6. The Role of Emotions
Emotions are an important part of children’s cognitive development, but if emotions become overwhelming they can be counterproductive. Parents should help their children learn how to express their feelings calmly and prevent emotions from becoming a distraction.
Understanding the role of emotions in
the development of critical thinking
Although young children may develop skills in language and argument, and benefit from a level of self-esteem allowing them to stand their ground and explore the unknown, the development of their critical faculties will still be limited if they haven’t learned how to manage their emotions.
Emotions appear in a part of the brain called the limbic system, which is very old in terms of human evolution. This system develops automatically at a very early stage. But very quickly, children experience the need to rein in the spontaneous and unrestricted expression of their emotions. These emotions are, of course, closely connected to basic relations to others (and initially most often to one’s parents) and to cultural norms.
The prefrontal lobe contains the greatest number of neural networks that simultaneously regulate the scope of conscious emotions and their expression in verbal and non-verbal language, as well as in behavior. From the age of five or six, children start their first year of primary school, where, forced to sit for hours on end each day, they must listen to a curriculum designed more around societal needs and expectations than around the desires and emotions of children. Frontal lobe development enables the inhibition of urges and the management of emotions, two prerequisites for intellectual learning and for feelings of belonging in family and society.
The ability to manage emotions has a two-fold constructive impact on the development of children’s critical faculties. First, it enables children to override their emotions, so they may focus their attention and concentrate. This is essential for both cognitive development in general and their argumentative, logical, and critical skills.
Management of emotions also allows us to feel settled and to convince and influence others when we speak. Paradoxically, children learn that, by managing their emotions (which is initially experienced as repression), they can have an impact on their peers, make themselves understood, and even be emulated. The pleasure they derive from this reinforces the balance between spontaneity and control, and both pleasure in self-expression and respect for others will increase. Self-esteem will therefore progress, also allowing the child to assert his or her will.
Development of the critical faculties will benefit from a heightened level of self-esteem. But it’s important to remember that this is a balancing act.
If family or social pressures excessively inhibit emotional expression, feelings of uniqueness and self-worth are compromised. In this case, even with otherwise normal (and even excellent) cognitive development, children’s critical faculties can be impeded. A child won’t truly become an individual and the development of his or her critical faculties will therefore be stunted. Such a child is like a mere cell, rather than a whole organ. This lack of individuality is found in the social conventions and education systems established by totalitarian regimes. Highly intelligent, cultured, logical people can, under such regimes, remain devoid of critical thinking skills.
Emotion is the psychological motor of cognition. But in high and uncontrolled doses, emotion can override cognition.
Conversely, if children’s emotions and expressions of emotion are badly managed or not curtailed at all, they will come to see themselves as almost omnipotent. The consequent behavior will be mistaken for high self-esteem. In reality, cognitive and intellectual development will be dampened due to a lower attention span caused by poor emotional management. Logical and argumentative skills will be less developed and what may appear to be “critical” thinking will, in fact, be nothing more than a systematic, unthinking opposition to everything.
Critical thinking without cognitive and intellectual development does not truly exist. Real, constructive critical thinking requires listening, attention, concentration, and the organization of one’s thoughts. The development of these faculties itself requires good emotional management, which must intensify from around the age of five or six, in order to strengthen learning skills and social life. Above all, parents should not try to snuff out a child’s emotions. Emotions are what give children vital energy, the desire to learn, and the strength to exercise self-control. Emotion is the psychological motor of cognition. But in high and uncontrolled doses, emotion can override cognition.