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Nurturing Children

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

In addition to having their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter met, school-aged children also need and benefit from loving nurturance expressed by parents and caregivers. Children receive nurturance from caregivers when caregivers give them lots of love and affection, spend time with them, include them in stimulating activities, and help them build their self-esteem.

mother and daughter talkingThe social transformation that school-aged children undergo makes them vulnerable to peer pressure and the desire to look "cool" in front of their friends. In reacting to this sort of pressure, children may act like they don't want parents and caregivers to express affection and love, at least not in public. Caregivers may see this behavior and mistakenly conclude that children are no longer wanting them to express love. Granting that each case is unique, it is our experience that children generally still very much do want parents to offer them affection, even as they struggle to present a socially acceptable facade to peers. As long as children indicate that it's comfortable for them to receive affection, caregivers should continue to offer children hugs, kisses on the cheek, and to engage in other mutually pleasing forms of appropriate physical affection. Caregivers should be sensitive to children's need to minimize public displays of affection and find more low-key ways to express affection while in public, such as giving a "high-five" or using a special code for "I love you" when children are dropped off at school. Caregivers should also continue to tell children that they are loved, and to say out loud repeatedly the reasons why they're special and valued.

In addition to affectionate words and gestures, caregivers can also let kids know that they are loved and valued by spending time with them each day. Caregivers can find ways to spend one-on-one "special time" with each child, as well setting up fun activities that increase bonding, trust, and communication which the entire family can participate in. Periods of "special time" need not be long during busy weekdays, so long as it is not skipped. A ten minute story time before bedtime may be all that busy parents can manage. So long as it is regular and something children can count on, it will likely do. On weekends when there is more time to breath, parents can schedule longer stretches of time for family games, sports, and other activities.

Whether spending time together as a family or encouraging children to participate in constructive independent activities, parents can further encourage children's development by providing them with stimulating toys, games, sports equipment, books and media. It is not necessary that these items be brand new, expensive or owned; used equipment, which can be found at second-hand stores and yard sales or through internet classified communities such as Craigslist, is often perfectly adequate. As well, books and other forms of media are free to borrow through community lending libraries. Parents can offer children opportunities to watch educational television shows and DVDs or to play educational video games, but should be careful to not allow this sort of solitary activity to dominate and crowd out social and athletic activities.

In providing these various loving expressions, parents and other caregivers communicate to children that they are valued and loved. This expression of love helps children grow in self-esteem and self-respect. When children feel valuable, capable and talented, they will tend to have high self-esteem and feel confident about their ability to cope with life's challenges. Higher self-esteem, in turn influences children's willingness to try new things, persevere through adversity towards worthwhile goals, introduce themselves to new people, stand up for themselves assertively in social situations and make smarter, healthier decisions.

For more information about how to nurture children's positive self-esteem, please refer to our article on nurturing children in middle-childhood.