ViewPoint - Myth of Socialization's Benefits

B.G. Markstad - 21 January 2001
A Canadian mother and teacher. B.G. Markstad is a graduate of the University of Calgary and has taught at the secondary school level and has worked extensively with home-schooled children.

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If you have an empty cup and you pour water into it, it takes a while before it is full. A child in my observation is an empty container for feedback about how it fits into the world. It needs input. When we spend time with the child and cuddle her, teach her, reassure her, we fill up her cup with enough self-esteem and love that she can survive.

We know that children who are not cuddled fail to thrive and they die.

We know that this drive to get reassurance goes far beyond food.

It is my observation having raised four children and taught hundreds of others, that children cannot move towards being other-centered, selfless, even to care about the welfare of others, until their own needs are met, until their own cup is full.

It is only a full cup that can overflow and when we ask someone to care about someone else, we are asking in essence for them to have so much love that there is some to spare. This does not happen if a child's cup is not full.

If we neglect the crucial first few years, reassuring the child one on one that she is important and loved unconditionally, then what happens is the child will try to fill her own cup. She will tell herself she is worthy and she will act angrily to the world that is not giving her her share unless she fights for it. She will be aggressive and a bully.

That is if she has a will to live. If her cup is not full and she has not gotten enough attention from her own perspective, the other reaction is for her to choose not to thrive, for her to withdraw into nervousness, anxiety, depression, unwillingness to try new things, perpetual fear.

Both of those negative reactions are normal. They are a reasonable reaction of a logical mind. If I did not get enough love I either must fight for it or I must be unworthy of it. Yet our society does not give such kids more love. The bullies it punishes. The depressed it mocks. So they get reinforcement for their original theory.

Right now there is a desire to let women breastfeed on the jobsite. This would be a start. But feeding the baby milk is only one of the bonding experiences that fill the cup. Babies suck on soothers and toy with bottles and fool around pretending to nurse because they are not always needing milk when they are sucking. Sometimes they are needing reassurance and security. And that also is part of mothering. It's filling the cup.

One sometimes hears that children will gain valuable socialization skills if they are put in large groups very young. Let us examine that. And let's not examine it from the point of view of an adult, for whom this is a very reasonable, convenient decision, and sometimes one that relieves financial pressures, renews marriages, makes mothers feel rested. Let's look at it from the point of view of the child whose cup is not yet full.

If the child herself is uncertain about where she stands in the world and does not want to socialize, putting her in such groups against her will has one of two effects. It may for the fighter, help her be more of a bully. For the quiet one it may make her feel neglected on a bigger scale. Here there are even more people with whom to compete for attention.

What do adults learn from socializing? Wonderful things. We learn about others' lives, new points of view. We learn news, gossip, share jokes and because we choose who we socialize with, we get affirmation of our worth. We come away from these experiences enriched. We feel better about ourselves. We are able to continue to be who we are and feel good about it. But let's look at small children forced into groups. They are not sure who they are. They have no news to share and they now are in crisis mode, having to prove their worth to an adult who they do not know. Each new caregiver presents the same crisis. The experience teaches them not that they are worthwhile, but the opposite, that they are never good enough and constantly have to prove themselves in a very competitive environment.

What do kids learn from each other? Since kids of the same age have about the same skills, they are not learning new skills. We have here the blind leading the blind. And given that, we have all the negatives of peer group influence that teens can have. They learn good habits if there are some -- like politeness, taking turns, but they also learn and very dramatically bad habits like pinching, biting, hitting, yelling, swearing. In fact since small children are phenomenal mimics it is the dramatic tantrums that the children are most apt to notice and very apt to pick up.

Socialization skills are important in society. I would never deny it. Learning to share, to take turns, to sit still, to not interrupt, to line up, to listen politely to others are all vital for kids to learn and ideally before school. But my observation is that to learn them one only need have one other person around- even the parent or a sibling with the parent. To assume that such skills are learned only in more formal groups is illogical. Social means one with one other.

The danger is that if we put very insecure small children together, children who themselves feel their cup of attention is not full, then we are not necessarily going to end up with other-centred, generous children at the end of the experience.

You cannot be loving until you have been loved. You cannot be generous until you have been a receiver of generosity. You cannot have food to spare until you are sure you have a supply adequate for your own needs. These are basic survival instincts. We cannot expect our children to thrive in the big world until we have firmly based them in a secure love. We must fill their cup before we can expect it to overflow.

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