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The Revolution: Feelings, Language & Knowledge

There is a revolution occurring in infant and child development. Three issues have converged recently to help us understand much better the world of early childhood and how we can help our children get off to a good start in life.

What are these three items? Feelings, language, and what I will call “smarts,” or knowledge.

  • Feelings — we know much more now about our earliest built-in feelings and how they work.
  • Language — the onset of language has tremendous impact on both the inner world of the child as well as on the parent-child relationship.
  • Smarts — young children know so much more than we used to think.

These three issues — feelings, language, and smarts — are extraordinarily powerful forces. Together they result in the origins of emotional intelligence.

We live in a world which tends to focus on behaviors. But what leads to behaviors? Feelings! Feelings motivate us. Feelings cause us to do things. This is what Daniel Goleman so beautifully described in his marvelous book Emotional Intelligence.

We now know so much more than we used to about feelings. Important advances have been made in understanding our earliest feelings. Knowing about our earliest built-in feelings and how they work is crucial. Why? Because the handling or mishandling of early feelings reverberate throughout the rest of the child’s life.

Long before children can speak they can understand words, meanings, and language. When children begin to use words and speak, marvelous opportunities arise — to share ideas, feelings, perceptions, and so much more. But the onset of language can also cause problems. A child’s words sometimes can feel assaultive to parents: “No!” “I no like you!” “I hate you!”

In addition, the same words can have very different meanings for different people. As a child analyst, I often see children who are running into problems early on — and so often it is because the onset of language has thrown things off track.

It turns out that infants and young children are capable of far more than we used to think they were. Children take in stimuli and study and test the world around them in remarkably sophisticated ways. Alison Gopnik and others have done some marvelous work in this area.

In addition, infants and young children are programmed for relating to people and interacting socially. They are not asocial blobs who are incapable of relating — quite the opposite, as the brilliant researcher Daniel Stern has shown.

Going Forward
Let’s take these three elements — feelings, language, and smarts — and show how they comprise the origins of emotional intelligence. There is tremendous synergy in understanding feelings, language, and smarts. These three elements are the keys to infant and child development. They enhance potential and prevent problems. The benefits last well into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood