Do We Overvalue Children’s Cognitive Development Over Their Emotional Development?

Is it better for a child to be emotionally secure or have a thousand word vocabulary at 4?


Parents have become obsessed with how many words their child knows by the age of 18 months, how quickly they can read and recite their alphabet, how quickly they can add and subtract and have lost sight of the most important development which is their child’s ability to relate to others, to feel secure and to be able to manage their emotions.

Flash cards and encouraging children to read at a young age so they can get into a good preschool, so they can advance in primary school to go to a great college has replaced imaginary play, artistic expression and “being” with your children without imposing on them the pressure of having to achieve.

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What good is it if you have all the academic or professional success in the world but cannot regulate your emotions, relate to others, sustain deep connections and feel empathy for those around you.

We live in a world which promotes achievement and academic success over self-esteem and often gets academic success and achievement of all kinds confused with self-esteem. Self-esteem is the ability to feel good about yourself in spite of your failures not because of your accomplishments. This over-emphasis on high achievement as a sign of having raised successful children is as the expression goes “missing the forest for the trees”.

Parents often confuse their own happiness with work achievement and success; overvaluing their work as the core of their identity rather than how well and how deeply they relate to and connect with the people in their lives who they love.

This overvaluing of cognitive abilities is adopted by children who in trying to please these same parents will accommodate to their parents’ expectations. However, when children develop their cognitive abilities before they develop their social-emotional abilities there is usually a price to pay. The brain is a flexible and plastic organ which can grow and shrink according to stimulation and neglect. However, it is much harder for the right brain to catch up if a parents’ focus has been singularly on their child’s intellect.

A child develops a healthy sense of themselves in the world through the intimate and interactive relationship with their mothers. Mothers lend their egos to their children in these early years and teach children how to regulate their emotions and to relate to others. It is through a mother reflecting her baby’s emotions, physical affection and playful and loving interaction that a child builds a secure sense of self which helps that child to feel connected and connect to their peers going forward.

It is often not until preschool that children start to show signs of stress due to left brain development before right brain development. These children are very smart, often very verbal and precocious cognitively, many can read but may have difficulty relating to their peers or participating in imaginary play, sometimes feeling a sense of isolation and frustration due to their inability to relate to children their own age. They struggle in circle time and often are quick to get angry and express aggressive feelings they cannot control.

Play based preschools have always focused on the importance of social-emotional development for the mental health of a children asserting that cognitive and intellectual development happens in good time when a child feels secure and can relate to others. However, by the time these children get to preschool they are already out of balance and the struggle to get back in balance is a painful one for them and their parents.

The other important by product of a family which emphasizes precocious cognitive development and high achievement is a harsh and critical interior. Every child and in fact every adult has voices inside which are loving, calming, soothing and supportive like a good enough mother, or are critical and judgmental like a harsh parent. In fact, we all have both kinds of voices inside, but a healthy child hears overwhelmingly a tolerant, loving and patient voice rather than a rejecting and harsh one.By focusing on a child’s achievements it strengthens the harsh voices and drowns out the accepting, loving ones.

All in all, as Ram Das in his book “Journey to Awakening” says, the benefits of focusing on “being” with your children rather than encouraging them to “do” great things strengthens their sense of self, builds their inner resources and gives them the best foundation in life to be successful.


Erica Komisar is a veteran psychoanalyst and parent-coach who has been in private practice for 25 years. A graduate of Georgetown and Columbia Universities and The New York Freudian Society, Ms Komisar is a psychological consultant bringing parenting and work/life workshops to clinics, schools, corporations and childcare settings including The Garden House School, Goldman Sachs, Shearman and Sterling and SWFS Early Childhood Center. She lives is New York City with her husband, optometrist and social entrepreneur Dr. Jordan Kassalow, and their three teenage children.

Her book, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters will be published in April 2017 by Penguin Random House. Follow her on Twitter @EricaKomisarCSW.