Parents and educators concerned about shaping kids into successful adults know it's important that little Johnny can read, that he not be a couch potato, and that he be given ample opportunities to develop self-esteem.
In the past few years, though, another educational concept has made its way into the spotlight: cultivating an "emotional intelligence quotient" -- or EQ.
John D. Mayer, a researcher and associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, and Peter Salovey, a Yale University psychology professor, coined the term "emotional intelligence" in 1990 after exploring the relationships between cognitive brain functions (such as memory, reasoning, judgment, and abstract thought) and affect (including emotions, moods, and feelings of fatigue or energy).
They describe emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize how you and those around you are feeling, as well as the ability to generate, understand, and regulate emotions.
Once labeled, the concept of emotional intelligence spread rapidly. In 1995, Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and writer for The New York Times, expanded on the Mayer-Salovey theory, claiming that the art of understanding and managing human emotions "can matter more than IQ" in determining whether a person leads a successful life. Goleman's book, Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books, 1995), spent a year on the New York Times Bestseller List and drew accolades from psychologists elated that human passions were finally being given due respect.
But is emotional intelligence really more important than IQ? Such claims are "wildly exaggerated," Mayer says. Still, he feels it makes sense that emotional intelligence has an important role in parenting, sustaining intimate relationships, and establishing friendships. And because of EQ's importance, teaching children to handle emotions more effectively is gaining enormous popularity.
For example, at Search Institute in Minneapolis, helping children to develop personal strengths is a major part of the philosophy. Peter L. Benson, institute president, says society has put too much focus on measuring IQ, and has not concentrated enough on encouraging "internal assets." These assets include caring, motivation to achieve, commitment to equality and social justice, integrity, honesty, responsibility, restraint, planning and decision-making abilities, self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and a positive view of personal future.
"It's just as important that we raise people who have strong social competencies," says Benson, author of All Kids Are Our Kids (Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1997) and What Kids Need to Succeed (Free Spirit Publishing, 1998). Of course, all could be learned in adulthood, he says. "But it's ten times easier and a lot less expensive to do it early, as communities."
By the time a person reaches adulthood, emotional habits are fairly well set, agrees author Goleman. To change, an adult must unlearn, then relearn, behavior -- often with the help of a therapist.