Because early childhood interactions matter!                               

Let’s start with the sixteenth century perspective on child rearing, when children were viewed as evil and stubborn and as entities that need to be trained and disciplined using strict measures. A rather pessimistic and stern view! Gradually, this outlook was replaced by a rather constructive way of understanding childhood, a perspective that is even followed today (at least theoretically). This perspective viewed the child as ‘tabula rasa’, a Latin word for ‘blank slate’. According to this, children are born as blank slates and this slate is then filled with experiences; it is these experiences that shape the character and personality of the child and ultimately his/her adult personality and behaviour. It emphasised the positive role of parents in moulding the child and stood in opposition to physical punishment and strict measures that generate fear in children.

Taking the tabula rasa as the forerunner, let us understand the importance of early childhood experiences and the parental role, as advocated by many great psychologists.

One of the first perspectives in this regard, was propagated by Sigmund Freud. He emphasised the influence of early parent-child relationship on the child’s development. According to this view, how a parent interacts with the child right from birth will play an important role in the child’s personality formation.

According to him, the personality of an individual has three parts - Id, Ego, Superego. The Id, present right from birth, is the pleasure seeking part of personality that looks for the fulfilment of the biological needs and desires. After the Id, develops the Ego which works as a rational part of personality, supervising that Id behaves in acceptable ways. The last part, Superego, develops between 3 and 6 years and acts as the conscience which supervises the moral behaviour of the child. This part of the personality develops through the interactions with parents. A healthy balance between the Id, Ego and Superego in the early childhood plays an important role in framing an adaptable and healthy adult personality.

The above view emphasised more on the internal determinants of personality, however later psychologists also stressed the role of the external environment and the interactions with the parent(s)/caregiver(s). The social environment makes a massive contribution in framing the child’s personality. Children, even in infant hood, actively learn from the social setting in which they are reared. They actively observe the behaviours, responses and patterns of people around them and then make these behaviours, responses and patterns as the base for their own behaviours and responses.

The quality of relationship between the child and parent/caregiver also has profound implications on the mental and emotional health of the child, not just in childhood but these implications extend to adulthood as well. The initial pattern in which the child attaches to the parent/caregiver plays an essential role in the development of behavioural responses, the feelings of security and the ability to form trusting relationships, even as an adult. Children who form a secure attachment pattern perceive the parent as a secure base. They take the parental connection as a strong anchor through the support of which they learn to operate in their daily lives. Such children feel that the parents’ love and support is always around, irrespective of their presence or absence. Secure attachment results from a consistent parenting style where parents are more responsive towards their child’s needs and their communication is quick and consistent with the child.

On the other hand, a disorganised attachment style develops when the child is consistently frightened of the parent(s). This can be due to the emotional and/or physical abuse that the child encountered with their parent(s). Instead of perceiving the parent(s)/caregiver as a safe harbour, the child with disorganised attachment pattern does not see parents as loving caregivers. They are stuck in a dilemma, as to where they can seek love and care. They want to seek love and reassurance from the parent(s) but at the same time are frightened of the parent(s). This often results in them creating their own world where they can seek love and care. This, however, has huge repercussions on their emotional well-being. Such children can have increased stress levels and difficulty forming relationships in the later life especially personal and romantic relationships. Thus, as a parent or caregiver, one must be mindful of these unseen and unsaid factors, that ultimately play a monumental role in guiding the overall development and well-being of the child.                

What I am trying to simplify here is the fact that childhood is a very pivotal stage of development. Children, instinctually look at parents as source of care and learning. Their interaction with the parent(s) mean something to them. They use their relationship and interaction with the parents as the working model for their own behaviour and responses. Hence, it becomes requisite that we watch our conduct and interactions with these very impressionable humans, in whatever capacity, be it as a parent, a caregiver, a sibling, a teacher, a doctor or simply an adult and be cognisant of what we are mentally and emotionally feeding them.