Young Children Develop In an Environment of Relationships

Young Children Develop In an Environment of Relationships

NATIONAL SCIENTIFIC COUNCIL ON THE DEVELOPING CHILD is a multidisciplinary collaboration of leading scientists in early childhood and early brain development. Its mission is to bring sound and accurate science to bear on public decision-making affecting the lives of young children.


Healthy development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life, both within and outside the family. Even the development of a child’s brain architecture depends on the establishment of these relationships.

Growth-promoting relationships are based on the child’s continuous give-and-take (“action and interaction”) with a human partner who provides what nothing else in the world can offer – experiences that are individualized to the child’s unique personality style; that build on his or her own interests, capabilities, and initiative; that shape the child’s self-awareness; and that stimulate the growth of his or her heart and mind.

Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development – intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioral, and moral. The quality and stability of a child’s human relationships in the early years lay the foundation for a wide range of later developmental outcomes that really matter – self-confidence and sound mental health, motivation to learn, achievement in school and later in life, the ability to control aggressive impulses and resolve conflicts in nonviolent ways, knowing the difference between right and wrong, having the capacity to develop and sustain casual friendships and intimate relationships, and ultimately to be a successful parent oneself. Stated simply, relationships are the “active ingredients” of the environment’s influence on healthy human development.

They incorporate the qualities that best promote competence and well-being – individualized responsiveness, mutual action-and-interaction, and an emotional connection to another human being, be it a parent, peer, grandparent, aunt, uncle, neighbor, teacher, coach, or any other person who has an important impact on the child’s early development. Relationships engage children in the human community in ways that help them define who they are, what they can become, and how and why they are important to other people.

In the words of the distinguished developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner: …in order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid. That’s number one. First, last, and always.


Nurturing and stable relationships with caring adults are essential to healthy human development beginning from birth. Early, secure attachments contribute to the growth of a broad range of competencies, including a love of learning, a comfortable sense of oneself, positive social skills, multiple successful relationships at later ages, and a sophisticated understanding of emotions, commitment, morality, and other aspects of human relationships. Stated simply, establishing successful relationships with adults and other children provides a foundation of capacities that children will use for a lifetime.



The importance of mother-child relationships is old news. The importance of other family relationships (with fathers, siblings, and grandparents) is semi-old news. The impact of these relationships on the development of the brain is new news. And the important influence of relationships outside of the family – with child care providers, peers, teachers, neighbors, and other adults and children in the community – is even newer, because these individuals are often valued more for what they do than for the meaning of their role in the life experience of very young children. Greater understanding of what science tells us about the importance of a range of relationships for early childhood development leads us to think about many areas of policy and practice in a new light.


The science of early childhood development is sufficiently mature to support a number of well documented, evidence-based implications for those who develop and implement policies that affect the health and well-being of young children. Five compelling messages are particularly worthy of thoughtful consideration.


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