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5 Little-Known Ways To Up Your Kid’s Emotional Intelligence

flickr / Amanda Tipton

Emotional intelligence is the buzziest parenting term for a reason: When you teach your kids to care about how other people feel, you teach them to become actual, decent humans. And if parents don’t nurture empathy, kids won’t develop the part of the brain that makes them care about others. While there are several go-to tactics for upping emotional IQ, here are a few lesser-known methods to help out.

Let Them Jam Out

Solo piano lessons are wonderful (particularly if they practice so-lo you can’t hear them). But when kids play music in a group, it teaches them to be more empathetic.

Playing music with others allows kids to exercise a lot of skills that teach them how to understand others. For instance, they have to recognize a song’s emotion and imitate it. They also have to pay attention to each other’s rhythms, synchronize and intuit where the other players are going with their melody. They’re also likely to build a sense of trust with the people with whom they’re playing.

So not only does playing music make your kids smarter, it makes them better people, too. Win-win – other than the slight risk that they end up driving around the country following Phish on tour.

Bust Out Some Silly Faces

One key way to teach kids to be more empathetic is to, well, discuss emotions. When you watch a movie, or when you help your child deal with a real life problem, talking about how it made them feel helps connect actions with emotions. But it also helps them understand how the things they do affect the way other people feel.

This all works better if you make silly faces, apparently. When a person makes a facial expression, it triggers the real emotion in the brain. So even if you’re just being silly, busting out a frowny face actually makes you feel a little bit sad – which helps you empathize with the real emotion. Get your kid to act out the feelings you’re talking about and it’ll hit home on a whole new level.

love rosie movie

Take A Note From The Danish

Once every week, Danish schools do something called “Klassen Time Kage” – or, “The Class’s Hour”. For one hour, a class sits down to talk about the problems they’re having and try to find a solution.

The teachers usually start things off by commenting on what they’ve noticed. Then they open the floor for the kids, who talk about what they’re feeling. Then the klassen brainstorms ideas on how to solve the problem and work together. The kids take the largest role in problem-solving. If no problems exist, they just spend the hour cozying up together.

The public school system probably isn’t going to adopt this idea anytime soon, but there’s no reason you can’t do it at home. Take the role of the teacher and kick off a family conversation about what’s going on. Brainstorm ways to treat each other better. Ask that they start by not calling you poopyhead so often.

Try Some Emotion Coaching

When your kids act out, don’t just scare them into being good. If you do, they’ll only be good when you’re watching. Instead, try something called emotion coaching – which is one of the most effective ways to improve a child’s behavior.

Here’s how it works: When your child does something bad, don’t freak out. Instead, get them to acknowledge the emotion at the root of their behavior and help them give it a name (“You’re feeling frustrated because you couldn’t play with the toy? That’s really frustrating”) Afterwards, you can let them know their behavior isn’t acceptable and send them into a time-out.

Then, when your child’s calmed down, talk about why they felt emotional. What made them angry? It might be something silly, but don’t diminish it – in their little world, it’s a big deal. Let them feel like their feelings are valid, and then talk about how they could deal with it better next time. Because when you talk about these emotions and how to handle them, you’re doing more than just raising a child who’s afraid of being bad. You’re raising a child who’ll make better choices by understanding their own (and other people’s) emotions.

Let Them Enter The Wizarding World

The boy with the lightning scar exists in a fantastical world of magic, yes. But he also exists in a world divided into specific groups of individuals. There are muggles and half-bloods; Slytherins and Gryffindors. Because Harry has many interactions with these groups of “others”, researchers from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy found that those who dive into that world are more sympathetic towards others. (They’re also huge nerds.)

The researchers gathered 34 kids and tested their attitudes towards immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees. They then divided them into 2 groups and had them read specific passages of Harry Potter over the course of 6 weeks. One group read passages that featured prejudice on the parts of the more villainous characters; the other read those that were more general. The researchers found that, at the end of the study, those who read and discussed some of the prejudicial passages were more understanding of others. Follow-up studies showed the same results.

Empathy is not exclusive to Harry Potter. When a person reads a book that presents complex, diverse characters whose thoughts are understood based on physical cues, the reader gets into those character’s minds. They come out of the experience with a better understanding of how other people think.

In other words, reading a good book makes you more empathetic. But only good books. Researchers tried the same with pulp adventure books and kids didn’t get anything out of it. Specifically, they gave them Danielle Steel. So, keep your kids away from hollow beach reads. But Stephen King’s The Stand might work. Actually, nevermind.