Although consistent nurturing relationships with significant adults are taken for granted by most of us as a necessity for babies and young children, we often do not put this commonly held belief into practice. Pioneers, such as Erik Erikson, Anna Freud, and Dorothy Burlingham, revealed that to pass successfully through the stages of early childhood, children require sensitive, nurturing care to build capacities for trust, empathy, and compassion.
Supportive, warm, nurturing emotional interactions with infants and young children help the central nervous system grow appropriately. Listening to the human voice, for example, helps babies learn to distinguish sounds and develop language. Exchanging gestures helps babies learn to perceive and respond to emotional cues and form a sense of self.
Bonding Builds Skills
Nurturing emotional relationships are the most crucial primary foundation for both intellectual and social growth. At the most basic level, relationships foster warmth, intimacy, and pleasure; furnish security, physical safety, and protection from illness and injury; and supply basic needs for nutrition and housing. The "regulatory" aspects of relationships (for example, protection of children from over- or understimulation) help children stay calm and alert for new learning.
When there are secure, empathetic, nurturing relationships, children learn to be intimate and empathetic, and eventually to communicate their feelings, reflect on their own wishes, and develop their own relationships.
Relationships also teach children which behaviors are appropriate and which are not. As children's behavior becomes more complex in the second year of life, they learn from their caregivers' facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and words what kinds of behavior lead to approval or disapproval. Patterns are built up through the give-and-take between children and caregivers. Along with behavior, however, emotions, wishes, and self-image are also coming into being. The emotional tone and subtle interactions in relationships are vital to who we are and what we leant.
Developing Cognitive Skills
Relationships enable a child to learn to think. In his interactions, the child goes from desiring Mom and grabbing her, to saying "Mom" and looking lovingly. He goes from "acting out" his desires or wishes to picturing them in his mind and labeling them with a word. This transformation is the beginning of using symbols for thinking.
Pretend play involving human dramas—such as dolls hugging or fighting—helps the child learn to connect an image to a wish and then use this image to think, "If I'm nice to Mom, she will let me stay up late." Figuring out the motives of a character in a story as well as the difference between 10 cookies and three cookies will depend on this capacity.
We have come to understand that emotional interactions are the foundation of most of a child's intellectual abilities, including creativity and abstract thinking skills. Emotions are actually the internal architects of our minds. They tell us how and what to think, what to say and when to say it, and what to do. We "know" things through our emotional interactions and then apply that knowledge to the cognitive world.
Not only thinking grows out of early emotional interactions—so does a moral sense of right and wrong. The ability to understand another person's feelings and to care about how he or she feels can arise only from the experience of nurturing interaction. We can feel empathy only if someone has been empathetic and caring with us. Children can learn altruistic behaviors, to do "the right thing," but truly caring for another human being comes only through experiencing that feeling of compassion oneself in an ongoing relationship.
The difference between children who can regulate their moods, emotions, and behaviors and children who can't-children for whom the slightest frustration feels catastrophic, whose anger is enormous and explosive-lies in die degree to which the child masters the capacity for rapid exchange of emotions and gestures. When a child is capable of rapid interactions with his parents or another important caregiver, he is able to negotiate how he feels. If he is annoyed, he can make an annoying look or hand gesture. His father may come back with a gesture indicating "I understand," or "OK, I'll get the food more quickly." Whatever the response is, if it is responsive to his signal, he is getting some immediate feedback that can modulate his own response. We now have a fine-tuned system rather than an extreme one. The child doesn't have to have a tantrum to register his annoyance; he can do it with just a little glance and a little annoyed look.
Interactive emotional relationships are important for many of our essential intellectual and social skills. The notion that relationships are essential for regulating our behavior and moods and feelings, as well as for intellectual development, is one that needs greater emphasis as we think about the kinds of settings we want for young children.