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IQ is Only Half the Picture: Cultivating your Child's Emotional Intelligence

The Fifth Rite of Passage: The Right to Love

What is happening:

From around three years to six years of age the focus of biopsychological development moves fully downward to the genitals, so that the child becomes aware of a full infantile sexual charge permeating his body. Up until this point, nerve endings in the genitals had not provided for so much awareness or arousal there. As this new consciousness function emerges, it is experienced by the child as integral to his being; his genitals, heart and head are one. For the child of this age there grows an exploratory preoccupation with his genitals. He is delighted by the deeply pleasurable sensations discovered there, and the way these can radiate throughout the rest of his body.

Children are in love with their parents at this stage, and when they reach to embrace their loved ones they bring their infantile sexual energy to the embrace. Loving contact now encompasses the whole, connected, physical self. The child's sexual longing for the parent is not to be confused with adult sexuality or the adult sexual act of intercourse; it is merely about the sensual energy of love flowing throughout the whole body of the child, for whom affection has become increasingly physical and sensual. As the fact of gender differences dawns on the child, he is overcome with curiosity about the nature of his own sexuality, and the variances between boys and girls.

Optimal developmental experience:

Optimally, the parents are unashamed and unafraid of loving-sexual energy, and are enjoying a fulfilling and active adult sexual partnership. These conditions (quite rare!) enable the parents to remain open, unthreatened and loving in the presence of their child's sensual aliveness, without censuring or turning away from the child. Moreover, the sexually healthy and satisfied parent does not over-respond to the child's emerging sexuality with overwhelming and inappropriate adult sensually charged advances. Continued warmth and non-interference support and free the child to develop the basis for an adult sexual self-identity that is free of shame, guilt, or fear; as well as an inclination to be respectful of self and other's sexual boundaries. As self-discovery unleashes the child's curiosity and thirst for understanding, his questions need direct, simple and truthful answers.

Healthy children will begin to fondle and stimulate their genitals around this time, and at times they innocently exhibit themselves. If the child's masturbation is not interfered with in any way, he learns in a natural way that he is master of his own body, and thus avoids developing distorted attitudes to sexuality. It is, after all, the child's right to explore and celebrate the abundant pleasure that his body so generously grants him. A child is better protected from violation or interference if he is confident in his right to self-regulation and privacy. It benefits him to learn that he has the right to expect and demand privacy: "my body is my own, and I decide what happens to it!"

Developmental task:

The "genital" stage of development is a precursor for mature sexual love; the seeds are sown here for the child to learn about loving and being loved with his whole being, his whole body. He seeks to acquire and develop the psychological foundations of sexual love unencumbered by shame, or by disrespectful attitudes. If he can become well grounded in the pleasure function of his body, the child evolves a positive and balanced attitude to pleasure in general.

The main wounding experience:

Injury to the child's sexual identity can take the forms of rejection, condemnation, or violation. Shaming or moralizing responses to the child's burgeoning sexual exploration can produce an up-tight temperament, or result in rebellious sexual acting-out later in life. The child defends from parental judgment or disgust with a rigid and inflexible attitudinal armor that protects his heart by blocking soft and tender feelings. Both direct injunctions against his sexuality, and unspoken parental embarrassment or discomfort, are experienced by the child as a heart-breaking rejection of his expanding self. Fearing punishment, or sensing a withdrawal of parental affection, he blames his emerging sexuality and reacts by suppressing or splitting-off this part of himself. Thus begins the separation of sex from love, genitals from heart. The need for love and for pleasure is sublimated, and substituted by a need to achieve, hence he re-diverts his energies toward competition and a high accomplishment-drive.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the child whose emerging sexuality is exploited or violated. Some children suffer increased and inappropriate physical embraces at this time, from adults who, without necessarily realizing it, are turning to them to satisfy their own unmet physical needs. An alarming proportion of children (conservative studies say 25%) are exposed to some form of outright sexual molestation. Violation in any of these ways can have a wide range of disturbing and devastating long-term effects for the child.

Emotional function and core beliefs

Core beliefs arising from positive experiences at this time include: I can love with my whole being, and be loved for my whole being. Life is meant to be pleasurable. Work is meant to be pleasurable, interesting and fulfilling. A healthy passage through this stage produces a self-identity based on one's gender, grounded in sexuality. Sex and love remain united, the sexual act being about loving union and surrender. Strengths that we are trying to develop at this time include: a balance between work and play stemming from a healthy attitude to pleasure and relaxation. Acceptance of failure with grace. Acceptance of tenderness, sweetness. Flexibility of opinion, tolerance, non-rigidity.

Some core beliefs arising from negative experiences at this time include: I am unlovable, I am not good enough. I am sinful. If I am fully sexual I am dirty or shameful and I'll be rejected. Or: "my worth comes from pleasing others sexually". "Sex is just a nice, fun discharge of energy, and it is separate from love". "Sex is about conquest". "Good" sex is about performance, "skill", and points on the score-board". "Rightful" sex is defined by strict "moral" codes; things like masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality, are "wrong", "kinky" or "evil".

Emotional competencies established at this time include: Strong boundaries around sexuality, that is, the ability to say "no": "no" to unwanted sexual demands, "no" to others" expectations of "good performance". A respect for other's boundaries. A self-confidence that means not feeling compelled to agree to sex or use sex for contact or social acceptance. Lack of shame of one's body. A connectedness to one's sexual needs and a willingness to express those needs, appropriately and respectfully. Confidence in one's sexuality based on being a lovable, sensual and vital individual, rather than on fashionable looks or performance targets. Full orgastic potency.

Possible adult manifestation of injury

Almost none of us have emerged unscathed from this developmental stage. The immensely rich and diverse range of human sexual behavior is suffocated by shame, ignorance and rigidity. We think we live in a sexually liberated society, yet much of what passes for "liberation" is compulsive, exhibitionist, or based on high-performance or "conquest". Compulsive, serial promiscuity and rigid fundamentalism are two extreme poles, both reflecting a legacy of either repressive or abusive up-bringing. Inner conflicts and tensions surrounding our sexuality keep us from experiencing our full potential for pleasure and fulfillment. The human body is in its entirety capable of integrated orgasm, yet for most people pleasurable orgastic pulsation is restricted to the genitals at climax. Deeply held bodily tensions that defend against childhood hurts inhibit our capacity to fully surrender to the loving ecstasy of a total-body orgastic release.

When sex and love are separate entities, this reduces sex to a discharge function that lacks tenderness or intimacy. For some, sex is used as a currency to bargain for company, comfort or control, a means of proving our worth. Conversely, some find it difficult to be sexual with those they really love.

Our exaggerated emphasis on looks, tight bodies, washboard stomachs and fat-less thighs reflects our displaced eroticism: we are more excited by superficial and transient qualities, than by sensuality, warmth and vitality. Pleasure is viewed with suspicion in our repressed society. Instead, we take pride in how "hard" we can push or drive ourselves. Unbalanced task-orientation gives birth to the workaholic and the compulsive high-achiever for whom the playful poetry of living remains out of reach.

Concluding comments

As psycho-emotional development continues throughout life, there are additional stage-specific learnings and challenges that we all face, each adding new layers to the personality. However, psycho-emotional structures formed during these first five stages comprise the core of our emotional make-up, and hence govern our characteristic or pattern-like relationship styles. Some caution is warranted to avoid over-simplification or rigid determinism in the interpretation of how early-childhood emotional injury affects personality. Although most people carry some wounds from childhood, many are able to compensate by creating unique and surprising traits and abilities. It is a common paradox that wonderful gifts can have their genesis in childhood injury. What can be said with certainty, however, is that significant deviations from meeting the child's stage-specific, basic emotional needs, are always hurtful and sometimes damaging to the child.

Parenting instruction manuals tell you a lot about "what to do when?", or "what to do if?". What they rarely help you with is how to cultivate your own emotional capacities: the strength, groundedness, endurance and spaciousness required to be lovingly present for your child. Certainly, our education, socioeconomic circumstances, and the amount of emotional and practical support available are important factors in how we fare as parents. However, it is the parent's own personal childhood history, with its unique blend of oft-forgotten joys and sorrows that holds the key to any individual's parenting capacity. In order to become effective parents, it is particularly important to recollect how we ourselves once felt as children. We need to re-establish contact with our own emotional histories if our parenting decisions are to be driven by an empathy that can see and feel the world from a child's point of view. How often do parents discover, sometimes with mortification, that under stress they begin to sound just like their own mother or father did? It is when we have lost our connection to our own childhood feelings that we risk being automatic in passing on to our children the way we ourselves were treated, for better or for worse.

A holistic approach to parenting includes a continual yet sensitive self-inquiry. Areas that we find persistently difficult may at times reflect our own forgotten wounds. When we are perplexed or confronted by challenging parenting situations, it can be fruitful to ask ourselves, "what was happening to me at the age that my child is now?" By re-activating our childhood feelings and memories, children help us to highlight that which wants healing inside each of us; and thus they furnish us with countless opportunities for personal growth. Our children not only make us better parents, but also better people, and in that regard they give us as much as we give them. Without knowing it, they help to shape our emotional intelligence as we contribute to theirs.

Recommended Reading List

Conger, J. P. The Body In Recovery, Frog Ltd. (pages 95-118), 1994.
Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1994.
Greenspan, S. Building Healthy Minds, Perseus Books, 1999.
Kaplan, Louise. Oneness and Separateness, Simon & Schuster, 1978.
Liedloff, Jean. The Continuum Concept, Arkana Penguin Books, 1986.
Lowen, Alexander. Bioenergetics, Penguin (pages 151-173), 1984.
Myers, David. Heartful Parenting, Bluebird Publishing, 1996.
Steiner, Claude. Achieving Emotional Literacy, Bloomsbury, 1997.