Should We Teach “Emotional Intelligence” to Our Children?

Why “Emotional Intelligence” is not for all children

“Emotional Intelligence” is much talked about these days. Even though I can see its significance in certain areas of our lives (especially in business), I am skeptical of those who are rushing to apply the theory to child development and psychology. The term “Emotional Intelligence” was popularized by Daniel Goleman who was interested in identifying the quality that made people successful in the corporate world. The data of his research are kept private, so we do not know for sure, but I would imagine that his research does not cover successful people in the arts or anyone outside of the corporate world (the likes of, for instance, Woody Allen, Kurt Cobain, Andy Warhol, Noam Chomsky, Bobby Fischer, etc..).

The corporate world is a specific environment that requires specific skills and abilities, and I would agree that “Emotional Intelligence” does play a critical role in it, but the same abilities would not guarantee success in the world outside of it. When we think of highly talented and creative people, especially artists, musicians, and writers, we find that many of them are socially maladjusted. In fact, many highly creative people are drawn to the arts because they feel they could not fit into the ordinary world. If Goleman’s claim is true that Emotional Intelligence is the largest single predictor of success, then we shouldn’t find so many successful people in the arts who are socially maladjusted in such obvious ways.

Emotional Intelligence is important in the corporate world because it is a highly collaborative environment. Your ability to gauge other people’s emotions and your ability to see your own emotions objectively are more important than being able to come up with creative, extraordinary, or revolutionary ideas. Your ability to express deeply personal feelings (like crying out loud) is essentially irrelevant, or even shunned. In the arts, the same ability is almost critical (like an actor who can cry out loud on stage). In a highly collaborative environment, if people cannot get along, you cannot get anything done, so the ability to get along with one another necessarily becomes the first priority. If we think of Jazz, the tradeoffs become clear. The smaller the band is, the more intimate and deeper the music can become. Even though the corporate world loves to talk about “thinking outside the box”, their ability to do so is limited by the fact that they have to do so within the big box of a corporation. Their advantage, however, is that they can produce things on a much larger scale.

If we include the world outside of corporations in our study, it becomes clear that there is no correlation between being emotionally intelligent and being successful. There are plenty of socially maladjusted people who are talented and creative. And, there are plenty of socially maladjusted people who have no talent or creativity. There are plenty of socially well-adjusted people with no talent or creativity, and also plenty of socially well-adjusted people with a lot of talent and creativity. If we were to accept the lack of correlation, what would exactly be the point of actively teaching our kids to be emotionally intelligent, unless we want all of our children to be in the corporate world? If Woody Allen was socially well-adjusted, we probably would not have had any of his films. The same can be said for Isaac Newton whose extremely antisocial tendency is what gave him enough time to do all his brilliant work.

I was born and raised in Japan where “emotional intelligence” is not a fad but a deeply ingrained cultural value. Half of the population of the US living in a small island, they have almost no choice but to learn to get along with one another. It is as if the whole nation is a gigantic corporation. Logical intelligence in Japan is seen as inferior to emotional intelligence. In the US, it is the opposite; when two people or two businesses have a conflict, the Americans’ immediate response is to find out who is right and who is wrong. Many logical arguments (even scientific evidence) are introduced into the dispute or into the court to determine the logical truth. In Japan, this is seen as a naive way to resolve a conflict. Their immediate response is to seek a mutually agreeable solution. The logical truth is set aside for the sake of getting along with one another. As they say in Japan: “The nail that sticks out is hammered back in.” The fact that emotional intelligence is so fashionable in the US now is probably a backlash against putting so much emphasis on logical intelligence, but this does not mean that it’s a good idea to emphasize emotional intelligence on all children unless we want all of our children to work for big corporations.

One might argue that emotionally intelligent children would suffer less in life especially from loneliness, but could this really be true? Do people in Japan suffer less? (There are certainly much less lawsuits against each other.) Do people who get along with everyone feel less lonely? If true, why do so many famous and successful people often complain about being lonely at the top? In my own experience, many people who make a point of getting along with everyone, seem to be driven to do so by a deep sense of insecurity or inadequacy. Their desire to get along with everyone, it seems, is a way to make up for the lack in other areas of their lives. In any case, I do not believe that there is any statistical proof that those who get along with everyone suffer less in life. Even if it were true, isn’t there much to be gained from suffering in life? This is not to say that parents should be the source of their suffering; no, I am arguing that there is no need for parents to train their kids to suffer less in life. In other words, I do not see the point of preventing our kids from suffering nor of forcing them to suffer.

At the root of it, much of my criticism towards child development theories comes from the fact that they have to make vast assumptions about what is desirable and what is not in a person or in life. That is what allows them to formulate their theories. They never define what they are assuming as desirable qualities, and why they are desirable. They simply assume them as absolute and universal. It’s easy to assume that being antisocial, for instance, is undesirable, but that is only an assumption. Among 2-year olds, or even younger, we can already see that some are more social than the others. There are even some utterly antisocial kids despite the fact that their parents are social butterflies. If we assume that being antisocial is undesirable, we might be preventing another Isaac Newton from becoming who he is. Once these assumptions of child development theories are exposed as such, we look back and laugh at them. This is why all child development theories sound like jokes after a few generations.

If a child is taught to be emotionally intelligent at a very young age, he might internalize the process and never push his own comfort zones. This could lead to unconscious avoidance of conflicts in his adult life. He could become a people pleaser who would never rock the boat. Everyone would probably like him, but no one would love him. He would have many friends, but none of them particularly deep. He might become quite successful in business, but might not create anything extraordinary, because many extraordinary things in life can upset others who prefer the status quo.

If you set emotional intelligence as the top priority in the education of your child, getting along with others may become a virtue of its own, and his primary preoccupation in life. Our society certainly needs this type of people (e.g. CEOs of conservative corporations), but it may confuse others who have different talents to offer, especially the talents that would create significant conflicts because of their extraordinary nature. For instance, if Galileo was “emotionally intelligent”, he probably would not have insisted that the earth revolved around the sun, since that idea upset so many people at the time.

There are people who are good at avoiding conflicts, who can get along with virtually anyone. But, interestingly enough, some of these popular people have a hard time forming deep relationships. I believe part of this problem lies in the fact that their understanding of human psychology is too shallow. Because they learned or were trained to constantly pay attention to what other people are feeling, they missed the opportunities to learn truly deep human emotions. In this sense, it might be better if we didn’t teach them conflict resolution or “emotional intelligence” so early on, and let them create conflicts and let them learn from them on their own. For every conflict they encounter, if we intervened and taught them how to resolve it and why/how it happened, they will soon learn how to avoid conflicts altogether.

Suppose you are learning for the first time how to ride a skateboard. You have a friend who is an expert skateboarder, and he wants to teach you how to be a good skateboarder. He explains to you what happens when you do something, and why certain things happen. If you were an obedient student, you would listen to him carefully and try to avoid mistakes that he has already warned you about. But you could never be a good skateboarder if you are obedient in this way. It almost does not matter what your teacher says when you are learning something like this for the first time. It’s better to simply skate on your own and see what happens. Teachers can be useful much later when you feel you are relatively comfortable with it. At that stage, his instructions and tips would have more meanings because you understand the things he is referring to. The same can be said for teaching emotional intelligence to children. Our attempts to teach them something could confuse them, or make them feel self-conscious. When we think carefully about how we walk, we start to walk funny. In the same way, teaching them “emotional intelligence” so early on, could have a negative impact on them. Perhaps it’s better if we didn’t teach them anything, but simply let them learn on their own.

The paradox of “Emotional Intelligence” is this: In order to learn or teach it, you need conflicts, but the ultimate point of it is to avoid conflicts (to get along with one another). That is, the means to be emotionally intelligent is the very thing that we are trying to avoid. The more conflicts we encounter, the more opportunities we have to learn from it. If we prevent or avoid conflicts, we will end up learning less. However, ironically, those who constantly cause conflicts are not seen as emotionally intelligent. If we learn to be emotionally intelligent through conflicts, and if we want to continue learning about our emotions, then we should forever keep creating conflicts on purpose. But if we did that, we won’t be able to function well in the corporate world.

In the article entitled “Emotional Intelligence: Five Years Later”, Daniel Goleman gives examples of desirable behavior as a result of his method.

At a middle school in Puerto Rico, students work in teams on science projects. When there’s an angry disagreement between two boys on one team, they don’t argue or get into a fight, they go to separate parts of the room to calm down before coming back together with another student, a mediator, to resolve the conflict.

A sixth-grade boy in a California school has a history of getting mad and starting fights. Other kids had started to avoid him. But in his class, he’s learned a method called “Keep Calm” that he uses when he feels himself start to lose his cool: he steps into the hallway, thinks about how he can control his reactions, what he really wants and positive ways to get them.

I would not doubt that the ability to control one’s emotions in these ways is desirable in the corporate world. These kids would probably internalize these processes and successfully adapt themselves into the preferred mode of operation in the corporate world. Suppose Goleman and his followers did not intervene, and let them go on behaving in the undesirable ways; what would happen to these kids? They would go on pouring out their emotions without restraints. It is likely that they would become misfits, but in that process they would probably learn the limits and extremities of human emotions. They might learn what it feels like to be utterly lonely, and write a novel like “Notes from Underground.” They might learn from their own experience what happens when violence continues to escalate, and write a novel like “A Clockwork Orange.” Ultimately, who is to say this is better or worse?

Here, I need to emphasize again that one does not have to be an antisocial, socially maladjusted, or emotionally volatile to be an artist. There are certainly many great artists who are/were social, well adjusted, and emotionally stable. Charles Ives comes to my mind who was a great composer and at the same time a successful businessman. My point is that, when it comes to art, virtually any personality trait, knowledge, and experience can be a source of inspiration, regardless of what we (especially the corporate world) generally consider as positive or negative. No correlation to artistic success can be made because the objective or the purpose of art is not a stable concept. In comparison, the goal of business is to make money. It is because its objective is one-dimensional that we can even talk about the possibility of correlating success to a specific personality trait. When a whole society or community of people embrace a concept like “Emotional Intelligence” as a universally positive trait, we create an environment where children who lack this quality would feel inferior, and I do not see why they should feel that way.

“Emotional intelligence” is a purely subjective and relative concept. In order to value it, we must accept that getting along with others is a good thing. In doing so, we must also assume that others are good. And, in many cases, we also assume that others are better than we are. If a toddler is taught to constantly pay attention to the feelings of others, he might assume that others are more important than he is, which could lead to low self-esteem. Suppose you were born into a community of Neo-Nazis. Getting along with others would mean that you need to accept the idea of racial supremacy. If you contradict it, you would upset others around you. If you were “emotionally intelligent”, you would have been taught not to contradict them.

Neo-Nazis may sound like an extreme example, but we have to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that slavery and racial segregation were legal in the US. Our current society may be perceived as just as evil and unjust by the future generations; we just don’t realize it yet. It’s always easy to see and criticize in retrospect. If you want to be an independent thinker, you have to get used to upsetting others, but no matter how you rationalize it, upsetting others is never easy for anyone. Everyone has moments of doubt. Emphasis on “emotional intelligence” and getting along with others may discourage people from pursuing what they believe is right.

If my arguments were correct, one might ask why we should teach even subjects like math to all children. The important difference is this: We all know that math is not a one-dimensional predictor of future success. Unlike “Emotional Intelligence”, math is not promoted or perceived as such. We see math as a good skill to have, but not a factor that determines the success in our lives. So, even if a child is bad at math, he does not have to feel like an inferior human being. It would not create a stigma or a complex.

The fact that “Emotional Intelligence” is marketed as a one-dimensional predictor of success, creates a room for all sorts of prejudice to grow. We need to keep in mind that the concept of “Emotional Intelligence” is commercially motivated, and has narrow-minded assumptions. It is essentially a fad. We should not feel rushed to embrace it.

It’s hard for a people-person to be creative

Creativity requires making unexpected connections of ideas. Many people are averse to unexpected and different things, especially those who derive their power from the status quo. If getting along with one another is emphasized in a child, he might end up suppressing his creativity in order not to upset others. I believe that it is no coincidence that Japan has the stereotype of lacking originality and creativity, because anything different in Japan is “hammered back in.”

Talent is different from creativity in that it is a natural inclination that exceeds the level of the norm, or the average. As someone who is naturally skeptical could become a talented auditor, any trait that is different from the norm or the average can be seen as a talent. In this sense, even a handicap could be seen as a talent. We generally use the word “talent” to mean something culturally beneficial, but whether a particular quality of a person could benefit the society or not is largely dependent on what the society needs at the time, which is to say, it is a matter of luck. Suppose, for instance, some chemical is released into the air by accident, and made everyone on earth blind. In this scenario, those who have been blind all of their lives could suddenly become our heroes, and lead the nation. Suddenly, their abilities are seen as a “talent.”

Just a few decades ago, being able to speak Chinese was seen as an irrelevant skill in the eyes of many employers. Many bilingual English and Chinese people could not find decent jobs. Even though most Americans could only speak one language, being a bilingual English and Chinese wasn’t considered a real “talent.” But now that China is booming economically, everyone is trying to get their children to learn Chinese even if the parents do not speak it. In this way, what is perceived as a “talent” changes, and is largely a matter of luck. Any quality that is unusual or different from the norm could potentially become a talent.

For both, highly talented people and highly creative people, getting along with others is inherently difficult. Just imagine a blind kid trying to get along in a classroom full of sighted kids. A Chinese kid in a classroom full of American kids. Imagine a predicament of a child who does everything differently from others, and who thinks things that other people find strange or incomprehensible. It is almost unavoidable that these kids would be unpopular, but they would probably have a small number of deep and close friends. If you think of someone like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche, it becomes pretty obvious that they would not have been able to make casual conversations with ordinary people. In order for them to have such a conversation, they would have to be insincere about what they are saying. If they were to be sincere, most people would not be able to understand them. People like them have almost no choice but to be antisocial. There are children with this type of personality, and there is no need to make them feel bad about not being able to get along with others. When a child does not get along with others, our immediate response is to teach him something. But as I said above, that is an assumption. It is entirely possible that it is to all the others that we need to teach something, whether that means the whole classroom, the whole school, or the whole nation. Who are we to decide who is right or wrong in these situations?

There are two sides to every coin. A trait that is generally considered negative, like being antisocial, has its positive side. You cannot take away one side without taking away the other side. It would be nice to be highly creative and at the same time be socially well-adjusted, but true creativity unavoidably upsets many people because of its uniqueness, difference, and unexpectedness. The corporate world can take only so much of it. Being able to read highly technical books day after day without feeling any need to socialize with other people is a talent. Yes, it is peculiar and unusual, but this may be the reason why Isaac Newton was able to achieve something that was quite unusual at the time.

Does what we parents do really matter?

I do believe that we as parents have significant influence on our children, but whatever influence we have is entirely unintentional and arbitrary. Even if the results are as predicted, it is no different from buying a stock and its price going up subsequently. This is why child development theories become fads, because they can make parents believe that they have some degree of control over how their children turn out. In other words, these theories exist more for the benefit of the parents (to ease their minds or to make themselves feel better) than it does for the benefit of their children.

In order to have consistent and intentional control over our children, we need to be certain of the relationship between cause and effect. When these child development psychologists demonstrate what they preach, and if our children’s behavior conforms to their predictions like lab mice would, we are impressed because it appeals to our narcissistic desire to take credit as the artists (our children as our works of art.). However, the idea of consistently controlling our children is problematic in that it becomes necessarily about enforcement of our own wills on our children. This may not bother many children, but it would bother those who are creative and independent thinkers. The more we try to control them consistently, the more disrespected they would feel about their own wills. In general, most of us, regardless of age, would not want to feel that we are mere products of our parents. Most of us have fundamental need to break free of the wills of our parents at least to some degree. We do not want to feel that we are the calculated results of the consistent control of our parents. So, even if the intentions are good, many children would want to reject any attempt by their parents to consistently control them. In this sense, child development theories are nothing but nuisance to them.

We parents could influence our children, but only unintentionally. Teaching by example is a form of unintentional teaching. Out of all the qualities we have (both good and bad), we have no control over which ones our kids would pick up. If we want to have some degree of control over our kids, our focus should be on ourselves, not on our children. We should be controlling the source of their inspiration or mimicry, not the receiver.

Some wise doctors say that they don’t fix any problems; our bodies fix themselves. In a way, it’s an illusion to think that doctors fix anything. By the same token, we parents are eager to take credit for the positive results of our kids, but in reality, the kids might be doing everything themselves. If so, children are certainly generous for letting their parents, educators, and theorists take credit for their brilliance.