Helping Children Become Nurturers

It's never too early to encourage caring for others.

Posted May 22, 2016 Labeled for noncommercial reuse
Source: Labeled for noncommercial reuse

Childhood is rightly seen as a time of dependence. Children are on the receiving end of nurture from adult caregivers who, one hopes, have kids’ best welfare at heart. Gradually, children take on greater autonomy and independence. By adolescence, we nurture our teens increasingly at a distance, scaffolding their solo adventures, while keeping our fingers crossed. By adulthood, though, the role of nurturing others takes center stage. The once nurtured child grows into a parent, a caregiver for elderly and infirm relatives, or a support person who tends to the needs of those with disabilities. Often, adults are faced with taking on all three roles at once.

Demographic and societal trends make the role of nurturer increasingly central to adult life. As life expectancy extends and many life-threatening conditions instead become chronic impairments, more and more adults need long term support. In a society where virtually all able adults, male or female, are expected to work outside the home, more adults are needed to care for other people’s children. Climate change and environmental degradation call on us to expand our nurturing horizons even beyond people. The idea of being stewards of the environment and the planet, addressing habitat protection, species endangerment, and animal welfare, extends the nurturing mandate to all living things.

Yet, despite the importance of being a nurturer in adulthood, little attention seems to be paid to nurturing as a developmental process. That is, we often assume that as children move into adulthood, they will seamlessly don the mantle of nurturer. No practice at home, no lessons at school, no youth group programs in nurturing are viewed as necessary while children are growing up. At the same time, everyday opportunities to observe and practice nurturing are disappearing. In industrialized countries like the U. S. and Western Europe, extended families including elderly relatives are a disappearing breed. Specialized institutions, such as rehabilitation and assisted living centers, segregate older adults in need of care from younger generations. Smaller family size means that babies and younger children are less likely to be toddling around the house.  By contrast, at least among upwardly mobile parents, the habits of achievement, the work ethic, the striving to succeed economically, all are the focus of parenting strategies, from Baby Einstein to STEM courses and internships.

Along with my colleague, Alan Fogel (now at University of Utah) and others, I’ve been studying how what we call “nurturance” puts down its initial roots and sends out shoots in early childhood. We think of nurturance as something more than care-giving. Instead, nurturance comprises the attitudes, motives and behaviors that focus on supporting and enhancing the developmental needs of another. In this way, a nurturer sometimes might take a “hands-off” approach, withholding active care-giving, if the other person needs to exercise independence and risk-taking to grow into her best self.

Nurturance is a heady task. It involves understanding the developmental needs of another, even when those needs might be very different from one’s own, or from one’s expectations of what they should be. It involves a commitment to do what it takes to foster those needs. It involves expertise, knowing what one should do to successfully nurture.

An obvious example might be nurturing an infant. When a baby cries, one challenge is to decode the meaning of the cry. Is it hunger, the need to be held, the need for a diaper change, or some other as yet mysterious cause? New parents struggle to decipher their baby’s ‘language’ so that their nurturing addresses the baby’s needs. Another challenge is disconnecting from all the other pulls—the work deadline, the cell phone, the broken washing machine—to focus on the nurturing task at hand. The third challenge is matching new parent skills—in the process of acquiring and practicing them-- to the needs of the baby. And a fourth challenge is keeping up one’s nurturing spirit, in face of chronic fatigue,  irritating screams, and poop smears on the new sofa.

Little wonder we never put the words “nurturer” and “child” together in the same sentence. And yet, on closer inspection, we find that ideas about nurturing others take root in early childhood and may influence our later adult roles. In one interview study we conducted, preschoolers and second-graders answered questions about how to take care of a baby with a variety of spot-on suggestions. Even the younger children talked about the need to put the baby to sleep, pick up, carry and rock the baby, change diapers, brush hair, bathe, protect, play and cuddle. The kids even thought about indirect nurturing, such as providing money and shelter for the baby. Not surprisingly, children with younger siblings had more expertise than did same age kids without. In another study, we showed that caring for a pet also contributed many ideas about how to nurture a being quite different from oneself.

So, at a very early age, children begin to acquire a store of knowledge about nurturing babies. But, action doesn’t always reflect what they know. Psychologists call this the “competence-performance” distinction, which often shows itself most dramatically when behavior doesn’t fit societal expectations or self-identity. We found this when we videotaped two- to five-year olds in an unstructured session with a 6-8 month old baby and his or her mother. In the play room, we asked the mothers to quietly read a magazine in the corner, while we watched to see how the young child would interact with the baby. The babies were fascinated by the older kids and did their best to engage them. An interesting pattern emerged when we looked at how the older boys and girls behaved. Girls were much more engaged than boys with the baby, looking, talking, staying in face-to-face contact and asking the mother about the baby, especially if the baby was female. Other research confirms that while boys and girls are equally knowledgeable and confident about caring for a baby, when it comes to behavior, girls are more interested and involved.

We interpret these findings in terms of developing gender roles. It may seem surprising that before age five, children already associate nurturing babies with the feminine gender role, but they do. In our interview study, even preschoolers described an adult female as someone who “cares for” and “loves” a baby more than an adult male. This suggests that nurturance may become associated with gender roles from an early age. The effect may be to encourage girls and discourage boys from developing their caring side.

If such an effect persists, this is discouraging news, since engaged nurturing is needed from both men and women in our society. The results made us continue to look for ways that boys as well as girls could be involved with nurturance of others throughout childhood. That search took us to pets and other animals under human care. Pets share many of the same characteristics as human babies. (In fact, many pet owners view their pets as their special “babies.”) These animals are inherently dependent upon the human family in which they find themselves for physical, mental and emotional well-being. Their human caretakers have a special bond that motivates caregiving. Pet owners have the challenge of putting themselves into the ‘paws’ of anther being very different from themselves.

Our examination of nurturance of pets by children revealed that here, unlike with human babies, no gender differences emerged in behavior. Boys as well as girls were equally engaged and motivated to care. Significantly, over time, as children grew from preschoolers to fifth graders, parents reported increased involvement in caregiving toward pets, but decreasing involvement in caregiving toward younger siblings. (All the children had both pets and young sibs.) In this way, we think that having a pet provides a valuable training ground in developing one’s nurturing skills, a practice area equally available to boys and girls.

Of course, pets can’t do all the ‘heavy lifting’ in nurturing children’s nurturing side. Parents and teachers can give children opportunities to care for others. Planting a garden, taking care of a plant, raising a classroom pet, volunteering at a food pantry, visiting a rehabilitation center, even just recycling – all these activities, especially when reinforced with nurturing  ‘lessons’—can help children flex their nurturing muscles. When they’re grownups, they—and we—will need them.

To read further:

Melson, G. F., & Fogel, A. (1982). Young children’s interest in unfamiliar infants. Child Development 53, 693-700.

Melson, G. F., & Fogel, A. (1996). Parental perceptions of their children’s involvement with household pets: A test of a specificity model of nurturance. Anthrozoos 9, 95-106.

Melson, G. F., Fogel, A., & Toda, S. (1986). Children’s ideas about infants and their care. Child Development 57, 1519-1527.