Help Kids Be Relational Thermostats

“He made me feel bad!” wailed my son after telling me how a friend chose a different playmate at recess. “He promised to play with me and then he didn’t. Why did he have to be so mean?” In his words, I heard pain and frustration, as well as his perception that he lacked any power to change the situation.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about the difference between being a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer lacks the power to do anything but report the temperature. But a thermostat is able to change and regulate how things feel. When we teach children to be more like thermostats than thermometers, we empower them to make a difference in their environment.

Learning to recognize and manage one’s emotions is an important developmental task. Sometimes, however, children can get caught up in the idea that emotions are something that happen to them rather than feelings they can regulate. They may not realize that they and everyone around them can – like a thermostat – shift the emotional climate of a family or group through their own choices.

Parents and caregivers can help by modeling a thermostat-like mindset. When we experience emotional setbacks, we can own our feelings by using language such as “I feel upset/sad/frustrated/hurt” rather than saying that something “makes’ us feel that way. We can also share what we plan to do to shift ourselves into a more pleasant state. We might say, “I think I’ll do some yoga poses to settle down” or “I’m going to call a friend to talk about happier things”.

Reinforcing prosocial skills can also help kids think and act more like a relational thermostat. We can encourage empathy for others, which motivates children to see things from alternative perspectives and act in caring ways. One approach is to develop a simple family service project, such as inviting children to select canned goods for a food pantry while grocery shopping or to spend time with an elderly neighbor weekly.

We can promote practices of cooperation and kindness as well, which create a positive environment for everyone. Point out examples of both around you. Challenge children to identify activities that work better when people cooperate and reinforce their collaborative efforts. Brainstorm a list of kind actions and invite kids to pick one or more to do each day. 

Cultivating gratitude for others and how they support us is useful too. It can be easy for children (and adults) to forget that no one moves through life without help. We tend to focus on our own efforts or take others for granted. Help kids break this pattern by encouraging them to watch for opportunities to say ‘thank you’. Suggest that they set a daily ‘gratitude goal’ of 5, 10, or 15 sincere expressions of appreciation.



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