulls himself up in the middle of a sob, though he is really badly hurt.”
To me, this seems like it is “blunting the emotions,” by withholding emotional support when it is needed. When reading her volumes, I think it’s important to understand that we might see traces of stoicism, but with what we know now, sticking to the advice of “educating the emotions” is the healthiest modern approach.