This is my last article until September. I hope the next few months prove
relaxing for you. I also hope that given the theme of this article, you
will spend some time during these months to reflect upon the connections
that exist in your life and ways to strengthen these connections and build
In last month’s article I discussed a thought-provoking report
that was recently released, “Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific
Case for Authoritative Communities.” The report, which was prepared
by the Commission on Children at Risk, a group comprised of 33 prominent
children’s doctors, researchers, and mental health and youth service
providers, details the deteriorating mental and behavioral health of children
in the United States.
The Commission contends, “In large measure, what’s causing
the crisis of American childhood is a lack of connectedness. We mean two
kinds of connectedness—close connections to other people, and deep
connections to moral and spiritual meaning.” The Commission observes
that while research from the fields of neuroscience and basic biology
indicate that children are “hardwired to connect” to other
people and for moral meaning in their lives, “in recent decades,
the U.S. social institutions that foster these two forms of connectedness
for children have gotten significantly weaker.”
As an antidote to this lack of connectedness, the Commission advocates
the creation of “authoritative communities.” They explain
their use of the word “authoritative” by noting, “First
the word refers to a strong body of scholarly evidence demonstrating the
value of that particular combination of warmth and structure in which
children in a democratic society appear most likely to thrive. Second
the word comes from the Latin auctor, which can mean ‘one who creates.’
We like that. Authoritative communities just don’t happen. They
are created and sustained by dedicated individuals with a shared vision
of building a good life for the next generation.”
As I noted in last month’s article, the Commission lists the following
10 main characteristics of an authoritative community:
- It is a social institution that includes children and youth.
- It treats children as ends in themselves.
- It is warm and nurturing.
- It establishes clear limits and expectations.
- The core of its work is performed largely by non-specialists.
- It is multi-generational.
- It has a long-term focus.
- It reflects and transmits a shared understanding of what it means
to be a good person.
- It encourages spiritual and religious development.
- It is philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all persons
and to the principle of love of neighbor.
This list requires more than just a perfunctory reading. I believe we
should carefully consider each point and ask, “In what way do I
foster the qualities of an authoritative community within my family, my
neighborhood, my place of work?” An awareness of the 10 characteristics
can guide our individual behaviors as we assume responsibility for ensuring
that our children thrive emotionally, physically, and spiritually. All-too-often
as a society we have focused on dealing with children’s problems
once they appear rather than on preventing problems from emerging. It
makes more sense to adopt a crisis prevention rather than a crisis intervention
approach in the upbringing of our youth, guided by the goal of creating
environments in which children feel secure and connected.
Each of us can contribute to the realization of this goal. Each contribution,
regardless of how large or small, builds upon the foundation and structure
of an authoritative community. There are many ways in which parents and
other adults can help to construct such a community. What follows are
several suggestions, which I hope will prompt you to consider other possible
avenues for realizing an authoritative community.
I should first like to consider the role of parents. Almost all parents
recognize the value of developing warm, comfortable, and secure relationships
with their children, but various external pressures and challenges can
serve as obstacles in achieving this task. For example, there are a large
number of children being raised in single parent homes in which the parent
receives little, if any, support and is overwhelmed by a myriad of demands
that lessen her or his effectiveness as a parent. Of course, such stress
is not unique to the single parent. During the past couple of decades
dual-parent households have witnessed an increase in both parents working.
Juggling work schedules with parenting demands has resulted in many stressed-out
parents who feel they are on a nonstop treadmill going around in circles.
As one father said, “I want to spend time with my children. I know
I should spend time with them, but with all of my responsibilities at
work, I seem to be spending less and less time with them.” A mother
lamented, “I have some flexibility in my work schedule, but even
with that flexibility I feel like I am constantly driving my kids from
one activity to the next. I think I spend more time with my kids in the
car than anywhere else. That would be okay if I was relaxed in the car,
but I’m not since I’m always rushing and worried that I won’t
get my kids to where they should be on time.”
As a parent and as a therapist, I certainly recognize and appreciate
the stresses of parenting in today’s world. I can understand the
parent who says, “I know I should limit the number of hours my children
watch television or play video games, but at least it keeps them occupied
while I’m catching up with other things.” However, while I
can empathize with these sentiments, I believe we must strive to build
into our daily routine opportunities to truly connect with our children
without the presence of countless distractions. Not only will our children
benefit from our undivided attention and love, but it has been my experience
that our own emotional health will be enhanced as we engage in activities
that bring meaning and purpose to our lives as parents.
In our book Raising Resilient Children, my colleague Sam Goldstein
and I recommend several steps for nurturing connections with our children
and helping them to feel acceptance and unconditional love. For example,
we advocate setting aside times each day, week, or month that are designated
as “special.” When we actually use the term “special,”
we express to our children that we value them and that we enjoy having
uninterrupted time with them. Obviously, these prearranged times should
not preclude having other spontaneous moments in which they have our undivided
attention. However, time set aside each week for all of our children together
as well as each child alone emphasizes their significance to us and that
we love them.
When children are young, parents can say to the child, “When I
read to you, when I play with you, it is such an important, special time
that even if the phone rings I won’t answer it.” One six-year-old
in my practice reported with excitement and joy, “I know my parents
love me.” When I asked how he knew, he answered, “When they
read to me and the phone rings, they let the answering machine answer
it.” As I have often noted, sometimes the simplest gestures bring
These special individual times should continue into the adolescent years
of our children. We must remember that even as our teenagers appear to
be pushing us away with one arm, the other arm is often holding us near.
There are countless opportunities to spend time with our adolescent, whether
going to a sporting event, going out for dinner, cooking a meal together,
playing a video game (better to join certain activities than to fight
them), or being involved with a cause that holds special interest for
our teenager. I recall one father’s relationship with his teenage
daughter improving significantly when he collaborated with her in her
efforts to have a traffic light placed at a dangerous intersection in
Connections with our children are nurtured through family traditions
we create. Hectic schedules should not deter parents from involving their
children in activities such as holding a family meeting each week to discuss
“family matters” and to consider if any changes are necessary
in family life, or volunteering as a family to work for a charity, or
establishing a weekly meal during which family members voice positive
comments about and appreciation for each other. I worked with several
families who initially were skeptical about such an activity, believing
it was very contrived; they were pleasantly surprised to discover that
even if contrived at first, they soon enjoyed hearing more positive comments
from each other.
There are many opportunities for adults, whether they are parents or
not, to support the existence of an authoritative community beyond the
boundaries of one’s family. To do so we must subscribe to the belief
that each child is our “own” child, that each child is part
of “our” community. There is ample research to demonstrate
that the presence of even one caring adult in a child’s life can
foster hope and resilience in that child and diminish the likelihood of
violent behavior, drug use, or dropping out of school. One must never
underestimate the power of one adult to change the course of a child’s
There is an urgent need for adults of all ages to serve as mentors for
children, especially those youngsters who have limited experience with
caring adults who can help them to develop compassion, responsibility,
self-esteem, and self-discipline. Numerous organizations such as Big Brothers
and Big Sisters as well as church-sponsored groups are in existence to
bring adults in contact with children in need. Youth sports is another
avenue through which children can connect with adults and in the process
learn the importance of teamwork, fun, perseverance and, very importantly,
how to lose and win with grace and dignity. However, without adults who
are willing to donate their time as coaches, youth sports cannot exist.
Adults can also tutor children and reinforce their strengths or “islands
of competence” in areas such as music or art.
The specific activity with a child is less important than the development
of a child’s relationship with an adult who appreciates the features
of a community in which children are nurtured and valued. In this regard,
we should keep in mind a key recommendation offered in “Hardwired
to Connect,” namely, “that all adults examine the degree to
which they are positively influencing the lives of children through participating
in authoritative communities, and where possible to do a better job.”
Many other recommendations and suggestions may be found in this report.
As you consider the ways in which you can impact positively on the lives
of youth in your community, you may wish to reflect upon the words of
Hillel, the Hebrew scholar who lived in the first century:
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?”
Back to Monthly Articles