Maybe it takes a village to raise a child, but not just a village. It also requires at least one person to take the lead and show up consistently.
That’s the key finding from decades of child-rearing science. Of course it’s good to have a strong support network caring for a child in positive ways — grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and so on. The “village approach” has long been part of our history of raising our young and benefits children and their parents in numerous ways. But there are increasing concerns that many of the responsibilities for raising kids are being outsourced, as the village expands to include tutors, coaches, and “enrichment specialists” leading classes on music, language, social skills, and even time management and executive functioning.
It happens when a caregiver predictably (not perfectly) cares for a child.
There’s nothing wrong with offering kids additional enrichment or widening their circle of supporters who care for and help them develop. But what children need most — and science has demonstrated this again and again — is to have someone that they know will show up for them when it matters. The longitudinal research on child development clearly demonstrates that one of the very best predictors for how any child turns out — in terms of happiness, social and emotional development, leadership skills, meaningful relationships, and even academic and career success — is whether they developed secure attachment from having at least one person they knew would be there for them to rely upon, trust in, and lean on.
That’s what we call showing up. It happens when a caregiver predictably (not perfectly) cares for a child. Showing up produces the very best outcomes, even in the face of significant adversity. Predictable care that supports a healthy and strength-producing relationship comes in the form of what we call the “Four S’s” — helping kids feel:
- safe — where they feel protected and sheltered from harm;
- seen — where they know you care about them and pay attention to them;
- soothed — where they know you’ll be there for them when they’re having a hard time; and
- secure — which develops from the other S’s where their brain is wired to trust you to predictably show up and help them feel “at home” in the world, then learn to help themselves feel safe, seen, and soothed.
Ultimately, kids need parents — at least one of them — to show up, consistently helping them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.
Throughout our careers as researchers and parenting educators, we’ve worked hard to avoid oversimplifying complex process or offering so-called silver bullets that offer the one true way to raise kids. But it really is possible to strip away the childrearing debates and controversies, and boil parenting down to the concept that matters most when it comes to helping kids be happy and healthy, so they enjoy and succeed in life and in relationships. When we do that, things do actually become fairly simple (but not necessarily easy). Ultimately, kids need parents — at least one of them — to show up, consistently helping them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.
Having a village is a powerful gift when it comes to supporting and nurturing our kids. When a community shows up for a parent, that parent can better show up for the child. But the village, as valuable and important as it is, can’t take the place of parental presence, both physical and emotional. In the end, it comes down to making sure that each child has at least one consistent person to come home to when he or she gets back from visiting the other villagers.
The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired (Ballantine) is out now from Ballantine.
Raby, K., Lawler, J., Shlafer, R., Hesemeyer, P., Collins, W., Sroufe, L. The Interpersonal Antecedents of Supportive Parenting: A Prospective, Longitudinal Study from Infancy to Adulthood. Developmental Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4280330/pdf/nihms636594.pdf
Raby, K., Roisman, G., Fraley, R., Simpson, J. (2015) The Enduring Predictive Significance of Early Maternal Sensitivity: Social and Academic Competence Through Age 32 Years. Child Development, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4428971/pdf/nihms633065.pdf
Sroufe, A., Siegel, D. (2011) The Verdict Is In: The case for attachment theory. Psychotherapy Networker, https://www.drdansiegel.com/uploads/1271-the-verdict-is-in.pdf