Educating Children’s Feelings
By Nancy Monson

“Education today is directed almost exclusively toward the development of the mind.  There is an exaggerated admiration of what is referred to as intelligence, or intellectual capacity, at the expense of feelings and the body.  It is this unbalanced emphasis that makes us give only theoretical explanations to children both at school and at home.  These are directed solely at the mind of the child who hears and records them, but does not understand them since his body and his feelings are not involved.  Therefore, these explanations are not assimilated.  

Education must be a process through which an attempt is made to develop the mind, the feelings, and the body in an integrated and balanced way. An education that only focuses on one or two of these sources, or elements, leaves in the hands of society and in the hands of the individual himself, a being who is more or less incomplete.  His lack of harmony does not allow him to develop to his full potential. This article will focus on the feeling aspect of this equation since it is the fundamental element needed for the development of the child’s self worth and confidence.” Paraphrasing from the book, A Sense of Wonder When I do not Know, by Nathalie De Salzmann DeEtevan.

First of all we cannot know how to develop a child's feelings unless we know it within ourselves.  Do we know how we feel? What is our inner state?  Do we know the difference between feelings and thinking?  In our culture, for the most part, the mind has usurped the capacity to feel deeply.  A really good guide for beginning to understand the difference between feelings and thoughts is to read material on Non-violent Communication, a system created by Marshall Rosenberg.  The best book I have found on it is Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.  You can find this book and other information at http://www.cnvc.org/.  To both recognize and communicate feelings, we need a feeling vocabulary.  At this link, there is a list of words that express feelings: http://www.cnvc.org/Training/feelings-inventory.  

But beyond this, we must learn to direct our attention deeper, and try to discover our own feeling life, which so often has become buried, shut off or negated since we were children.  This takes courage and patience, and a willingness to turn off the constant external inputs and distractions that barrage us and fill up any empty space or silence that might speak to us of who we are from within.  

What I have discovered about children is that they respond to feelings: to affection, to caring, to love.  What all children most need is love. This has everything to do with presence, and feeling what can be called the seed potential that exists in every child, and also in us.  Imagine looking at every child, and seeing into them, who they are, and relating to that when you engage them. It takes a certain kind of effort and intention that has to do with being in our own feelings.  It cannot happen mechanically, or from our minds - something more is required.  On a very practical level, with children, if we greet them with some kind of physical affection, whether a light touch or a hug, and we look them in the eye, we connect with them and take that moment to receive them exactly as they are, then we can begin to understand what it means to educate a child’s feelings.  This is how we make deeper contact, and it does not have to do with words.  Whether we are a teacher or a parent, this is how we come to know, to understand, and to educate children.  

Why is the education of the feelings first, before the education of the intellect?  It is in our feelings that we truly know something, because we experience it from within.  It is more than facts or information, it becomes important to us and has meaning, and information then has a place to connect.  We only truly know that which we experience.  As an example, at our school we spend time weekly in nature hiking, playing and we also go camping.  Our main goal is to allow children to develop a personal relationship to nature.  Go to this link to find out more: http://runningriver.org/philosophy/guiding-principles/teaching-through-nature/.  What we are doing is educating a child’s feelings toward nature, (which is also toward themselves). Children have great curiosity and want to know more, so then when facts about nature are given to the child they are connected to what is meaningful. When we combine intellectual information with experiences linked to feelings, real knowledge develops.  People with knowledge know how to think creatively, to solve problems and find solutions to the bigger questions that we are now faced with.  An example in this area would be the crucial problem of global warming. I don’t think that teaching young children about global warming is wise.  What can they do?  We only scare them and present them with information that makes the world look hopeless.  But if we begin by educating their feelings, then as they grow, give them the information, they are called to action from a deep place of love combined with a strong intellect.  This is what can bring about powerful change.

If we look back into our life, what had the most impact were experiences with feeling.  It is this feeling that informs us of the world, and also who we are.  For example, I taught U.S. history to our 5th-8th graders.  We planned a trip to Washington D.C. so we could get a fuller experience of some of our history.  One of the times we talked about was the Vietnam War.  I told them about it, we read, we watched a documentary, we listened to protest songs.  But I knew they didn’t get an inner experience until we visited the Wall and they saw all the names, and put their hands up and touched it, with all the hundreds of other people that were there that day, in hushed tones.  The architect/artist of the wall had been able to capture the loss of the soldiers in the wall, and when we stood and looked at it, and touched it, we were able to feel, not in our mind/thoughts, but in our being.  The last day we were there, one of the students asked me if we could go back there, so she and I went alone, and walked the wall, stopping to look and to touch.  There were no words between us, yet we were completely connected in our feelings.  

Of course the intellect needs to be educated. But educating the intellect without feeling is rote education, which is what most of education has become.  But we are also that way with children at home, lecturing, explaining, not stopping to find out how the child feels, or find some way to communicate our feelings, beyond words, but through our presence.  There are so many times a child comes to me and they don’t understand something I have taught.  I can try to explain again, or I can listen very closely and try to feel the child.  What would help them to understand?  If I slow down, listen, feel beneath their words into my deeper knowing of them, I am more likely to find a new way to help them understand and discover for themselves what I am teaching.  I was trying to teach addition up to 20 and had a child that could not remember her addition facts, try as she might.  When I really listened and watched, and tried to feel what she was feeling, and listen more deeply to what she was telling me, then I knew.  I was able to create a new way for her to learn, using beads on pipe cleaners, attached to a board, which was visible, and she started to remember her facts within a day!  Instead of being frustrated and responding from my mind, which could only think, “of course she can get this!”  I listened with my feelings and came to understand what she needed for who she was…the kind of learner she was.  

My friend recently told me a story. When she was 11 she used to shoplift with her friends at a local dime store (back in the 60s). One day her mom came to her and looked in her eyes and said, “I know you’re shoplifting.  I really want you to stop.”  Then she kissed her daughter on the lips, and then quietly walked away.  My friend said she stopped shoplifting that day, and never did it again.  They never talked about it.  Her mother reached her through her feelings, not through words or a lecture or punishment or all the other things you can imagine when trying to get someone to stop stealing.  It is feelings that reach the child, and the child learns and grows.  

This wouldn’t work for all children.  My friend’s mother knew how to reach her.  We have to listen and do our best to understand each child, and how to reach them to help them learn.  Love does not mean permissiveness. When a child knows they are loved, discipline does not become punishment or a negation of who they are.  It becomes guidance and direction, which is completely necessary.

Recently, we have had more parents coming to us and talking to us about children who very much relate to the world around them through their feelings.  They often don’t have words or explanations for their responses, beyond saying, it is just how they feel.  They don’t feel safe or comfortable, or they melt down for no reason.  The parents want an explanation, but the child cannot give one.  When these children come into an environment where they don’t have to explain themselves, and they aren’t being pressured to perform in a very particular manner, but can find other ways to express what they know, or even to ask more questions that are listened to, they start to relax, and express themselves more fully.  We are aware that some children have very sharp minds and learning comes easily to them, and we know about kinesthetic learners who need to move to learn, but not enough is understood about  children who learn from  feelings.  These children are deeply sensitive, and can sense the truth, or the contradictions behind words.  They see beneath the façade the world often presents, and honestly, they don’t like it. They reject it.  


Our culture places value on what can be quantified, like test scores or someone who is good with words.  Educating the feeling life of children places value on inner experience, which we cannot see, or quantify, and they do not have words for. What parents tell me they want most is for their children to accept who they are, trust themselves, have confidence. By placing our attention on this invisible dimension of living, we help children to trust what is within, thus they build their confidence in themselves.  The opposite is the result of our traditional, rote education: children who are educated to “fit in” and be disconnected from their true self.