What does all this mean for our children? The kinds of relationships they experience will lay the groundwork for how they relate to others for the rest of their lives. In other words, how well they’ll be able to use their mindsight to participate in a “we” and join with others down the road is based on the quality of their attachment relationships with their caregivers—including parents and grandparents, but also significant babysitters, teachers, peers, and other influential people in their lives.
When kids spend time with the most important people in their life, they develop important relational skills like communicating and listening well, interpreting facial expressions, understanding nonverbal communication, sharing, and sacrificing. But also, in relationships, children develop models about how they themselves fit into the world around them, and how relationships work. They learn whether they can trust others to see and respond to their needs, and whether they feel connected and protected enough to step out and take risks. In short, they learn whether relationships will leave them feeling alone and unseen; anxious and confused; or felt, understood, and securely cared for.
Think of a newborn. A baby is born ready to connect, ready to link what she sees in others with what she does and with what she feels inside. But what if those others are only rarely attuned to what she needs? What if, more often than not, her parents are unavailable and rejecting? Then confusion and frustration will initially permeate the child’s mind. Without intimate moments of consistent connection with her caregivers, she may grow up without mindsight, without an understanding of the importance of joining with someone else. We learn early in life to use our connections with reliable others to soothe our internal distress. This is the basis of secure attachment. But if we aren’t given such nurturing, our brain will need to adapt and do the best it can. Children can learn to “go it alone” in an effort to soothe themselves as best they can. The relational, emotional circuitry of this child’s brain, which needs closeness and connection that are not being offered to her, may completely shut down as a way of adapting. This is how the social brain shuts down its innate drive for connection just to survive. However, if her parents can learn to show her consistent, predictable love and attunement, she will develop mindsight and live up to the relational potential her brain has been wired for.
It’s not just parents who create the strategies of adaptation—or mental models—for how children view relationships. Think about what your children are learning from their relationships with various caregivers, like the coach who emphasizes the importance of working together and making sacrifices for teammates. Or the aunt who is hypercritical, who teaches that a central part of a relationship involves disapproval and finding fault. Or the classmate who views all relationships through the lens of competition, seeing everyone as a rival or adversary. Or the teacher who emphasizes kindness and mutual respect and models compassion in her interactions with the children in her class.
All of these different relational experiences wire a child’s brain for what a “we” feels like. Remember that the brain uses repeated experiences or associations to predict what to expect. When relationships are cold and people are essentially distant, critical, or competitive, that influences what the child expects relationships to feel like. On the other hand, if the child experiences relationships full of nurturing warmth, connection, and protection, then that will become the model for future relationships—with friends, with other members of various communities, and eventually with romantic partners and their own children.
It’s really not an exaggeration to say that the kind of relationships you provide for your children will affect generations to come. We can impact the future of the world by caring well for our children and by being intentional in giving them the kinds of relationships that we value and that we want them to see as normal.