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Return of the Richly Connected Childhood

How parents can help their children re-enter the social world post-pandemic.

As winter slowly relaxes its grip on our vitals, it seems timely to devote some time to thinking about the ways we could help our children re-enter the social world. It is the one where they do most of their growing. Hundreds of families of young children over the past year have told me that what they despise most about COVID is its theft of their children’s connectedness to the world around them: their friends, family, classmates, and neighbors. And they are on to something.

The next best predictor of a child’s eventual social, relational and economic success as an adult is a richly connected childhood. Being connected to community, extended family, and friendship networks – both like-minded and diverse – has been shown across cultures to 1) strengthen coping skills, 2) build frustration tolerance, 3) encourage compassion and kindness, 4) promote intellectual curiosity and confidence, and 5) enhance self-esteem.

There are thousands of different ways to help children be connected and help lead to these desirable outcomes. One child might feel closely connected to her teacher because she includes her in completing simple tasks like wiping down the chalkboard or taking attendance. As children master these developmental tasks, confidence grows and eventually shows up as positive self-esteem.

An uncle notices his nephew’s curiosity about food preparation and cooking and allows his nephew to “make dinner.” By supporting while monitoring his nephew’s efforts, the number of mistakes in the kitchen decreases while the chance of something edible emerging increases. Now you have two proud cooks and, as a bonus, increased enthusiasm for healthy eating. All of which increases the likelihood of his nephew connecting with other cookers and eaters down the road.

A grandmother recognizes that her granddaughter struggles at the playground with a girl she is drawn to play with, but who has a different temperament when it comes to sharing. Because the girls only see each other during the day, their working parents are unaware of this behavior. Having an attentive extended family member who understands and facilitates better social engagement increases an interest in and appetite for practicing kindness for children who are not clones.

As COVID has taught us, being connected to our community is a meaningful and fun thing to be doing, and its absence hurts a lot. When children connect socially beyond their bedrock relationships, they get the very important message that not everyone thinks, feels, or acts the way they do. And novelty intrigues – almost always. Our brains seek it out. It encourages brain growth and connectedness of brain cells more powerfully than repetition of things the brain already knows.

Last month, you were introduced to 4-year-old Sam and his loving but worn-to-a-nubbin parents. I laid out an argument for time alone together as the fortification that has the best chance of withstanding COVID’s attack on their need and longing to be together – together.

As we entertain the idea of the world ‘re-norming’ itself – albeit in a new-normal fashion, I will focus on the vital significance of the richly connected childhood in coming blog posts with the help of Sam and his family.