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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Emotional Competence

Imagine your 10-year-old daughter is involved in a high-dive competition. She’s past the point of participation trophies and genuinely wants to win. She performs as cleanly as she can, but the judges’ scores are not as high as the other girls. Ultimately, she goes home with nothing and is devastated. How would you respond to her?
A.      “Well I thought you were the best of all of those girls.”
B.      “It’s OK. We’ll get ’em next time.”
C.      “Those girls were better than you, which is why you didn’t win.”

The author of the linked monstrosity says response C is best for future academic success. And I say he’s a sadistic gnat and an idiot who can’t even come with a selection of normal responses to make a point. 

My own father would never say such cruel shit to me, and hey, is it even possible to get more academically successful than I’ve been throughout my entire life?

How hard it is to express compassion when somebody is devastated? Isn’t it a much more important lesson to teach than competitiveness (we’ll get ’em! You are the best!) or exhibit callousness (they are better! You stank!)? 

The real question to ask here is not how do I turn the situation into a pedagogical exercise at the child’s expense but what does it say about the message I’m sending that she isn’t simply disappointed (a normal reaction) but actually devastated by something so insignificant. 

Basic emotional competence is a crucial life skill. And there is no emotional competence when you are incapable of distinguishing between minor setbacks and devastating events. 

People are so obsessed with turning kids into productive neoliberal machines who compete and achieve all day long. But a much more useful thing to do would be to raise kids who enjoy life and can relate to others without constantly competing or judging themselves and others. 

The response I would give in this situation is, “I’m so sorry you feel sad. I know this must be hard for you. I love you so much.” And this is the response normal people give to anybody who is sad and disappointed, let alone devastated.

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14 thoughts on “Emotional Competence

  1. Right. I would have gotten (A) as a child and it was so transparently empty and meaningless, I’d have preferred (B). The response you give wouldn’t have been enough. I’d have needed to be told explicitly that I wouldn’t be thrown out of the house / put out on the street / not fed. “I know this is hard for you/I love you so much” means little if it means, as it does to me, that the issue cannot be discussed, alternative plans cannot be hashed out, etc. “I know this is hard for you/I love you so much” just means “There is nothing I can do, and you are on your own.” It is especially hurtful when said in condescending tones of voice.

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    • “Right. I would have gotten (A) as a child and it was so transparently empty and meaningless, I’d have preferred (B). The response you give wouldn’t have been enough. I’d have needed to be told explicitly that I wouldn’t be thrown out of the house / put out on the street / not fed. “I know this is hard for you/I love you so much” means little if it means, as it does to me, that the issue cannot be discussed, alternative plans cannot be hashed out, etc. “I know this is hard for you/I love you so much” just means “There is nothing I can do, and you are on your own.””

      • Absolutely. Kids always know. So it can’t be playacting. It has to be a sincere response.

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      • It is why I now both 1/ don’t ask for help soon enough (I don’t expect to get it) and at the same time 2/ ask for extra doses of reassurance. It’s a real paradox: approval becomes so necessary, yet one has this outer appearance of utter and absolute independence.

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  2. I would have gotten (B).

    But that being said, my parents were big on the competition thing when I was a child, and while I did well academically, I realized later in life that this attitude was responsible for a lot of my social issues. For example, until recently, I had a lot of trouble making and keeping friends — I was subconsciously competing with everyone! My life has improved a lot ever since I let go of this attitude.

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  3. DWeird on said:

    At least it’s missing all the lovely passive aggressive bits parents can do in this situation.

    “We supported you so much! I wish you could have tried harder for us.”

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  4. I would have gotten some version of “Well kid, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, it’s all part of the game”. Feeling bad was fine and normal in that context and didn’t require parental handholding.

    Maybe I was a naive kid (I’m realizing now) but I never for a moment doubted the sincere love of parents and some other extended family members. They had non-trivial levels of incompetence about some basic parenting things but unconditional love and acceptance was simply taken for granted.

    I think I would have found verbalizations of it like “I’m so sorry you feel sad. I know this must be hard for you. I love you so much” to be weird, awkward and would be suspicious that the person saying it thought I was a hopeless loser (which was never the message I got from the adults around me because they didn’t say things like that).

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  5. If I had to choose one of those options, I’d pick B (C being the absolute worst), but in real life I usually got something along the lines of “it happens.” This was most effective for me, and was usually accompanied by a Tesla song called “Hang Tough” (especially after soccer games, which my team always lost).

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  6. “Well, how embarrassing, I told my friends how amazing you are and that you are such a prodigy, and now they will just think I’m lying to them”

    “It was so shameful how you did not congratulate your friend for performing so much better than you”

    “here, lets watch the home video of the whole event so you can see how well your friend did”

    “no, we’re not going to fast forward through your performance”

    “such a shame that you have all this talent and waste it by not practicing enough”

    “You were supposed to show how well homeschooled kids can do, not embarrass everyone who homeschools with that performance”

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  7. Releasing my inner toxic demon….

    “If you REALLY loved me, you would have won.”

    “If you REALLY loved me, you would have wanted to WIN more!”

    “SOME parents would be CRUSHED if their child humiliated them in public like that.”

    “We all understand why you crack under pressure like that, dear, we really do.”

    “Why do you always have to LOSE like that?”

    “Even a MEDIOCRE diver should have been able to win against THAT field!”

    “Too bad, I thought we’d FINALLY found something you were good at.”

    “I thought you said you wanted to win…..”

    “Don’t worry, I’LL never throw your failure back in your face.”

    “And here I was SOOO looking forward to finally feeling proud of you….”

    “I bet the winner’s family really loves them extra special!”

    “Don’t try to earn my love like that again.”

    “Another day another waste of time and effort.”

    “SOME children want to make their parents proud.”

    “Remember this, the next time you ask me for something.”

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