One of my dearest friends in elementary school was the eighth of eleven siblings. At first, Rebecca’s* family was a curiosity to me. I had three siblings with whom I shared a very close relationship most of the time – we had all the typical sibling arguments, but generally presented a united front to the rest of the world – but I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to have that many brothers and sisters. I imagined them constantly vying for parental attention, wrangling over toys, food or favorite clothes, and being in a persistent state of conflict. In short, it didn’t seem appealing to me. Then one fall, I got to spend the night for Rebecca’s birthday, and – instead of chaos and competition – found her family to demonstrate an incredible amount of positive energy and joy in their household. They lived modestly from a material standpoint, but they demonstrated true love and respect for each other, grounded in their faith. Rebecca’s parents made the effort to spend time with each child independently, to inquire about her or his day and to explore whatever issue was important to them at that moment. Rebecca’s older siblings helped coax their younger siblings through homework and chores, and the entire family volunteered time taking care of the animals at the nearby nature preserve.
Many years later, I met Lily during my residency in pediatrics. She was a tiny, tiny child with a poorly understood metabolic condition that had nearly taken her life several times in her short lifespan. During one difficult hospitalization, Lily had become increasingly ill despite aggressive clinical interventions. Her fathers were never far from her bedside, and friends and extended family members often visited her as well, making her room a place of laughter and unwavering support, despite the medical uncertainty. Lily herself exhibited an unusual degree of resilience for a child barely five years old who had spent much of her life in hospitals. At times, she would pat my hand and smile as if she was reassuring me that everything would be okay. And, in the end, although there were many nights when I spoke with Lily’s dads about the graveness of her condition, her symptoms did gradually improve, and Lily went home to the loving care of her dads, grandparents, friends and neighbors.
Even later, as a pediatrician, I met Kenny, a smart, quiet teen who lived with his grandmother. He was so reserved that it took me a few visits to get to know more about Kenny than his vital signs and growth patterns. But one visit, while we were exploring his future goals, Kenny’s face lit up as he started to talk about engineering. He had met Mr. Charles, a man at his grandmother’s church who was a mechanical engineer, and Kenny became fascinated with his work. He shared that he loved creating things and had always enjoyed “tinkering” with machines and appliances (often to his grandmother’s dismay). He had been hesitant about joining the robotics or engineering clubs at his school because he thought his peers would tease him, but with Mr. Charles’ encouragement, Kenny joined the robotics club and was thoroughly enjoying the camaraderie and intellectual challenge of the club. He was no longer embarrassed about his intelligence or his aspirations of becoming a robotics developer.
And like individuals, families come in all sizes and configurations, extending – for some families – to include mentors, coaches, neighbors and family friends. This broader appreciation of “family” is borne out by substantial research that consistently identifies one critical factor that increases the likelihood that children have optimal well-being: having nurturing relationships with adults. Having supportive, stable relationships with adults promotes brain development among infants and young children. The dedicated one-on-one time that Rebecca’s parents spent with each of their children cultivated strong social/emotional health and is associated with increased cognitive skills. This type of focused interaction is not only beneficial to the development of infant brains, it is also foundational to promoting adaptive skill-building among older children and young adults. Similarly, the trusted mentoring relationship that Kenny experienced with Mr. Charles promoted his sense of self-efficacy and perceived control.
A family’s grounding in cultural beliefs and faith practice can be beneficial to the development of resilience factors. The hopeful and positive beliefs of Lily’s dads and extended family, and the faith context in which Rebecca’s family lived, helped them to build critical skills such as self-regulation and adaptability to their environments. And, just as social science has demonstrated the influence of the physical, social and economic environments on child development, kids also learn in an “environment of relationships.” Research from the National Scientific Council shows that the quality and stability of healthy relationships with adults and peers affect all aspects of child development, including self-confidence, motivation, ability to self-regulate, knowing right from wrong, and the ability to form healthy relationships themselves. Over time, the skills cultivated through these healthy, nurturing relationships with their respective families will serve as protective factors when Rebecca, Kenny and Lily face the inevitable adversities of life.
So, during this time of family gatherings, celebration and reflection, think about the role you play in the life of a child – whether as parent, extended family, coach, mentor, teacher or faith leader – and know you have the ability to make a positive and life-long impact on the well-being of that child. Because families matter.
Genesis Health Consulting has deep experience in creating systems change in support of child health and well-being. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about our work in this area.
*Names of individuals in this blog have been changed to maintain confidentiality.