Opportunity Seeking Starts Early by Richard Rende, PhD and Jen Prosek (Excerpted from Raising Can-Do Kids)

Jen Prosek headshot Richard Rende PhDSo how can we foster opportunity seeking in our children? For decades, scholars have articulated a model for teaching children how to take forays into the unknown and deal with life’s uncomfortable or risky moments. Attachment theory, as it is called, dates back to the seminal work of John Bowlby in the 1970s, and it continues to yield important research findings in child development. Attachment is often thought of as being synonymous with social bonding, but here the term has a more specific meaning. It refers to the style of relationship between a child and caregiver—how much a child can safely explore the world and go to the caregiver for comfort and support.

Think about a two-year-old going into a home he’s never visited before with his parents. We’d expect him to rely on a parent as his secure base in this new environment. We wouldn’t expect the toddler to just separate from the parent with no reservations—this would be unusual in such an unfamiliar situation. By the same token, we’d also hope that the toddler wouldn’t be completely reticent—this would cut him off from the opportunity to explore. We would hope that he would feel safe enough to interact with the new people and surroundings while knowing his parents were there for support. Since any new situation can provide some discomfort—in this case, perhaps a dog barking unexpectedly—we’d anticipate that the toddler would turn to a parent for comfort. And the toddler would be happy to return to the parent’s side.

A research method called the Strange Situation, developed by Dr. Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s, has helped us to assess attachment in the early years of life. Conducted in a laboratory, the Strange Situation follows a series of steps or episodes that reveal how a baby handles separation and reunion with a parent. Typically, parent and baby are brought into a room, and the parent is asked to let the baby explore on her own. Next, a stranger (the experimenter) comes into the room, talks to the parent, and talks to the baby. The parent is asked to slip out of the room without making a fuss. The baby thus encounters a separation, and the experimenter interacts positively with the baby. Then comes the reunion as the parent returns to the room and greets the baby. Another separation follows as the parent leaves again along with the experimenter, leaving the baby alone. The experimenter comes back in and plays with the baby. Finally, the parent returns, the experimenter leaves, and parent and child have their own “reunion.”

The Strange Situation may seem somewhat contrived, but it was designed as a standardized way to simulate the flow of the familiar and unfamiliar in the everyday life of a baby. Researchers have devised an elaborate system for categorizing the parent-child dynamic as observed during the Strange Situation. “Secure attachment” is considered to be the desired dynamic; here, the baby explores a new environment (the unfamiliar laboratory room) without hesitation while the parent is present, the parent functioning as a “safe base.” The baby will interact with the stranger with the parent present (again, more safe exploration); show some distress when the parent leaves (because the safe base is no longer present); and express happiness when the parent returns. On the other hand, “insecure attachment” is when a baby shows extreme distress even with the parent present and cannot be easily comforted when the parent returns. This means they don’t have a secure base for adapting to new environments and will, in essence, be inhibited from seeking out new opportunities.

Decades of research have shown that the Strange Situation offers prediction of later adaptation across different developmental stages. In particular, attachment style helps determine how children will navigate future challenges, cognitive as well as social. It helps to predict which children will approach life knowing how to seek out new opportunities without taking frivolous or excessive risks, and without inhibitions that will override potential gains. Over time, securely attached children will serve as their own “secure base” for dealing with the unfamiliar and adapting to challenges; they will soothe themselves when necessary and not fear opportunities. By contrast, insecurely attached children may avoid new challenges altogether and not know how to deal with the unfamiliar. Or they may take risks indiscriminately without a real goal in mind.

A recent study published in the Journal of School Psychology confirmed the advantages of secure attachment—this time seen in how well children adapted to kindergarten. Researchers followed nearly 7,000 children from birth through childhood. Securely attached children were significantly better at adjusting to new situations in the classroom, showing an eagerness to learn and try new things. The securely attached kids had tools to push themselves to grow, knowing how to ease into unfamiliar situations and take on the unknown without that becoming daunting.

But, of course, let’s remember that all children have different personalities. Some children are just more inhibited than others. The prominent developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan coined the phrase “behavioral inhibition” decades ago to describe a small percentage of toddlers who seem especially prone to shrinking back when faced with new situations, challenges, and people. Yet recent research suggests that even the most behaviorally inhibited children can be taught to get past their inhibitions. A research project using an adoption design (the Early Growth and Adoption Study) has teased apart how rearing conditions interact with biological risk for behavioral inhibition. A group of toddlers at high genetic risk for anxiety disorders—via a maternal history of anxiety—showed signs of behavioral inhibition only when their adoptive environments were characterized by low levels of parental warmth and responsiveness. Put another way, parental warmth can “override” the genetic tendency toward anxiety. Genes, while influential, don’t determine everything.

candokidsParental warmth can “override” the genetic tendency toward anxiety.


Excerpted from Raising Can-Do Kids by Richard Rende, PhD and Jen Prosek with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2016 by Richard Rende and Jen Prosek.


About the Authors:

Richard Rende, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, researcher, educator, and consultant. As a research professor at Brown University, he led many large-scale scientific projects on child development and parenting and served in multiple academic leadership roles. Rende distills scientific findings for parents and policy makers as a writer and speaker, and his work has been featured in Parents.com, Parenting.com, the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Yahoo!, CNN, MSNBC, Time.com, ABC News, and NPR.

Jen Prosek is the founder and CEO of Prosek Partners, one of the top 35 independent public relations firms in the U.S. As a successful entrepreneur, Prosek is passionate about promoting entrepreneurship and her book, ARMY OF ENTREPRENEURS, provides a roadmap for businesses seeking to make their own organizations and employees more entrepreneurial. She received her MBA from Columbia University and BA in English literature from Miami University.


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