The strength of a network

The strength of a network
We know that parents who have a good social network receive more help and exhaust themselves less. But did you know that all the loving people in your child’s life also play a part in helping him thrive?

We know that parents who have a good social network receive more help and exhaust themselves less. But did you know that all the loving people in your child’s life also play a part in helping him thrive?

Having children takes a lot out of you! It’s normal to need help. In fact, helping each other look after children is part of human nature, says Carl Lacharité, director of the Centre for interdisciplinary studies on child and family development at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. “Human child care relies on the participation of many people,” he says. This can be explained by the amount of care babies require and the fact that childhood lasts a long time. We know that parents benefit from being in contact with loved ones, but so do children, Lacharité explains. “To develop well, a child needs repetition, variety and novelty. Even if, as a parent, you’re pretty much the whole package, a child needs to see who else is out there.”

Multiple benefits

Relationships with your entourage of family and friends therefore provide different sources of stimulation and double or triple a child’s exposure to elements that are essential to his development. “A child who feels safe only with his parents will have trouble building self-confidence,” states Carl Lacharité. “On the other hand, if he’s often with other people and is able to feel safe with his grandparents, aunt, uncle or family friends, he’ll become more self-confident more quickly.”

When your child spends time with his entourage, he creates an attachment with people other than you. This helps him open up to the world and encourages him to explore, says Nathalie Parent, psychologist and lecturer at Université Laval. According to Carl Lacharité, all aspects of a child’s development benefit from having a reassuring and stimulating entourage. “It has a positive impact not only on social skills, but also on language, intelligence and motor skills,” he adds.

For example, when a young child speaks to his aunt or a neighbour, they might not understand him as easily as his parents do. “They’ll therefore ask him to repeat what he said,” observes Nathalie Parent. “This then forces the child to find other words and to develop his language so he can be understood.”

When he spends time with people other than you, your child is stimulated differently and learns new things.

It is therefore in your best interest to encourage the involvement of your entourage, while making sure, of course, that your child is in contact with people who want to be with him and who have his well-being at heart. Suzanne Lavigueur, honorary professor with the Department of Educational Phsychology and Psychology at Université du Québec en Outaouais believes that a person who judges a child and thinks he should be different isn’t offering the toddler anything positive. “A relationship can also be considered negative if the other person criticizes the parent in front of the child,” she says. “For instance, a child mustn’t find himself caught between his mother and grandmother.”

Happily, most of the time, close family members mean well. “People who are emotionally and biologically related to a child tend to want to take care of him,” observes Carl Lacharité. And they play an important role for him.

When your child has special needs
Involving your entourage can be a challenge for parents of children with special needs. “Sometimes parents are uncomfortable asking for help and are afraid of being judged,” says Suzanne Lavigueur. “Other times, it’s the people in your entourage who are afraid of not being able to provide the proper care for the child or who just aren’t familiar enough with the situation.” In both cases, she suggests giving those in your entourage the opportunity to understand the child’s reality. “For example, you can stop by a grandparent’s or friend’s house with your child and stay during the visit, or invite friends or family members to join you on an outing.” It’s also possible to develop ties with other people facing similar challenges via support groups or specialized organizations.

Precious grandparents

The presence of grandparents has a positive impact on a young child’s self-esteem. “Grandparents have unconditional love for their grandchildren,” notes Nathalie Parent. “Toddlers feel this admiration, and it gives them confidence in themselves and their abilities.” Grandparents often have more time and more experience, and they don’t carry the burden of parental obligations. “They do things simply for the pleasure of being with their grandkids, and that makes young children feel important,” adds Suzanne Lavigueur. The patience and tolerance often shown by grandparents can also provide comfort. For example, faced with a child who’s not behaving well, their reactions are often less negative.

Suzanne Lavigueur has also noted the positive effects of maternal grandmother involvement in her work on vulnerable moms. “Several young moms reported that their mothers played a pivotal role in their child’s life.” The grandmothers in the study provided financial assistance for childcare, but they also provided emotional security for the young child by playing with him, consoling him and spending time with him, for example. Other studies have even shown that a good relationship with a loving grandmother can reduce the negative impact on a child of having a less affectionate mom.

Are parents open to the involvement of others?
According to the experts surveyed, parents are generally open to the involvement of loved ones in the lives of their children. “However, some parents are more protective than others and find it difficult to entrust their child to someone else,” observes psychologist Nathalie Parent. They must keep in mind that their entourage is not there to take their place. Loved ones are there to complement a parent’s role.
Sometimes as well, it’s the entourage who’s afraid to get involved for fear of intruding, of not knowing what to do with the child or of ending up always being asked to babysit. In these cases, parents can get their family involved in their child’s life gradually. Ties can be created by stopping by for short visits at grandma’s or a friend’s house, or by sending pictures or a drawing to an uncle. Over time, a relationship will begin to form.
However, if parent anxieties or family conflicts prevent a child from spending time with others, Nathalie Parent recommends trying to improve the situation. One way to do this would be to see a psychologist or a social worker, who would be able to help the parents overcome some of their fears or better understand their family conflicts.

The roots of a tree

Knowing where we come from gives us a sense of security. When grandparents share their memories, children understand that they have some history and that they come from a long family line, says Nathalie Parent. This helps them build their identity.

Grandparents also offer stability. For example, when a second child is born or a parent falls sick, grandparents are there to take over. “It’s very reassuring for a child to go to his grandparents and do the same things he always did before,” says Suzanne Lavigueur.

Seeing grandparents on a regular basis can also make it easier for a child to deal with the separation of his parents. This is why parents who are separated should try to maintain the relationship between their child and the parents of their ex-spouse, even if they are angry with each other, says Nathalie Parent. “A child experiencing so much change needs to keep some sense of continuity and see that some things don’t change,” the psychologist adds.

Aunts, uncles, friends and co.

Aunts, uncles, friends and neighbours can also play a role in a child’s life. Marianne Prairie, parenting author and blogger, believes in the importance of a social network not only to support parents, but also to participate in child development. She has seen the advantages on her own daughters aged 3 and 6. “It’s good for them to be in contact with other adults. It gives them other role models.” Her daughters are very close to her friends and neighbours. “Some of them have babies, so by spending time with them, my daughters see what it’s like to have a little brother and take care of a baby.” It’s almost as if her daughters were part of one big family!

At the homes of aunts, uncles, friends and neighbours, things are different. When your child spends time with them, he learns to adapt. “He sees that rules, instructions and ways of doing things can be different in other people’s homes,” says Nathalie Parent. “He learns to adjust.” The child also learns new things by doing activities he wouldn’t do with you. For example, he may learn more about fish by going fishing with an uncle, or about yoga by going with a cousin.

“I find that children who are used to spending time with different people are more curious and adapt better to change,” says Marianne Prairie. Suzanne Lavigueur adds that regularly connecting with others offers youngsters a bigger pool of people to turn to later on when, as teenagers, they may want or need to confide in someone other than their parents. “It’s such a valuable gift!” she says.

Naître et grandir

Source : Naître et grandir Magazine, November 2016
Research and copywriting : Julie Leduc
Scientific review : Julie Brousseau, psychologist

Photo : Futcher