The Foundation for Every Community
Healthy relationships are essential to our future. Without them, the hope of creating strong households and communities will not be realized.
Over the past decade, dozens of scholars have been monitoring and investigating our culture’s relational status. In the publication Hardwired to Connect, a compelling case is made, based on biological and social evidence, that the development of healthy relationships and environments to form those relationships are fundamental to our future.
Scientific evidence suggests that in the early stages of life the brain is primed and ready to be shaped by close attachments to other people, notably our mothers, fathers, and extended family. Dr. Allan Schore of the UCLA School of Medicine writes, “We were born to form attachments, and our brains are physically wired to develop in the context of a relationship with another. This relational context can be growth-facilitating or growth-inhibiting, and so it imprints into the developing right brain either a resilience against or a vulnerability to later forming psychiatric disorders.”
The need to develop a young child’s relational and emotional capacity cannot be underestimated. Not only does this aid in the development of their right brain, which provides a reservoir of strength for a child to tap into when they mature and face challenging life situations, but as anthropologist Sarah Hrdy notes, children develop attachments instinctively. Further, this drive provides the crucial foundation for the emergence of conscience and moral meaning.
Barbara Stilwell concluded that this process is set in place during infancy: “Very early in development, infant attachment and parent bonding interact to form a security-empathy-oughtness representation within a child’s mind. Physiological feelings associated with security and insecurity combine with intuitively perceived, emotionally-toned messages that certain behaviors are parent-pleasing or non-pleasing; prohibited, permitted, or encouraged; while other behaviors gain no attention at all. A bedrock value for human connectedness (read relationship) guides the child’s readiness to behave in response to parent wishes and attentiveness.”
If the drive and need for relational attachments are ignored, it can result in a stream of negative outcomes. Attachment expert Robert Karen notes that when children in a study were deprived of relational attachments they lived with superficiality in other relationships, had a poverty of feeling for others, were inaccessible, were lacking in emotional responses, and had difficulty concentrating in school.
As Hardwired to Connect concludes, “Our sense of right and wrong originates largely from our biologically primed need to connect with others. In this sense, moral behavior—good actions—stem at least as much from relationships as from rules. Thwarting a child’s need for close attachments to others also thwarts basic moral development, the social consequences of which can be stark and tragic.”
As children develop, the realities of their relational assets or deficits become obvious. By adolescence one in every four teens is at serious risk of not achieving a productive adulthood. The failure to attend to the relational and emotional needs of a child places them in a vulnerable state. Such was the case of John, an 18-yearold Caucasian male who was recently murdered by his peers. John slipped into depression between his junior and senior years of high school. Even though he was quickly diagnosed with a mental disorder and was showing signs of improvement, John’s peers used this situation to prey on their weak classmate. They coaxed a fragile young man into an unhealthy environment where they ridiculed his condition and then took his life with no remorse. Now the four perpetrators—teenagers—are sitting in jail wondering how they got there.
We are not talking simply about an increase in crime, juvenile delinquency, or a loss of revenue due to our failure to achieve our potential through our relational stiltedness. It is much more subtle and insidious. We are beginning to see anomie (disconnectedness), epidemic rates of anxiety, depression, conduct disorders, suicide, and other serious disorders emerge at a rate that challenges our ability to deliver help.
Scholars at the National Research Council project that more than 25 percent of the adolescents currently living in the United States may not achieve a productive adulthood. This sobering statistic, coupled with the costs of family fracture, yields a bleak picture of the relational health of our youth and nation.
How can we distill this knowledge into practical information for moms and dads? First, the home and household relationships are an area where trust must be developed and held in high regard. Over the lifespan the ability to trust and put confidence in relationships is vital to other areas of family life. Family business expert Roy Williams believes that distrust, betrayal, and failure to keep promises are the villains that undercut family strength.
In his study of over 3,500 family businesses seeking to pass on their assets, domain knowledge, and power to the next generation, businesses are most often stuck in their inability to let go or trust one another. This lack of trust, which has relational foundations, is what is undermining confidence in the American economic system at present. Perhaps our crisis is not purely economic but relational. We have simply left the fundamentals of trust, integrity, and a moral conscience waiting in the wings while pursuing non-relational ventures.
Finally, in coupling our relational pilgrimage to the development of trust, we must also integrate our understanding of transcendence. Notable psychologist Jean Piaget observed that a child will often project on God the attributes learned relationally from his or her parents. This has some profound implications, particularly where there has been absence, relational poverty, or a lack of trust.
This transcendent aspect of relational development must be fully explored if we are to tap into its corresponding products of hope, happiness, and optimism. As children mature, healthy and authentic spirituality is associated with a range of positive behaviors. In addition, religious involvement increases social connectedness and commonly exposes youth to others who are seeking the same.
Failure to recognize this profound element of our development and growth keeps us in the cesspool of relativism, which is so ambiguous that the care of each other relationally is often put aside. In order to wade through this cesspool, children and young people must be equipped emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually with the tools to choose the best course of action in a variety of circumstances. Each person’s involvement in society, whether positive or negative, depends on that person’s ability to connect with those around him or her, which is contingent on his or her ability to develop healthy relationships early in life. Therefore, it is to the benefit of all that families are supported and equipped with the knowledge necessary to cultivate nurturing relationships.
With this important information mind, we recently held our first Family of Faith Network Conference, from June 18 to 20 in Malibu, California. Sessions integrated biblically-based teaching, weaving together themes of ministry common to families and the church. The symposium provided an opportunity to share ideas, applications, and strategies conducive to strengthening connections, and a setting for personal renewal and reflection, the foundation for building prosperous relationships.
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