14 June 2021

More than food and shelter:
The importance of children’s social needs

 

Illustration of solitary child

In 1995, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary published a seminal paper challenging the notion that love and belonging should rank lower than food, sleep and shelter as an essential of human existence. It’s wrong, they argued, to treat belonging as little more than a ‘nice to have.’ So infuential was their work, the International Society for Self and Identity recently claimed Baumeister and Leary had “identified the invisible hand that guides much of the research in social psychology.”

In this exclusive blog, co-author of the original paper Mark Leary, PhD (Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University) explains why orphanages damage children by starving them of something just as vital as air and water.

 

Mark Leary PhD

Human beings are perhaps the most gregarious creatures on earth. Many other animals live with other members of their species in herds, flocks, hives, and troops, but human beings are more pervasively—some might say compulsively—social than any other animal. The reason is clear: Because they lacked speed, ferocity, and special abilities (such as the ability to fly, burrow, or clamber through treetops), our prehuman ancestors could obtain food and evade predators only by sticking together and relying on one another. As a result, human beings developed not only a motive to hang around with other people but also an exceptionally strong desire to belong to social groups, to be accepted, and to forge co-operative relationships with other people.

My research for the past 30 years has focused on how these fundamental social motives affect our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour on a daily basis and how the failure to satisfy these social needs undermines psychological wellbeing for adults and children alike. Not only does our desire for acceptance and belonging influence much of what we do—and, perhaps more importantly, much of what we don’t do—but research shows that insufficient acceptance and belonging lead to negative emotions (such as hurt feelings, sadness, loneliness, and sometimes anger), lowers self-esteem, and diminishes our quality of life. Furthermore, people sometimes behave in maladaptive and even antisocial ways when they feel inadequately accepted or that they don’t belong.

 

“Human beings developed not only a motive to hang around with other people but also an exceptionally strong desire to belong to social groups, to be accepted”

 

The social psychology of acceptance and belonging is relevant to understanding the plight of children who live in orphanages. Children who grow up in orphanages miss essential social experiences that lower the quality of their lives, impede their psychological and social development, and undermine their wellbeing. To understand these effects, let’s distinguish among four distinct interpersonal processes that are often confused.

First, to function normally, people must have some minimal level of social interaction with others. True isolation—as in the case of solitary confinement or being stranded on a desert island—obviously causes great psychological distress. But simply having fewer social interactions than we desire can also be distressing and disorientating, as many of us have experienced during the pandemic. Feeling socially isolated is associated with depression, sleep disturbances, problems thinking clearly, and indictors of poor physical health such as impaired cardiovascular function and lowered immunity.

 

“Children who grow up in orphanages miss essential social experiences that lower the quality of their lives, impede their psychological and social development, and undermine their wellbeing.”

 

But simply interacting with other people is not enough. You could spend all day, every day, talking to an endless stream of people passing through a large airport yet not feel that your social needs are being met. Although interacting with other people is often interesting, enjoyable, or an escape from boredom, we often interact with other people because those social interactions provide us with things that help us in one way or another, what behavioral researchers call “social provisions.” For example, other people provide us with information, advice, companionship, safety, emotional support, and practical help.

Most of these goodies come from people with whom we have positive, ongoing relationships, such as family members, friends, romantic partners, fellow group members, and co-workers. Not only do such people provide us with many things that we need, but merely knowing that supportive people exist in our life provides us with a sense of security even if we don’t interact with them much. Ongoing supportive relationships often operate like a volunteer fire department, standing ready to respond when called.

 

“Most of these goodies come from people with whom we have positive, ongoing relationships… merely knowing that supportive people exist in our life provides us with a sense of security even if we don’t interact with them much.”

 

In addition to needing to interact with other people and to have some close, supportive relationships, people also want to belong to various groups, whether they are friendship cliques, special interest groups, athletic teams, task-oriented groups at work or in the community, religious groups, volunteer organizations, or whatever. Belonging to groups not only provides contact with other people, some of whom may become supportive friends, but collaborating with others on shared goals also gives us a way to have an impact and provides a sense of purpose. Groups also provide a basis for much of our identity. These groups are important to our sense of who we are. In fact, when people are asked to tell others about themselves, they often refer to their group memberships.

So, people need social interaction, social support, and belonging, but even those are not enough for optimal wellbeing. People must also believe that they have high relational value to at least a few people in their lives—and, up to a point, the more, the better. Relational value refers to the degree to which people value having a relationship with us. The majority of people with whom we interact don’t value their relationship with us at all, even if they may enjoy chatting with us from time to time. Some people do value their relationship with us a little, but they wouldn’t be terribly upset if they never saw us again. They like us fine, but we’re expendable. Fortunately, most of us have a small subset of relationships in which we know that the other person deeply values their relationship with us, works to maintain it, and would be deeply troubled if our relationship ended.

No matter how much people interact with others, how much support they receive, or how many groups they belong to, people who believe that no one values having a relationship with them suffer deeply. They go through life feeling rejected and lonely, view their life as less meaningful, have fewer positive experiences, and typically perceive themselves more negatively. (After all, if no one values having relationships with me, perhaps something is wrong with me.)

 

“People who believe that no one values having a relationship with them suffer deeply. They go through life feeling rejected and lonely, view their life as less meaningful”

 

These four factors operate for everyone: we all need adequate levels of social interaction, social support, belonging, and relational value. But these experiences are often in short supply for children living in orphanages, particularly when we compare their experiences to the lives of children who grow up in a family setting. Although some families are dysfunctional in ways that undermine their positive impact on children, most families provide notably more social interaction (at least with adults), social support, belonging, and relational value than even the best orphanages can manage. And these effects extend beyond the immediate family setting as children form relationships with members of their extended family—especially grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—as well as social connections with neighbours, their parents’ friends, their parents’ friends’ children, peers in the community, and others. Furthermore, these relationships tend to be more stable than those with staff, volunteers and other children in orphanages, who are more likely to come and go over time.

 

“We all need adequate levels of social interaction, social support, belonging, and relational value. But these experiences are often in short supply for children living in orphanages”

 

All of us need at least a minimum number of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships that provide us with adequate interaction, support, belonging, and relational value. Children are far more likely to develop such relationships in caring families than in orphanages.

 

Mark Leary, PhD is a a social and personality psychologist, and the editor of Character and Context, the blog site of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

 


Loneliness leaves a child unsure of their place in the world, it inhibits their development, and it deprives them the need to give and receive love. Between 14–20 June we’re exploring how isolation impacts lives, and we’re celebrating the bonds of family—where children belong.

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