A couple of years ago, I published an article entitled “The Essential Elements for Effective Parenting.” In the article, I contended (based on research and experience) that beyond any techniques, skills, or intent, there are three essential elements that determine how effective we will be as parents. These elements are emotional regulation, empathy, and endurance, all of which affect each other. The more we improve in these areas, the more likely we will succeed in our parental endeavors; the more we struggle in one or more, the less effective parents we will be.
Since writing this article, I have continued to reflect further on these elements, which has led me to believe that not only are these three foundations essential for parenting, they are essential for, well, so much of what we desire. Want to achieve your goals? Making connections with others, finding regular sources of energy, and managing the highs and lows of life are all vital. Want to have a good, supportive group of friends? Coming to truly understand others, regulating your reactions toward them, and enduring some difficult and uncomfortable situations are necessary. Want to learn how to manage stressors, deal with unexpected obstacles, even be successful in your career? Yep, it once again starts with the 3 E’s. Like it or not, so much of what we desire comes right back to these essential elements.
The bad news for some is that they are not necessarily afforded good models or direction early in life, when these characteristics are first taught, and emerge as predictors of short and long-term outcomes. Take, for example, emotional regulation. Research has indicated that there are three characteristics measured during the preschool years that can predict all sorts of adult outcomes: intelligence, socioeconomic status (income/resources), and self-control, which is closely related to emotional regulation. The former two characteristics are very hard to change. But research has indicated that the last attribute, self-control, can be altered at any point (although it is most easily done in childhood). When this happens for the better, all sorts of outcomes (such as relationship status, legal risks, and financial status) improve over the lifespan.
The same goes for the other two elements: endurance and empathy. In short, empathy is putting “yourself in another person’s shoes”—really trying to understand their position and perspective. In regard to empathy, evidence indicates that we cannot force another individual to “feel” empathy, but we can teach skills of empathic processing. Whether it happens in a kindergarten classroom or a workplace boardroom, human beings can gain a perspective on another person’s plight, which can ultimately lead to positive internal and external changes. In regard to endurance, people often think of physical fitness, which can always be improved. Fauja Singh is the world’s oldest distance runner, having run a marathon at the age of 100; his marathon career started a little later than most―at the age of 89. But he like many has proven that it is never too late to build greater endurance. Beyond physical stamina, I am also speaking of psychological, social, and even spiritual endurance. Each interrelated type is critically important to self-improvement, but all take intentional efforts to improve.
A couple of years ago, the city of Evansville introduced a new branding: “E is for Everyone.” As noted on the website, “Our mission is to create a platform where everyone can connect with someone or something new, find a unique way to contribute to the community, and celebrate together what makes our region great. The primary goal is to generate and elevate a positive perception of the Evansville region.”
It is a wonderful initiative, as it emphasizes that no matter how different we might feel from others, there are always opportunities to connect with each other and contribute to our community, where so many of us are raising the next generation. It also speaks of virtues that research has indicated cut across all cultures, communities, creeds, and climates. This includes the six primary virtues of wisdom, courage, humanity, transcendence, justice, and moderation, which include 24 character strengths. No matter what gender, race, age, orientation, or religion you embrace, these remain virtues we desire.
Yet I would argue that in order for the “E is for Everyone” initiative to be successful, we as a community must find ways to embrace greater capacity-building in those three essential elements you read about above. Want to truly establish relationships with those who seem different from you? Well, we must really aspire to empathize with their past and present experiences, endure some awkward conversations, and moderate our instinctive (often implicitly-biased prejudices). Want to work together to improve our educational system, or the utilities infrastructure, or improve the health in this area? Well, I think you get the point by now.
Ultimately, I would argue that “E for Everyone” only works if the three E’s―empathy, emotional regulation, and endurance―become an explicit part of this initiative, and a part of everything that we do. From the earliest ages, we should be teaching our kids, our parents, our teachers, our professionals, and everyone else in between the incredible promise that comes when we as individuals and a community collectively embrace these three E’s together. There is a ton of research to support this endeavor, and it is the juncture at which good intent unites with even better outcomes. For all the physical structures that are being currently built in this area, nothing would rival the incredible power this type of capacity-building could render for everything, everyone, everywhere, starting here in this great city of Evansville, Indiana.