Essay: The Importance of Family in Human Development

From birth, each person’s contact with others — within the family, community and society in general — has a significant effect on the individual. Perhaps most profound of all are the interactions among family members. Physically, emotionally and cognitively, the importance of family in human development is intrinsic to individual identity and self-concept throughout all stages of life.

From a physical standpoint, biology, as it relates to heredity, is the key element in human development, with the most obvious manifestation of family’s importance being physical features. Virtually everyone who sees a newborn notes the similarities of physical traits shared by the baby and its parents. Yet, while eye and hair color, facial features and expressions, and even the baby’s gestures are familial characteristics usually immediately assessed, the physical influence of family on human development encompasses far more.

Based in large part on heredity, the timetable for physical development has an impact on the rate and extent of growth, the age at which developmental milestones are achieved (such as talking, walking, etc.) the onset of puberty, even whether and the extent to which one develops grey hair. Clearly, the effect of family on physical aspects of human development is quite significant.

Likewise, emotional development is bolstered or impeded, as the case may be, by family. Dating back to World War II when orphaned babies failed to thrive after placement in orphanages, it was determined that the lack of touch — normally provided by families — stunted the growth of these orphaned babies and further caused them to become ill, develop emotional and intellectual deficits and, in some cases, to die. Albeit a very drastic circumstance, even without such extreme situations, families (or the lack thereof) have an enormous emotional effect on human development.

For instance, aside from the six basic emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and surprise), which tend to be expressed facially in a universal manner across cultures, the provocation and behavioral expression of these and other emotions tends to be culture-specific, and furthermore, family-specific. In others words, children imitate the expression of emotions modeled by those they see around them. Therefore, the influence of family in this facet of human development is readily apparent in the similarity of emotional expression among family members, regardless of whether “family” is biological or adoptive.

Yet, psychologists believe that genetics also play a role in emotions. While modeling is essentially an environmental factor, with family being the primary environment, genetics’ part in the development of emotion is evident in twin studies as well as adoption studies. Published in the November 2007 issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, results of a twin study on the inability to express emotion (alexithymia) suggest that genetics have an evident and similar effect on all aspects of alexithymia. Similarly, adoption studies reveal an even greater degree of similitude in the expression of emotion between an adopted child and its biological parents than between the adopted child and the adoptive parents, thereby emphasizing the importance of family in this part of human development.

And, not to be remiss, the adverse effect that emotional abuse by family members has on human development cannot be overlooked. Countless studies and anecdotal records underscore the significant and lasting results of emotional abuse within families and its impact on emotional development.

Finally, reigniting the argument of nature versus nurture among psychologists and other experts is the idea that intellect and other cognitive activities have a hereditary component — a clear argument in favor of nature. In much the same way as indicated in emotion, twin studies also point to a certain degree of familial influence in cognition, with a much higher positive correlation between I.Q. scores of identical twins than between other siblings.

Likewise, adoption studies reflect this same type of correlation of I.Q. scores between adopted children and their biological parents, which is not indicated between these children and their adoptive parents. Additionally, from the perspective of nurture, the opportunities to which a child is exposed such as books, travel and museums — tending to be socioeconomic factors of family — have an augmenting effect on cognitive development.

Thus, biologically, emotionally and cognitively, the importance of family in human development cannot be underestimated. While not the sole determinant in any individual’s life, family clearly shapes human development in unmistakable and enduring ways.

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