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When child psychiatrist Dr. Jean Clinton starts talking, you always know that before long, you’ll hear words like relationships and connecting. And you’ll hear them again and again. 

Witness the following lovely and memorable little quotes from Jean’s keynote address at this year’s (virtual) Self-Reg Summer Symposium (2020) entitled: The Early Years Last Forever.  

“Relationships are the active ingredient in children’s development.”

“Who we are is the product of experiences and relationships.”

“The brain is a social organ. We are wired to be ‘felt’ by others.”

“Babies have a drive to energetically connect with us.” Jean borrowed that one from Dan Seigel, author of, The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are.

Just one more.

“I have a concept of how change happens: through relationships and connection.”

Would You Say You’re Catching Dr. Jean’s Drift? 

On one hand, you might say Dr. Jean is simply reminding us of ideas that have been around for a long time. Back then, John Bowlby was expounding about attachment theory and Donald Winnicott famously wrote, “ There is no such thing as a baby. There is a baby and someone.” (Love that quote!)

It’s easy to adore and embrace such statements. But I think we need to reflect on why someone like Dr. Jean feels the need to keep reminding us of the importance of relationships in child development. For one thing, it might be that there is so much stuff out there to draw our minds away from the importance of relationships in children’s brain development. 

First of all, there are products like Baby Einstein videos, specially designed toys that teach kids about animals and colours. Other products and programs claim to build children’s brains (but don’t really). 

Then there’s the fact that parents’ and educators’ time and energy is constantly occupied with lots of stuff we have to do to get through the day with children. We’re supposed to keep them safe and clean, get them to bed on time, feed them well, teach them to be well-behaved, and, if you’re an educator, get through those curriculum expectations. Sure, we can connect with kids during those activities, but usually, when we’re doing task-oriented things with kids, the relationship is not the uppermost thing on our minds.

Everything Starts With Relationships

The thing is, whatever it is that we plan and do to care for, raise and teach children—whatever techniques, programs or props we use—it will go better in the context of trusting and supportive relationships. That also applies to Self-Reg, which is why we say, “Self-Reg starts with a relationship.” 

The strategies we use in guiding and teaching kids are never more important than the relationships we have with them. That might be why you’ll never get Dr. Jean to stop reminding us about connecting with kids. 

The Carpenter and the Gardener

One of Dr. Jean’s tools to help us stay on track to connect is the carpenter/gardener analogy. An ECE or parent who focuses on the role of carpenter has a set idea of how kids should turn out. They are just trying to make it happen. A gardener is “cultivating the soil for the child to growth and to thrive.” It’s not an either or equation, but a continuum, says Dr. Jean. “ A lot of people intend to be a gardener. But you have to be a builder sometimes to get things done.”

So, when we’re reflecting on this gardener/carpenter balance, Dr. Jean advises us to “think about how much time you spend connecting [with your child] as opposed to directing and correcting.” Obviously, we do have to direct and correct. But it’s so easy to get totally caught up in that. So it’s good to be reminded of the foundational importance of relationships in child development. 

Here’s the thing. Sometimes relationships with kids are relatively easy to develop, maintain and repair. But not always.

Self-Reg and Stress

This is one of the key reasons Self-Reg has so much to offer. Because, scratch a troubled adult-child relationship and you’ll usually find excess stress. So rather than focus mostly on teaching parents and educators to be “sensitive and responsive,” we need to enable them to be sensitive and responsive. We do that by helping them tune into and address the stress that often gets in the way of the relationships that both children and their caring adults need. 

Dr. Jean understands that. I was impressed by her response to a fairly alarming finding from the Zero to Three Parent Survey. Almost half of surveyed parents believe that little ones can control their emotions by the age of two. (Even more think kids can exercise self-control by age three!) Yikes! My initial reaction to those factoids was horror. 

But rather than judge, Dr. Jean asked us to reframe these parents’ beliefs. “How can we see parents differently when they have unrealistic expectations about children’s emotional development? How do we approach this in a way that opens the doors and supports rather than judges parents?” she asked. “We need to go on a journey to help parents be curious rather than certain about their child’s behaviour. We need to help them feel safe enough to ask why they resort to control-based measures in tough moments.” 

Although she didn’t say so explicitly, Dr. Jean clearly understands that relationships and connection are also central in parents’ learning and well-being. This includes relationships between parents and the various people who try to support them and help them solve problems. That’s a prime directive we should all remember as we engage with families, and as we work to support early childhood educators who, Stuart Shanker says, have one of the most important jobs on earth.