The biological need for belonging is incredibly strong and pervasive in all humans. It is the basis for our survival in life. Human babies require the longest time span for development to adulthood. We have drawn the line at 18 years of age; when it is said we become an adult human. However, we know from more recent brain science that our brains are not fully developed until around 25 years of age.
Our complete dependence as babies is not found in other mammals. We learn to walk around our first birthday, whereas many young animals are on their legs and walking within days of birth. The complexity of our brain development compared to other animals, requires a longer time frame for humans to become self-sufficient. In Kinesiology class in college, I was fascinated by the importance of a baby’s crawling movements for bi-lateral development in the brain and future range of motion in our shoulders and hips. Who would have thought crawling was so important?
The dependence that is inherent in a long developmental process requires us to have a strong sense of belonging to a family, neighborhood, tribe, and/or school community. It is critically important for our safety and security, and the healthy development of the emotional and cognitive centers of our brains. We need “our village” to surround us as we make our way to independence which eventually leads to healthy interdependence. If our development has been supported along the way.
Brain development is completely dependent on a relationship with a healthy adult that can respond and connect to our needs and wants. The Search Institute calls them Developmental Relationships. Before the age of five and in adolescence, we see the biggest spurts of brain growth, so Developmental Relationships are most important at those two critical times of life. And of course, our brains don’t stop changing and developing until the day we die, so although the relationships look different in adulthood, they still very important throughout a person’s life.
What is it about these relationships that are so important? It is important that the adult knows you; you learn to communicate your needs and wants to them and they respond. They know what you like and dislike, eventually they know your goals and dreams. They hold your hand when you are young, and stand by you when you are older, as you muster your courage to walk through fear to achieve your current goal. They teach you to know yourself the way they know you, so you are can find your passion and purpose in the world.
In a recent pilot project, the Sauer Collaborative for Child Well-Being held Listening Sessions to hear what “well-being” meant for African American and Native American parents and youth with experience in Child Protection. Not surprisingly, they named the foundation of well-being as social and cultural supports. Cultural practices, family together thriving, supportive network of extended family and friends are the baseline for well-being for youth and parents. Belonging is the baseline; it helps them feel well as they go into the community to get their basic needs met – good job, transportation, adequate housing, etc. Those pieces combine to bring health and well-being for youth and families.
Children thrive when their parents thrive; families thrive when communities thrive. How do we create communities that have what parents and children need to feel connected; that sense of belonging we all need? How do we create communities that provide good jobs, transportation, and adequate housing as well as attend to people’s financial, physical, mental, social and spiritual health? We may have some services our communities but the connective tissue, the feeling of belonging seems to be missing. In low-income neighborhoods, there is predatory lending, low-paying jobs, and not enough affordable housing. Families are broken apart due to mental illness and substance abuse. How do we build up healthy neighborhoods and bring families back to well-being? How do we help them feel a sense of belonging and support that helps them feel they are thriving and can give back to their communities?
Interdependence is the goal – giving support and receiving support within the family and in the community. That is well-being and that is when the community is also thriving; when it offers what families need and offers them opportunities to help others that may be struggling. The give and take of interdependence, knowing one another and belonging.
As I gather with those to whom I belong this holiday season, I am filled with gratefulness for the people in my life and our interdependent relationships. We help one another. In 2019, I dedicate my work to helping children and families find that sense of well-being in their lives. The feeling of belonging to a family and community that keeps them safe and helps them be their best selves.