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How Early Relationships Affect Child Development

When you think about how your parenting affects your child's development, you may focus on discipline. Your child's behavior, particularly in public, is like a gold star or a black mark on your parenting reputation. But as Bonnie Harris, parent educator and director of Connective Parenting in Peterborough, N.H., advises, "We put far too much emphasis on how good or bad our children's behaviors are that we miss out on the most important aspect of the parent-child relationship — the relationship." It's all about the quality of your relationship and staying committed to keeping it strong, even when your adorable child's grown into a stubborn and lazy teenager, and she's driving you up the wall.


According to Harris, "The sense of security a child finds at their home base is the foundation of their success in life." From early infancy, those first deliberate smiles play a role in developing a healthy and secure parent-child relationship. Dr. Thomas Seman, a pediatrician at North Shore Pediatrics in Danvers, Mass., says, "With a social smile starting [by] 2 months, a 4-month-old has plenty of practice trying to engage … and the parent's response of smiling back, cooing and making strong eye contact reinforces this behavior and increases the child's socialization." She's acting to encourage you to respond, and when you do, it makes her want to "act" more. This early back-and-forth behavior also sets the stage for an attachment that will bond the two of you together and encourage her development throughout her entire childhood.

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The type of relationship you develop with your youngster early on helps determine a multitude of things, from how he responds to strangers in toddlerhood to how confident he feels on his first day of kindergarten to who he runs to with his first broken heart in high school. Harris says that, "When the relationship is a secure one that can be counted on — so a child always knows what to expect from home, from a parent — the child is relieved of an enormous amount of stress and confusion that can confound a child who never knows what to expect or what is expected of him." When you're supportive and responsive to your child's physical, mental and emotional needs, you're setting the stage for a healthy relationship that will help him to develop his own healthy relationships throughout childhood and beyond.

Social and Emotional Development

Children are like sponges: they soak up information from everywhere, and everything a parent does is a message for them to absorb. Plenty of hugs and cuddles means "You want to be close to me — I'm important." Always too busy for storytime and bedtime kisses means "You're rejecting me — there are other things more important than me." All of these messages help to form the basis of your child's self-concept and self-confidence, which are vital to positive social and emotional developmental changes throughout childhood. According to Irene Shere, director of the Early Childhood Consultation Center in Silver Springs, Md., "The emotional and social maturity of a child provides the important underpinnings for child development in all other areas." She adds, "Research has shown that children who are emotionally and socially mature perform at a higher level academically."

As a parent, you often help your child to develop without even knowing it. Your facial expressions, body language and words work together to tell your child how to respond emotionally, even during your less-than-stellar moments. Throughout these interactions with you, your youngster will learn how to react in times of trouble and stress, and how to show his emotions in healthy or unhealthy ways.

The expectations some parents have for their children can sometimes impede healthy development. According to Harris, "Too often, we set expectations for the child we want instead of the child we have. Too often, children grow believing either, 'I can never meet up to my parents' expectations. Nothing I ever do is good enough,' or 'Nobody expects anything of me. I guess they don't care what I do.'" Harris often advises parents to use the mantra, "Teach Less, Be More." Be involved in their lives and be the kind of role model you'd like them to follow.

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Communication as a Mechanism for Development

As children grow, two-way communication in the parent-child relationship becomes increasingly important. However, in order for this communication to take place, it ideally should be established in the early years. To maximize positive communication throughout the early years, and particularly as your kiddo's moving into preteen and teenage years, it's important to use what social worker and author Joani Geltman calls an "I get it" mentality. Look at life and the problems in it from your child's perspective. Take the time to listen to what she has to say. When she's telling you about the new toys at preschool or what happened in her favorite cartoon, she's communicating things that are important to her. While they may not be at the top of your gossip list, giving her your full attention shows her that what's important to her is important to you too, thus furthering her positive self concept. When problems arise, Geltman tells parents to "empathize and strategize, not criticize." When you take this approach, she says, "you can get down to problem-solving rather than wasting time arguing about what is important."

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