Engaging with people is important for all of us (1/25/18)
Today’s topic is loneliness, an issue of increasing concern in the so-called advanced world. Humans are richly endowed with a mind geared toward their fellow humans. Yet this endowment only realizes its full potential through close engagement with others, especially in shared endeavors. Lots of research confirms that it is this kind of relational world that leads to happiness, and which also, conversely, shows loneliness to be linked to a variety of ills, mental as well as physical.
The first of this research dealt with senior citizens but now extends through the life span to children, who are reporting feeling more isolated and lonely. The causes of this are yet to be definitively spelled out, if they ever can be; but there are a few variables that seem to be in play, some of which we have addressed in this space. One is a society that is overly focused on material success, the “good grades leads to good schools leads to good jobs” track that so many kids have absorbed as their primary raison d’etre. Another is the loss of downtime in the home. Another is the loss of neighborhoods as places kids are free to roam. Related to that is over-scheduled, over-structured activities that do not make room for creative play, including its rough and tumble aspects. Over-protective parenting weaves into these. Finally, there is the question of social media, which can seem to substitute for in-person interactions, but which lacks all the non-verbal ways people relate to each other, such as learning to respond to all kinds of social cues, to negotiating and navigating the live friendship terrain, to feeling the affectional ties that point the way to deeper friendships. This is not to say that some alone time is not valuable, nor that different people do not have different levels of social need. One great friend can be every bit as healthy for one person as a gang of buddies is for another. But all of us need each other if we are to thrive.
So, what to do to support our kids’ relational capacities? Some social skills can and should be taught early on, like making eye contact, being polite, listening and cooperating. But by far the greater support comes from making ample space for kids to be with family and friends in unstructured, unscripted interactions, in which the natural social wiring of the mind can be activated and elaborated. This will include easing up on performance pressure, scheduling, and our own drivenness. The proposition here is deceptively simple to say, not so easy to ensure in today’s world: our children’s interpersonal connectedness is of the highest priority to their long-term well-being.