Another thing that encourages resiliency in kids is having a large network of caretakers and social support to draw from.
The Shrinking of Community & Dwindling Social Support for Children
Our modern society has come at a significant cost. While we have all kinds of fancy gadgets and gizmos, there have been numerous trade-offs in other areas. One of the greatest of these costs has been the shrinking of community. Over the last several hundred years, children and families have grown ever more isolated from each other.
The roots of humanity trace back to communal living. Children were reared in small but interconnected societies; think 30 or 40 huts in a close-knit village. Children had parents, but they also had a number of other adults who actively participated in childrearing. Grandma or grandpa lived in the hut next door, and children could walk 40 feet and spend as much time as they pleased with another cherished adult. They were allowed to freely roam around, garnering instruction and affection from whomever was willing to give it to them. Raising children was a community effort, and children could derive comfort and affection from any number of surrogate caretakers.
Fast forward to today. We’ve migrated to suburban McMansions, in homes that tend to suck us within rather than getting us out in the community. We believe that good fences make for good neighbors. Grandparents and other relatives often live several hundred miles and several states away, visiting maybe once or twice a year, if that. Our jobs and careers frequently keep us on the move. If parents divorce, it rips the child’s world apart. If you need child care, whether getting a babysitter or finding a child care center, you must now take great steps to arrange it. Irrational fears about things like molestation are driving parents to be suspicious of all outside affection a child receives. Parenting has been turned into a contest and career pursuit as well; to the point that we’re so neurotically possessive of our children we frequently become agitated over the slightest variance in caretaking by others.
Even having a child share affection with another adult makes many parents a bit uncomfortable and insecure. Children have become less their own person than a product to be put on display. We’re so disconnected and self-absorbed that we have problems with children being severely neglected, starved to death or beaten to death in homes that could be right nextdoor to ours, all while we remain completely oblivious that such things are going on. This is an entirely modern problem – and something that would rarely happen amongst our communal heritage. Bad parents would exist then, too, but such children would have merely been informally adopted by others in the community, who would have fed them, shown them affection and provided a surrogate home(s) to withdraw to in order to escape a parent’s ire. Today we put dozens of legal and social barriers in the way of such surrogate caretaking. For all of our technology, children and families are more isolated and lacking in resources today than they have ever been at any other time in human history.
Why Children need a larger support family
This shrinking of community has brought about many unhealthy consequences for children, several of which are pertinent when it comes to issues related to a child’s welfare and resiliency:
A) It limits the number of attachments a child forms
Modern society has vastly diminished the number of healthy, loving attachments a child has access to. Today, between a third and one-half of all children are born into single-parent families and are being raised by a single primary caretaker, with support from others coming sporadically or inconsistently, if at all. What happens if something happens to this caretaker? It’s a question pertinent not just to childhood, but to adult life as well. If children have known only one source of consistent love and comfort throughout their life, and you take this person away, it’s a much more catastrophic event than it would be for someone who grew up with many involved caretakers.
This deficit can apply not just to single parents or divorced households where the other parent is largely absent, but dysfunctional two-parent families as well. If a child has a loving mother but a verbally abusive or neurotic father whose only interaction with the kids is to criticize them, that child essentially has a single healthy attachment; only one source of support, encouragement, love, and comfort. Just like it’s best not to put all your eggs in a single basket, the more healthy attachments and positive, affectionate, involved adults a child has in their life, the better. This is why we should all try to broaden the support networks of our children. It may stoke a parent’s ego when they are the only person the child truly loves and depends on, but it’s not a very advantageous situation for the kid.
B) It reduces exposure to the personalities of others
Having a large number of surrogate caretakers also exposes children to a large number of personalities, perceptions, and viewpoints. This serves as a protective factor in a couple of ways:
- It expands the child’s flexibility when it comes to perceptions or belief systems, which as we discuss in our eBook, is an important factor for resiliency in life.
- This greater exposure also provides a protective barrier against parental pathology, which is one of the most overlooked and widely ignored sources of harm to children. Today, we have an enormous number of adults carrying around the destructive complexes of their parents; everything from personal insecurities to wholesale personality disorders. And we’re not just talking about protecting children from the effects of the most serious cases of psychotic parents, either. Studies reveal that even seemingly subtle parental deficiencies, such as narcissistic parenting, are more predictive of harm to the child than molestation, and are on par with things like physical abuse or chronic-incest. (Moor, 1993) How can this be? Because success in life is less about the experiences we endure than it is the attitudes and cognitive mindset we bring to our interactions with the world. (More on this is discussed in our publication: The Healing Mind) It’s a proven fact that having a depressed parent can be as harmful to a child as living in an abusive home, because the negative “cognitive style” of the depressed parent is absorbed by children. (See our book: Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison) Also, because children tend to be exposed to these negative variables consistently over time, it can amplify the effect and have a larger impact overall on the child’s welfare than more isolated negative events.
Although children have always absorbed everything in their environment, our more isolated and divided families combined with less involved neighbors means that when negative parental pathology is present, the effect is more pronounced. There is little if any counterweight to this pathology; the child absorbs the neurotic environment and unhealthy ways of thinking or socializing without any checks or balances against such negativity. Once again, having a large number of caretakers serves as a protective factor against this. Children are less likely to absorb parental complexes as their default mode of social functioning when they have five or six active caretakers, as opposed to one or two. They can absorb the best traits from each individual, while being less vulnerable to the not-so-desirable attributes that each of us uniquely carries as a person. Negative traits are less likely to be internalized when one has positive models to compare them to. But when children are socialized around an isolated negative cognitive style, they learn to interpret the world through this distorted lens.
Essentially, variety in caretakers works just like variety in genes: the more diversity, the better. Unfortunately, out modern society has resulted in most children being psychologically in-bred.
C) It reduces social intelligence
This more limited interaction with other caretakers also diminishes a child’s social competence. A child who grows up regularly interacting with mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, affectionate neighbors, aunts and uncles, and involved child care providers will learn what makes each one tick. They’ll learn what makes grandpa happy and what scares Aunt Mable. That Uncle Jake likes snakes but Grandma runs from them. That it’s best to deal with mom in a certain way but dad in another. That some people get angry and call names when they are mad, while others take time to cool off and then talk it out calmly, which seems to work better. Thus, such a child with a wealth of human interaction will grow up a more sociable and socially intelligent child, with a greater repertoire of interpersonal skills.
D) It limits human capital
This shrinking of community also limits what social psychologists refer to as ‘human capital.’ Human capital is a way of saying that humans themselves can provide a child with many resources and opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For example, human beings interact in networks. One detrimental aspect of growing up with a single parent is that you lose the social capital a father might otherwise provide: Knowledge, skills, and his own network of friends with their own knowledge and skills. Researchers have found a sizeable difference in available employment opportunities between single parent kids and those in two-parent households, simply because having a father around (with all of that father’s potential associates in different careers) can help a child get their foot in the door with a new job opportunity. (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994) Lacking this network of potential contacts and opportunities, children in single-parent households will make less as adults and are unemployed more often.
Human capital can also mean having someone to help you move, or knowing someone who knows about cars and can help you purchase a used one or keep you from getting ripped off by a mechanic. It can mean assistance when your computer freezes up or insight about the best way to go about asking a girl out on a date. It can mean thousands of other everyday things that we often take for granted, but which in combination can make a large difference in our overall welfare.
This ‘human capital’ concept extends beyond missing fathers. In all human societies, social connections matter. They mean more cumulative knowledge and more resources in life’s day-to-day navigation. Those children who grow up with many involved adults will tend to have more support and a greater buffer against adversity throughout life.
How to Broaden Your Child’s Support Network
Surrounding your child with loving adults isn’t as simple as flipping a switch and making it happen. It may be impractical to move closer to family, and we’re not going to go back to communal living anytime soon. Building a support network is a process which doesn’t happen overnight, nor is it something that can be forced. The most important part is that you know how important it can be, so that you’re looking for opportunities to make it happen and can snatch them up as they arise. With that in mind, here are some tips for broadening your child’s social support:
Don’t be a neurotic parent
Often times the biggest barrier to expanding a child’s social network are the parents themselves. We’ve encountered many mothers who even actively sabotage a father’s involvement because they see it as a threat to their motherhood. If this is you, stop that, and get over yourself. The great thing about children is that they have an unlimited supply of love to give. It’s a well that never runs dry. So even though it may feel strange at first if your child enjoys the company of someone else or runs to dad instead of you for comfort, don’t let your ego trick you into believing that this is a bad thing. It doesn’t mean they love you any less. A child’s love is not relativistic.
If someone doesn’t do things precisely as you would have, so what? Children are able to weather such idiosyncrasies with ease, and such nitpicking is usually the sign of an overprotective parent, which, by the way, can be just as harmful to children over the long haul as abuse or some of the other things you might worry about. So relax. Parenting is a matter of a million different things coming together that generally point in the proper direction, not a script that must be religiously followed like a schematic design for space flight, lest any deviation render a child ruined. Someone who doesn’t do things precisely like you is exactly what we want, and it’s exactly what your kids need. Diversity in caretaking is a healthy thing; something to cherish and not something to be intimidated by.
Make childrearing a community effort
If you have long-time friends, try to get them involved with your children. Not just in the standard incidental exchanges, but in more intimate ways as well. Have them help you put the kids to bed if they’re staying over; look for opportunities when they can watch the kids or do something special with them; or invite them along on some family excursions. If you explain to a close friend that you want to help your kids become comfortable with receiving support from different people, a type of godmother or godfather situation, most will be more than happy to oblige, and won’t see it as you shuffling off your kid for free day care.
Other family members such as aunts, uncles, or grandparents can be an even better resource for your kids, because unlike friends, family is stable. Your child’s aunt will always be her aunt. Look for ways to get family involved as surrogate caretakers, and keep these things in mind when considering major life transitions such as moves.
Just remember that building up close attachments that may suddenly be broken IS NOT healthy for a child. So you shouldn’t go around trying to get your kids attached to every person you date unless you’re fairly certain the relationship will stay relatively stable. Also remember that while strong, long-term attachments are ideal, even an assortment of secondary, less-involved attachments can benefit a child by exposing them to other people and improving social skills.
Build secondary attachments
Social connections don’t have to be primary ones to benefit a child. Secondary attachments such as those that are formed between teacher and child or coach and child are important too. So find out what your child’s interests are, and then look at what programs there are in your area to nurture those passions. Organized sports, karate or dance lessons, and other extra-curricular interests can all be great ways to expand your child’s social circle, both with kids and other adults. If you’re in the position that your child qualifies for a big brother or a big sister program, consider it as an option. Get them involved in church groups. Whatever ways you can find to expose them to people with different personalities and interests, do so.