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Parenting: Learning About Relationships

by Harald Breiding-Buss

Most of our lives revolve around relationships with others and managing social situations. They determine most of our successes or failures as well as how satisfied or otherwise we are in life. Our society places great importance and value in ‘communication skills’ and ‘networking’, meaning, essentially, the ability to make connections with people you don’t or barely know, and keeping in touch with those that are useful in one way or another.

That’s bad news for those of us who aren’t exactly social butterflies and who always feel somewhat uncomfortable in initiating new contacts or spending much time in crowds of people we don’t know very well.

As a result we push our children into such social situations from a very young age. Pre-schools and schools are generally places where children are around a large number of other children that frequently change, and whose families they do not usually have any other connection with. We encourage them to ‘make friends’ in a fairly random way and behave according to a set of certain social rules. Very often, our children fail our expectations, much to our despair.
We have to remember that being surrounded by large numbers of people we don’t know, and being asked to constantly form new relationships, is not a natural human trait. For most of our history we have been living in social groups that would rarely number more than a couple of hundred individuals. These would be groups we were born into, and our parents would already be well embedded in them. There was no particular need to make an active effort to form new relationships. They existed from the day we were born and no particularly great ‘social skills’ were required to be part of this group, or even to make it to a certain social status within the group. Our natural conditioning is to form deep and lasting relationships, but modern society requires superficial and very purpose-driven ones. It’s useful to be aware that coping in today’s social environment requires overcoming a lot of the social skills that have served us well in the past.

So it is not surprising that many children are not happy at all to be dropped off at pre-school, for example. A number of studies show that they usually have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol while there, indicating that this is a rather tough environment for them.

For example, small children are generally mistrustful of ‘strangers’, and parents are often embarrassed about a child that is ‘too shy’ and prefers to interact with that new person (even if it is another child) only by glancing sideways at them from the safety of dad’s arms. Often our response is to try to make them interact by using encouragement, bribes or simply refusing them our comforting arms or laps. Teaching our child to cope with unfamiliar people is important enough for us to ignore their discomfort and push them away from us a little.

Whether this is good or bad depends a lot on the child’s temperament and where they are in their development. Our present state of knowledge about early childhood development is that continuous ‘attachment’ to one or more caregivers is the essential ingredient in all learning up to the age of about two, and remains important for years after. ‘Attachment’ means that the child has one or more people it uses for comfort, guidance, protection and a number of other social needs without thinking. A just-two year old hiding behind your legs when faced with another two year old he’s never (or rarely) seen before is a sign of attachment. A child of the same age running smiling towards that new face may get a lot of proud smiles from the parents, but is probably a bit of a worry. And while an obstinate and tantruming two-year old can be an absolute nightmare for her parents, it is also a sign of the child’s secure attachment. A child that is not securely attached will not behave in this way: her own needs, desire and will are overridden by fear of abandonment. More often than not, the boys I’ve met at the Youth Unit in Christchurch prison would have been real crowd-pleasers at age two.

We’re all actors, but the longer we know a person the more we reveal ourselves. At childcare and school children generally learn to put the acting part to the fore, but it is at home and amongst family and close friends where children learn what makes relationships tick, that people continue to look out for each other even if the other person is boring, constantly sad, aggressive, shallow or a nuisance that we would otherwise simply avoid.

To survive in today’s world it is essential that we train our children to cope in (and hopefully even enjoy) social situations with a lot of unfamiliar people in it, and pre-schools and schools are at least fairly safe places to do this. However, it is also essential that we have a social environment at home that consists of deeper relationships, both with family and friends, which our children are a part of because they belong, not because of how they behave or act.

Next: Men’s Health – Shaken

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