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Why Relationships Really Matter in our Earliest Years

A new report outlines key principles for early relational health
Happy toddler with mother

Lots of research has established the crucial role that the earliest years play in building a child’s lifelong health, educational success, and more. While many early childhood frameworks have focused primarily on the healthy development of the child (especially from prenatal to 3 years old), an emerging framework named early relational health stresses the importance of nurturing the broader human ecosystem around children as well.

“To talk about early relational health is to include many human beings — the child, the parent, the extended family, and the extended circle of professionals … the human beings who are actually in relationship with each other,” explains Junlei Li, senior lecturer in early childhood education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of a new report about the framework with Thelma Ramirez, a new mom and former home visiting professional. The report comes in the wake of the U.S. surgeon general declaring an epidemic of loneliness and a lack of social connections to be a major public health concern nationwide. 

Through interviews with research experts, pediatricians, policymakers, parents, and parent advocates, Li and colleagues have developed five early relational health principles that, woven together, can guide practitioners and leaders on the front lines of education, health, and social services. 

Li recently explained the new principles and how they work: 

1. Trust parents 

Start with an asset, not a deficit perspective, and the understanding that every parent, even those experiencing significant stress, strives to provide the care their child needs — trust that desire and support their capacity. (The American Academy of Pediatricians highlights the importance of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with children’s caregivers.) 

Focus on affirming and strengthening the skills and knowledge families already have.

While there are countless how-to books about parenting, which may imply that parents don't know what they are doing or that they are doing something wrong, says Li, parents have to trust themselves and the fact that “so long as we're human beings, we're deeply relational.” 

2. Focus on the simple and the ordinary  

Parents can feel a lot of societal pressure to do “big things” for their children, Li says. However, simple, mundane, and everyday moments experienced between parent and child are the most important and parents can be encouraged to recognize their impact.

Focus on the relationship rather than activities. Instead of urging parents to read to their child, they can read with their child, or make dinner with their child, and so on.

3. It takes a village

“We have this perception, particularly in the United States, that a child is almost entirely and only the parents’ responsibility,” Li says, which may explain why parents often get the blame if something goes wrong. In reality, societies have long relied on the community to provide support to children and families.

Practitioners should affirm families’ needs for social and relational support. 

Think about what children and parents need in their community, Li says. “It’s not about giving parents all the resources so that they can be 100% responsible for everything that happens with their child. It's this idea of how do we create a support system so that parents always know who to call — for example, if they have an emergency?”

4. Meet parents and families where they are

This approach could mean doctors taking mobile pediatric clinics into neighborhoods (both rural and urban) where people don’t have access to health care and conducting checkups, Li says. It can also involve helping people to secure housing or food. 

Health inequalities can “show up in people's bloodstream” and “show up in children's development,” says Li, but the aim of this work is to “bring about a much more equitable, early relational system all around children and families.”

5. Develop parallel relationships

Children need trusted and responsive relationships to grow up physically and mentally healthy. “If I'm a teacher or home visitor or pediatrician [and] if my goal is to support that family and support the relationships within their family, then in parallel, the relationship I build with the family has to be an encouraging, reassuring one,” explains Li.

The report calls on practitioners and leaders to also “build communities of practice with professionals across service sectors, roles, and credentials.” 

A key takeaway:

Early relational health can serve as a “litmus test” for how effective certain social policies can be, says Li. Generous family leave policies that give families “much more time to build the relationships that they need,” and targeted child tax credits or baby bonds “that can alleviate some of the financial insecurity which is then linked to housing and food insecurity, releases a huge amount of stress and burden that families feel,” he adds.

The report, Early Relational Health: A Review of Research, Principles, and Perspectives is supported by the Burke Foundation, an early childhood-focused foundation leading a consortium of funders focused on early relational health. 

Junlei Li explains early relational health:


Audio file

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