The impulse is to keep them close forever. It took quite a long time and a fair amount of discomfort (okay, lots of discomfort) to make them, so it’s understandable that I’d want to keep them near me. Not forever, just for whatever the closest period of time is next to forever. Almost forever. Practically forever. That’s the amount of time I’d like to keep them close.
My children, shockingly, seem less keen on this idea, which is strange considering how much of my body, soul, time, and energy they feel they safely own. They’re interested in increasing the amount of time they spend exploring the opportunities of the world. I, on the other hand, feel less exuberant about awkward small talk, contracting salmonella from a reptile petting zoo, and attending events at which the only vegetarian option is chips. (Actually I’m pretty happy about that, I just probably shouldn’t be.) So while I thought briefly about duct taping them around my body again and proclaiming a second gestation period, it seemed like a wise idea to let them go. A bit. With people I trust. After an intensive training course.
As it turned out, research agrees with me.
A recent study conducted by Yale University has found that links outside the home can improve children’s resilience, in particular by providing some protection from adverse events in childhood. Adverse events in childhood, such as experiencing a death in the family, divorce, neglect, or abuse, increase the chances of mental illness or substance abuse developing in the individual as an adult. (The researchers also looked at children who experienced socioeconomic hardship and discrimination.)
The results indicated that, despite some children experiencing three or more adverse events, those who had higher rates of engagement within their community continued to thrive. This suggests that time away from home can be a protective factor for kids. Strong relationships in a community and a supportive network can help children bounce back from adverse events and provide them with a sense of their own resilience.
While we may want to protect our children from stress in life, perhaps a more helpful thing to do is provide them with the knowledge that they’re capable of recovering from stress and finding solutions, and ultimately thriving. Crucially, this ability to thrive isn’t achieved in isolation, it requires a community and positive relationships. The goal isn’t to throw children out into the world with a “You can do it if you believe you can!” sans any legitimate back-up, but to teach children how to build support networks with people who truly have their backs.
A strong, healthy relationship with a loving adult can provide a child with a blueprint for future relationships. Supportive relationships help a brain flooded with stress chemicals to find some peace. The ability to both find someone you trust and accept their love and support is a vital coping skill in life, and one that should be practiced from a young age. Children can form supportive relationships with many people in their lives; relatives, friends, and teachers can all become a child’s support network, and it’s one of the best gifts a child can have.
Dr. Kwong, the author of the study, puts it this way: “Positive social connections appear to help youth define individual identities, provide them with a sense of belonging and attachment, and offer important opportunities to learn healthy adaptive responses to adverse experiences.”
Parents can sponsor strong relationships between their child and others. Children may not always realize how much support they have, so it’s up to parents to point this out to them and involve those people in their lives. This can be as simple as saying, “You put so much work into that drawing! I’m going to show Grandma, she’ll love it!” This lets your kid know that there are others in his life that care about him and are interested in the minutia of his day.
Sending my eldest kid off to talk about dinosaurs with my aunt instead of me was a win/win: he gets to share his passion with others and build a connection, and I get a chance to re-charge without listening to his variety of roars. While I am less than enthusiastic about making cupcakes with my over-excited children, they have other people in their lives that think acting out the Humpty-Dumpty song with a real egg is an adorable way to cook. Let other people take your kid to the park. If he gets hurt and you’re not there, he’ll learn that other people can treat a skinned knee and hug away tears.
Spending time outside the home in the community or with other people, gives children an opportunity to expand on their social skills and develop new capabilities. For a child, practicing how to ask other people for what she wants or needs can be a great building block for assertiveness later on in life. Also, learning that others can say “No” and how to adjust her expectations can be a healthy way for her to learn about boundaries. Encouraging kids to try new things and have experiences with people who we trust gives them more opportunities for building skills they’ll need the rest of their lives.
It really does take a village to raise a child, not just for the benefit of giving caregivers a break, but to teach children how to be a part of the world. Giving kids the opportunity to try new things in their community and to build relationships with others who love them as much as you do teaches our kids that they are capable.
Building resilience is not about being independent, it’s about having connections. Help your child build his social support network, let him make mistakes and figure out how to fix them. Let him build his belief in himself as a strong capable kid who can take on the world. You never know, with the right people behind him, your child just might.