The ability to be attuned to and aware of others is an essential element of the social communication required for healthy development. As your child grows, he becomes more aware of the complexities of others by watching, listening, and forming friendships. He learns about joining with others to form groups, and, in doing so, learns how he is like them and how he is unique. This developing awareness requires experiences rich in diversity — spending time with people of different ages, interests, ethnicities, and with distinct strengths and vulnerabilities. Each relationship adds to an internal catalogue that we use to form our view of the world.
How the Brain Stores Interpersonal Experiences
When organizing the wide variety of human relationships we develop, the brain uses a set of rules to make this infinitely complex process easier. These rules — association and generalization — are allowed by the brain's amazing capacity to store experience and create memories.
Memory allows us to create our catalogue of interpersonal experiences — good and bad. When we have a new experience, the incoming sensory information is matched against our stored catalogue of previous interactions and people. If their dress, language, skin color, and gestures are familiar, they will more likely be viewed as positive. If they're unfamiliar, they may be categorically judged — usually in a negative way.
The Roots of Awareness
Awareness arises from and is dependent upon three preceding strengths: attachment, self-regulation, and affiliation. The first memories in your baby's interpersonal catalogue of experiences come from her first relationships with you and her other caregivers. If these are nurturing, your child will associate all of her future interactions in the context of the loving and positive memories from his primary attachments. This will facilitate her ability to form a wide range of relationships from which she can learn the value of others.
A child with a healthy capacity to self-regulate will also have an easier time developing a healthy awareness of others. Poorly regulated children are more often anxious and are likely to be overwhelmed in new situations. Fear tends to make everyone retreat from mature styles of processing information. The more threatened a poorly regulated child feels, the more primitive and categorical his thinking will be.
Signs That a Child Needs Support
Children who are struggling with awareness may tease other children about sensitive characteristics such as their weight, religion, ethnicity, or a handicap. Some teasing is expected and normal in young children, but it is important to make sure it does not cross certain boundaries. These children often see things in absolutes ("Fat people are lazy") and form ideas about others based on stereotypes.
Children struggling with awareness often are also having trouble with affiliation and try to create groups by attacking others and finding those who share their hatreds.
Promoting Awareness in Young Children
- Model awareness in your actions and words. Talk out loud to let your child hear how you think through a stereotype. "Gosh, you wouldn't think that this really big, kind of overweight guy would win the Olympic gold medal in wrestling, would you? But he did."
- Discuss stereotypes. Ask your child to share his thoughts. What are they? Where do they come from? Are they fair? Why or why not?
- Encourage children to get to know a variety of people. Provide opportunities for your child to spend time with the elderly, and, if possible, children and adults from different cultures, religions, races, and who speak different languages.
- Point out the diversity around you. Talk with your child about the different types of people in your community. "What languages do most people speak in our town?" "How many different cultures do you see in our neighborhood?" "How many tall children do you know? How many short ones?"