There's a scene in the very funny 1991 film What About Bob in which Richard Dreyfuss, a high profile, bestselling psychiatrist, is trying to communicate with his agitated daughter. He grabs two puppets -- painted to look just like father and daughter -- from a display on the mantel and says "Use the puppets Anna. Tell me why you're mad with the puppets." Watching the scene unfold, you can't help but think "Oh my god, this guy is supposed to be the expert, and he really doesn't have a clue."
That's not the sense one gets when talking to John Gottman, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. Approachable, funny and, above all, practical, Gottman, who presents a talk on Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child next Thursday at The Met, has made his life's work the study of how the most intimate human relationships -- marriage and family -- either make it or don't. Videotaping couples and families at home, through a variety of regular daily interactions, Gottman and his team of researchers were able to identify numerous seemingly insignificant indicators of the relationships' degree of health or unhealth, the results of which have aired on NBC's Dateline and The CBS Morning News.
"I've been studying marriages for about 28 years, and about 15 years ago I started a project to see whether there was any relationship between kids' emotional development and the parents' marriages and the way the parents interacted with the kids," explains Gottman. "So we started this longitudinal study starting with 4-year-olds and following them up through age 15 and found that there were very strong connections; it really was the same fabric."
What Gottman's team discovered is that parents could dramatically change the quality of their children's emotional lives by paying attention to the principles of emotional intelligence, a term coined by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman to describe a combination of healthy self-esteem and knowing how best to interact with others.
"We were able to see that there are certain things that parents can do to change their kids' -- not I.Q., but E.Q. if you will -- and in doing so create emotionally intelligent kids that just have a resilience as they go through the various developmental stages," says Gottman.
The cornerstone of Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, as well as Gottman's overall philosophy, is a five-step process he calls "emotional coaching."
"The first step is getting better at really noticing the smaller emotions, in yourself and in your children, not just the big things but the daily things where you look at your child and see that maybe they're sad or need to talk about something," says Gottman. "The second step is really viewing that as an opportunity for teaching or for intimacy. The third step is communicating empathy about the emotion, letting your child know you understand how she feels or telling him you've felt that way too. The step after that is helping them to verbally label their feelings and, finally, helping them to get the problem solved. But you've got to do the first four steps first. Understanding must precede advice."
It sounds easy enough, so why do we need to be told?
"We actually live in a culture that doesn't facilitate this kind of development. Instead we have this sort of heritage that comes from Norman Vincent Peale, you know, the power of positive thinking. Which really says you're responsible for the emotions you have and if you want to have positive emotions, you can have them," Gottman says. "I mean even the Dalai Lama's latest book, it's called The Art of Happiness, it tells you to have positive feelings instead of negative feelings. And that's a lot of what our parents were doing with their kids. They were dismissing their emotions, they were saying put a smile on your face, get over it, don't be a wimp, don't be afraid. On the other hand, some of our parents were doing the opposite, saying, 'Well, what do you feel,' and, 'Oh, that makes sense to me. What can you do about it?' "
The long-term effects of such a simple thing as just listening and affirming what a child is going through can't be denied.
"There are a lot of advantages," says Gottman. "We found that two kids with the same I.Q. in which one of them was raised by parents that dismissed their emotions and one was raised by parents who practiced emotional coaching, the latter winds up having better attentional capabilities and higher math and reading scores in addition to better relationships with other children and fewer behavior problems.
"It really does make a difference. They seem to develop a kind of social moxie, they can kind of psych out situations and really know what the norms are and how to act."
Still, is it possible to focus too much on emotional intelligence, to make the child unready to handle the realities of the "real world?"
"Right, I get that question a lot. Particularly fathers worry about that with their sons' fears. They ask, 'If I'm really responsive to the stuff he's afraid of, isn't he going to be more fearful,' and just the opposite is true. Haim Ginott, the child psychologist I admire the most -- I dedicate my book to him -- came up with this, where he gives the example of a couple: 'Well just think about your husband, maybe you should really toughen him up so he does better at work. If he gets a lot of criticism at home, he'll be really resilient and bear up against criticism anywhere,' " laughs Gottman. "It's the same with kids. Why would you turn away from them when they're hurting, when they're sad? Why would you turn away to toughen them up? It doesn't toughen them up, it makes them feel like you don't care about them.
"It's also important to point out that really good parents are doing this like 40 percent of the time, they're not constantly looking at their kids faces and worrying about their every mood. They're just there, they just listen, and notice when something's going on."
With all the emphasis Gottman places on marriage and family, what happens if a child's parents are going through divorce, or are constantly fighting?
"One of the things that we discovered that surprised us is that even if the parents are going through a divorce or have a hostile marriage, if one of them does this emotion coaching, the kid is buffered from almost all the negative effects of the bad marriage," says Gottman. "They don't have the behavior problems, they don't get aggressive, they still have good relationships with other kids and their grades don't suffer. They're buffered from everything but feeling kind of sad that their parents are fighting."
Above all, Gottman believes the most important thing is for parents to be real. "One of the things about emotion coaching is that it can go wrong, but the beauty of it is that you can go back and undo it," says Gottman. "It's so powerful for kids to realize their parents can make mistakes.
"I don't think parents realize that being imperfect is the best way to be a parent."
John Gottman speaks on raising an emotionally intelligent child on Thursday, Sept. 28, at 7 pm at The Met. Tickets: $15. Call: 483-6495.