We are social creatures and much of what we think of as human development depends on interacting with other people. Children and young animals raised in isolation provide poignant examples of the crucial role of contact for health, growth and wellbeing. But the link goes both ways. We grow mentally and emotionally by interacting with other people,
but we also need to develop socially so that we can make the most of these interactions.
Certain conditions, like autism or Asperger’s syndrome, have a direct impact on social skills. Other health concerns or disabilities don’t necessarily affect a person’s own potential but can make it harder to express by creating obstacles to communication or, sadly, through prejudice. Anything which isolates an individual can make social development more challenging – but not impossible especially once ways are found to break down the barriers.
The earliest interactions are, of course, between infants and their caregivers. When cries of discomfort elicit a comforting response, we realize that reaching out to others can make a difference. In behavioural terms what brings a positive payoff is reinforced, so we do more of it. If our calls our consistently ignored, we can give up. So the first factor that influences a person’s social development is whether their attempts to connect with others are accepted and positive, rebuffed or dangerous. Too many negative experiences can make someone wary of other people and deprive them of the experiences they need to grow and thrive socially.
As children grow, their social development is also influenced by the amount, nature and variety of social stimulation they receive. An important part of social development is the ability to adapt to different people and situations Interacting with other children, for example, is not the same as interacting with adults, and playing with younger children is different from playing with older ones. Having a variety of social contacts and connections
can also dilute the effects of one or two negative relationships. But there are different ways of interacting, too.
It’s perhaps unfair to dismiss books and television as wholly bad for social development. People who have grown up without television sometimes feel alienated from the mainstream because they lack a shared history of popular culture. But while television and books present examples of social interactions and fictional role models, the learning is always that of a passive observer. It misses a key feature of participation: feedback.
Feedback can be as heady as a lecture or a simple as a smile, but it’s crucial for recognizing that communication isn’t about sending or receiving, it’s sending AND receiving. Feedback provides two types of information important for social development. It lets us know the effects and consequences our actions can have, and how we’re coming across. It also tells us what someone else is thinking. Of all the social skills, one of the most useful is “theory of mind”, or the ability to step inside someone else’s skin.
In an ideal world feedback would be fair, objective and accurate, and people could take it as well as dish it out. But in the real world, messages we get from other people can be mixed, vague, biased or absent. All of these can have an impact on social development because effective interactions depend so much on how well we can understand others, how we view ourselves and what we come to expect. Fair and appropriate disapproval, for example, teaches children how to concede and compromise. Pinning a label on someone can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Social development is about acquiring a realistic understanding of our fellow beings, the nature of human interactions and the skills to put it all into practice. So the factors that influence our social development are simply different facets of human interaction itself – the quality, quantity, variety, and healthiness of our encounters with other people.