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The power of 'first love': childhood social development

How can children learn to feel more confident about themselves and believe that they can have an effect on the world? How can children be more assertive about their abilities to cope, engaging with healthy human to human relationships instead of backing away? There are no absolute answers to these questions because all children come into this world with a unique sense of self, and there will be individual differences among them in terms of personal characteristics and how they perceive the world around them. Even though all children are unique and perceive the world in a slightly different way from one another, their views of themselves and others only develop through relationships, particularly through the early relationships with their primary caregivers.

Infants have no experiences with which to compare what they get in relationships, so they are usually very serious takers of what they can get. Every time a caregiver makes a connection with them, infants will absorb all the information they get (i.e. whether parents are smiling or angry with them) as to help them define how they are treated. Through the accumulations of experiences in parent-child relationships and through the moment-to-moment interactions that the young children have with the primary caregivers, they develop what I refer to as a ‘lens of expectations’. They perceive what they expect to receive. If the caregiver responds to a child's needs with love and care, the child will be more likely to expect acceptance in future interactions. The more positive experiences an infant go through, the more trust and confidence an infant will feel about themselves and the world around them. When an infant is in a positive state, being more confident and trusting in oneself, he/she is being more social. Being social means he or she has more capacity to engage others more easily, and can therefore form more intimate, empathic relationships in the future.

Thus, the power of ‘first love’ given by a parent or a primary caregiver is what determines whether the child’s social development goes well or goes poorly. Not all babies coming into this world are what we expected; they all bring a unique sense of self. The key to a positive sense of self and others in infants' lives are based on what kinds of connections a parent or a primary caregiver wants to make. The feeling of being loved or not being loved is not a mere description of what the reality is like, but it is a subjective experience created by both infants and the caregivers.

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