Everywhere we turn we hear of new discoveries in infant brain development. No longer do we believe that an infant is a “blank slate” waiting to be written upon. Although research has not yet revealed all the mysteries of the infant brain, we do know that infants are wired for attachment to the significant adults in their life. This attachment is critical to an infant’s survival and well being. Several years ago, a Carnegie Corporation report called “Starting Points” stated, “For healthy development, infants and toddlers need a continuing relationship with a few caring people, beginning with their parents and later including other childcare providers. If this contact is substantial and consistent, young children can form trusting attachments that are needed for healthy development.”
What does this statement mean in every day, practical terms, and how do parents assure that the attachment process takes place? One phrase in this statement offers the key to healthy attachment – contact should be substantial and consistent. Substantial contact means that the infant needs more than a few hours a day with their parents. An infant requires time to look into the eyes of adoring parents; huge amounts of holding, cuddling, and cooing; and adults who can respond immediately to their cry. Consistent contact helps an infant develop trust – a person will always be there to meet his or her needs, no matter what else happens in life.
Sometimes we forget that attachment is a two-way process. Not only do infants bond with their parents, but parents also bond with their infant. This attachment, however, is not as automatic or instinctual, as we once believed. If parents do not take the time to gaze adoringly into their child’s eyes; respond to his or her needs; or simply hold, cuddle, and talk “motherese,” the special language of parents and infants, attachment may be weak or faulty.
Another important word in the “Starting Points” report is “later.” Bonding begins with parents and only later does it include others. As a child grows, the sense of the trust that comes from healthy attachment allows him or her to bond with family members and relatives. The role of the family is to nurture and protect, but later, the family is also there to socialize. In the past, society supported families, but today’s society threatens families. Families are now isolated: relatives may be thousands of miles away; young and old live in segregated communities; neighbors barely notice each other; children live with only one parent; and caregivers change from day to day.
Modern parents spend 40 percent less time with their children then their parents did in the 1950s.As a result, children learn their values from TV (kids spend more time watching TV than interacting with their parents.).
Ideas to Strengthen the Family
In The Shelter of Each Other, Mary Pipher suggests some ways to cement the bonds of infancy and strengthen the family.
1. Give your children more time. Set aside a daily meal, a family day, or time before bed to reconnect with your children. Turn off the TV and explore family interests, activities, and rituals.
2. Find places that bring your family together. Choose places where your family feels cozy, safe, and connected. Examples might include the front porch, a nearby park, a mountain trail, a fishing pond, a museum, a ball field, or a pizza parlor.
3. Do things together. Play music, dance, collect stamps, grow flowers, groom pets, play sports, work for charity, attend religious services, and do it all as a family.
4. Celebrate! Assemble the generations for national holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and personal achievements. Send cards, phone, make videos, and take pictures.
5. Start rituals. Hold a family reunion, interview elders, record your family history, and include your children in stories (not gossip) about relatives and friends.
6. Show family videos. Look at photo albums and recall memorable events, adventures, and family trips. Talk about Aunt Jane’s famous apple pie and retell grandpa’s favorite story.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.