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The Keys To Well-Being In Child Development

I am most pleased to have this opportunity to share with you the culmination of my life’s work: making sense of children. For some reason— whether it be healthy or neurotic, I do not know— I have been moved to assemble all the puzzle pieces of child development until a consistent and coherent picture emerged regarding the unfolding of human potential. The puzzle pieces come from a great many places: developmental theory, scientific research (including the field of neuroscience), and my professional practice as a clinical psychologist, as well as the myriad of observations that come from years of being a parent of five children and a grandparent to six more. I will not be making specific references to the individual dots that have been used in creating this model; instead, I will attempt to provide an overview of the picture that emerges when all the dots are joined. The exercise has been one of personal synthesis and distillation. The dots come from science and professional observation; the synthesis is my own.

A model or theory cannot be proved, only disproved. My challenge has been to create a model of human development that has the power to explain, has clear implications for practice, can be applied across settings, and is consonant with research findings.

To the degree that this model is true, it holds the keys for the well-being of children and youth—and, by extension, the well-being of a society.

From a developmental perspective, well-being is best defined as the degree to which human potential is fully realized.

We must start by defining the well-being of children and youth. There are many ways to approach this. From a developmental perspective, the unfolding of human potential is of utmost concern. As a developmentalist, I begin with the assumption that every child has the potential to become fully human and humane, but not every person realizes this potential. In other words, the unfolding of human potential is spontaneous, but not inevitable. This undoubtedly is the essence of the human condition, so to speak—that we all grow older, but we don’t all grow up. To truly “raise” a child, then, would be to bring that child to his or her full potential as a human being. I am not referring to individual potential, but rather human potential— the potential we share as homo sapiens. This definition of well-being must also be differentiated from societal or economic success.

What does it mean to realize our full human potential? When we put the puzzle pieces together, three basic themes emerge. First, every single child is born with the potential to become a separate being: able to think for himself, function independently, differentiate himself from all others. This is the fundamental yearning of development, whether it be of a cell, an organ, a hemisphere of the brain, or a fetus. This is also true across all domains of development: biological, physical, emotional, and psychological. Every child has the potential to stand on his own two feet, have his own boundaries, and make his own decisions. But not all children, and not all adults, come to realize this potential.

Second, every single child is born with the ability to adapt to circumstances beyond their control—to be deeply transformed by that which they cannot change. Adaptability is an essential part of our human nature. But once again, it is not inevitable. Children and adults vary tremendously in their realization of this very basic human capacity.

Third, every child possesses the potential to become truly social, capable of seeking togetherness while maintaining a sense of separateness, at least to some degree. Our social potential as humans is for much more than simply being together or getting along with each other. We can be nice to each other for quite neurotic reasons, sacrificing our integrity out of a fear of upset or out of our need to impress or to be liked. Our potential, however, is to experience togetherness without a loss of separateness, and conversely, to maintain our separateness without a loss of togetherness. An example would be to have integrity without a loss of diplomacy, or to be diplomatic without losing one’s integrity. This is no mean feat, and takes years to develop. Consider, for example, how hard this kind of maturity is to achieve in marriage. Children and adults vary tremendously in how much they have come to realize this integrative capacity.

We should all want our children to become viable as separate beings, capable of adapting to circumstances they cannot change, and considerate of others without losing themselves. This is the essence of developmental well-being. Can you imagine a society characterized by such people?

How do children come to realize their full human potential?

I can’t think of a more pertinent question for us to answer in today’s society. This question has been on the minds of developmentalists for generations, and certain conclusions are emerging. We certainly know that the realization of human potential is not automatic. It is not a matter of age-and-stage, as we once thought. We also know that we cannot blame genetics when potential is not realized. We are truly all equal in our potential to become fully human and humane. We also know that we cannot command growth in others, or even in ourselves. Telling our spouses or our children to grow up, although tempting, never works. Wishing for maturity, or even willing it, does not make it come true.

So what, then, is the answer to the unfolding of human potential? Those uninformed by developmental processes assume that children must learn to become truly human and humane. They must learn to become separate, to become independent, to form boundaries, to adapt to circumstances, to become resilient, to get along, to become considerate. In short, children must learn to become mature. If this were true, intelligence would certainly be the major prerequisite for the unfolding of human potential, and school would be the venue where human potential would unfold. We all know very bright people, however, who have never grown up. And research in the United States finds home-educated children demonstrating significantly more maturity than children receiving their education in school.

When all the dots are joined, the answer to the unfolding of human potential is in the process of maturation itself. The surprise, however, is that there is not just one maturation process, but three distinct processes, corresponding to the three human potentials. These natural growth processes have been discovered and rediscovered and rediscovered again by many developmental theorists over the years—and now, yet again, by today’s neuroscientists. This has led to a mass confusion of terms, with a plethora of esoteric names and labels. I have come to see my role as mastering these esoteric languages, with the goal of hopefully replacing them with a language that is closer to human intuition. Good science should always resonate with inner intuition, but before it can do that, the language must be accessible.

So what are these three maturing processes that are responsible for the spontaneous unfolding of human potential?

The most well-known of these processes is the emergent process—also known as the separation process, the differentiation process, the individuation process, or the actualization process. When there is some release in a child from the pursuit and preservation of proximity or togetherness, there is a “venturing forth” kind of energy that emerges, manifesting itself in the spontaneous forming of boundaries, a quest for independence, and a predisposition to explore the world outside of his attachments. This shift in energy is more likely to come once a child’s emotional home base has been securely established. The process is deeply emotional, not rational or even volitional. In other words, the child must have the right feelings for nature to take its course.

The second of these maturing processes—futility— drives human adaptation. This, too, is a deeply emotional process, requiring the right kind of feelings to get the right kind of results. The key to this process lies in what happens when a child encounters futility—that is, something outside the child’s control. There are dozens of these experiences every day in a young child’s life, the most common being a parent’s “no.” Other everyday experiences of futility include not getting one’s way, not being the best at everything, not being first all the time, not being able to possess Mommy for oneself. If everything unfolds as it should, the futility that is encountered will be felt deep within the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain.

As futility registers emotionally, the energy being directed toward changing things or making things work comes to rest. In emotional and physiological terms, the automatic nervous system shifts from trying to make things work (via the sympathetic nervous system) to letting go (via the parasympathetic nervous system). In the wake of these experiences, resilience grows and adaptability increases.

Encounters with futility should be highly moving experiences emotionally, ultimately leading to our own transformation when we cannot change the circumstances that frustrate us. The body language of felt futility in a young child is tears. How this works is rather remarkable. When futility is felt, the limbic system sends signals to the lacrimal glands, making the eyes water. There are other reasons for crying, of course—pain, upset…even onions. But tears of futility are rather distinctive in their chemical composition, occurring as we come to rest from trying and failing to make things work. There is always an associated letting go that is required before the brain discovers that one has survived not getting one’s way. Of course, the big futilities in life usually require many tears for adaptation to occur. These include the loss of a loved one, the inescapability of death, the irreversibility of time. The Greeks referred to these futilities as tragedies, and created plays to draw the tears out, believing that this was key to a civilized society.

In traditional societies, tears were always a part of parenting. I am sure our predecessors were not satisfied that the encounter with futility was truly over without some evidence that the tears of futility were forthcoming. We have lost the wisdom of tears, and with it, our capacity to adapt to that which is out of our control. Too many parents today are afraid to upset their children, afraid to say “no.” They are failing to act as agents of futility or agents of comfort, and no longer realize that children need to experience sadness about the things that are outside of their control. As a result, we are giving rise to a generation of children who are entitled or spoiled, who have to get their own way, and who cannot adapt to their circumstances.

In keeping with this, we find that the most common syndromes children are diagnosed with today are tearless syndromes. The tearlessness isn’t the cause of the root problem, but it certainly interferes with the brain’s ability to find a work-around for the deficit or dysfunction. What is lacking is brain plasticity: the adaptive process. These children are not coming to realize their full potential as human beings.

The third maturation process is called integration, the catalyst for which is the experience of inner conflict. This understanding has a rich history in developmental science, including the likes of Freud, Erickson, Jung, and Piaget. Piaget discovered that young children lacked the capacity for cognitive dissonance, and that the experience of conflicting ideas and thoughts was the motor for the unfolding of intellectual development. Conflicting signals are key to developing depth and perspective in many arenas of growth, including vision, muscle tone, sensory integration, problem-solving, brain hemispheres, and so on. We have found the role of conflict to be absolutely pivotal in emotional development, the current subject of interest in neuroscience. Before age 5, children are only capable of experiencing one feeling at a time. They have no “on-the-other-hand” experiences and seldom are given to “part-of-me-feels-this-and-part-of-me-feels-that” kind of statements. If developmental conditions are conducive, mixed feelings begin between the ages of 5 and 7, and have a remarkable civilizing effect on the child. The part of the brain responsible for mixing emotions is the prefrontal cortex. If conditions are not conducive to healthy development, the child remains impulsive and inconsiderate, lacking self-control. Tragically, there are so many adults in our society who lack mixed feelings, who are devoid of inner conflict. They have failed to realize their potential as human beings.

These three maturing processes are all spontaneous, but none are inevitable.

Conditions need to be conducive for these processes to unfold. To put this another way, development is not a matter of age-and-stage. In fact, there are many adults who will never show much evidence of true maturation, especially on an emotional or psychological level.

The maturation processes bears fruit in abundance— personality attributes that we would all love to be characterized by. No child is born with these attributes, and neither can these characteristics be trained into a child.

The ultimate outcome of the emergent process is viability as a separate being, the capacity to fully function outside of attachments. Children who are emerging as separate beings also are full of vitality, interests, curiosity, and a venturing-forth kind of energy. Such children are rarely bored. The fact that boredom seems to be escalating among our youth is indicative of the lack of this emergent energy. Also troubling is the fact that there are more children showing curiosity in the first grades of school than the latter grades, yet the curricula of today’s educational systems assume that all children are curious.

Included in the characteristics of emergent children are a sense of agency and responsibility, a quest for independence, and ultimately a relationship with oneself. These fruits cannot be commanded from the outside. Nor are they a result of training. Attempting to reinforce curiosity, for example, actually undermines it.

When these fruit are missing, it is indicative of developmental immobility in a child.

The fruit of the adaptive process includes resilience and resourcefulness, as well as the ability to recover from trauma. To truly adapt is to be changed for the better as a result of adversity. Again, children are not born with these attributes—but they are born with the potential to become changed by events out of their control. Adaptation is a journey of tears, at least on the inside, involving feelings of sadness and disappointment. If children should lose their tears of futility, or lack a safe place to shed their tears, they get stuck, and fail to adapt to circumstances that are out of their control. I have worked with many such children, adolescents, and adults.

The fruits of the integrative process are also highly valued in our society. The attributes deriving from this maturation process include being well-tempered, considerate, civilized, and balanced. Other characteristics include the ability to appreciate context and see perspective, and the predisposition toward egalitarian values. Once again, no child is born with these attributes, and school cannot produce these traits. The fruit of integration takes years to grow and the conditions must be conducive to get results. Unfortunately, there are many adults in our society who lack these attributes.

To reiterate, it is true maturation, not schooling, learning, or genetics that is key to becoming fully human and humane.

Unfortunately, immaturity is epidemic in our society. Imagine what our society would look like if a significant proportion of the population demonstrated a modicum of maturity. So why do some people mature while others remain stuck in immaturity? Childhood is the stage of life during which most of our growing up should be accomplished. What are prerequisite experiences for children to come to their full human potential? No question could be more important for the raising of our children and the future well-being of our society. In putting the pieces of the puzzle together, four experiences emerged as key to maturation.

  1. For maturation to result, children need to attach deeply to the adult(s) responsible for them.

  2. For maturation to result, children need to find rest from the work of attachment.

  3. For maturation to result, children need to play.

  4. For maturation to result, children need to feel their tender emotions.

In conclusion, children need to be raised by their families— which, in turn, need to be supported by society.

The well-being of today’s children, tomorrow’s adults, and our future society depends upon our ability to support the family as the womb of true maturation and the natural context for reaching our full human potential. The challenge of family educators is to get this message out to parents. The challenge of our school system is to bring student teacher relationships to the fore and to find the way to re-enter the student’s village of attachment. The challenge for our government is to create the kinds of policies that give families the support they need to raise their children to reach their full potential as human beings.

My hope is, as I said in the beginning, to translate developmental science into the words that resonate with inner intuition. Without words there is no collective consciousness, and without collective consciousness we will continue to act in ignorance as to what children truly need to become fully human and humane. Children need their families, and their families need our support.