Nurture effect on caring relationships

81Hdo+Syg0Lby Anthony Biglan

[This essay is an excerpt from the author’s The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives & Our World, New Harbinger Publications, 2015]

I am convinced that caring relationships are the fundamental building blocks for creating the nurturing environments that are vital to everyone’s well-being, thus achieving the larger goals to which we aspire. In part 2 [of the book], I focused on relationships in families, schools, and young people’s peer groups. As the programs, policies, and practices I described become more widely available, our young people will increasingly go out into the world with the values and skills needed to live in caring relationships with others. However, it is much more likely that we will support this trend if caring relationships become foundational — not only to families and schools, but to all other relationships in society.

Imagine if Fortune 500 companies supported policies that enhanced the nurturance of families and schools because the executive leadership of these companies embraced the value of caring relationships. Would the materialism that so distorts our values and policy making recede? Would everyone insist on economic policies that ensured all members of society had their basic material needs met? How much more likely is it that young people’s caring would be nurtured if people throughout society — from grocers, policemen, and physicians to religious leaders, coaches, businesspeople, and neighbors — all embraced and acted on the value of caring for others?

If the well-being of others were at the forefront of our daily thinking, might we also be more likely to work for policies to reduce climate change [1] and other environmental problems? And while successful pursuit of caring relationships might not result in the lion lying down with the lamb, if it became a worldwide feature of human relationships, it might make even war a bit less likely.

Cultivating Forbearance and Forgiveness

The world has struggled with how to deal with others’ aversive behavior for millennia. The fundamental problem is to get people to not respond to others’ aversive behavior with their own aversive behavior because, more likely than not, doing so will simply perpetuate coercion and conflict. Instead, we need to cultivate forbearance and forgiveness as cardinal features of our culture. We look with wonder at examples of such behavior:

• When Charles C. Roberts stormed an Amish school house and killed five young schoolgirls before he killed himself, the Amish community expressed its forgiveness by attending his funeral and raising money for Roberts’s widow and three small children. Those three small children must live out their lives knowing that their father committed a horrendous act. They will face difficulties in any case. But which will be better for them: knowing that the families of their father’s victims hate them, or knowing that those families have forgiven their father and care for them?

• When Mohandas Gandhi vowed to fast until all violence between Hindus and Muslims ended, a Hindu man came to him and confessed that he had killed a Muslim boy as revenge for the killing of his son. He implored Gandhi to end his fast because he didn’t want to have Gandhi’s death on his soul. Gandhi told him that he could atone for his sin by finding a Muslim child whose parents had been killed in the religious riots and raising that child as a Muslim.

• In Matthew 5:38, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

• During Martin Luther King’s nonviolent movement to end segregation, civil rights activists subjected themselves to violent attacks. In so doing, they inspired the sympathy and support of enough Americans that segregation ended.

• In South Africa under Nelson Mandela’s leadership, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to address the many wrongs that had been done during apartheid. The commission invited victims of apartheid to give statements about their experiences. Perpetrators of violence were also invited to give testimony and could request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The process is generally credited with having prevented a great deal of retaliatory violence.

• A mother patiently changes the dirty diaper of a crying child.

I hope you see how this last example resembles the others. In every instance, the key is that people choose not to retaliate or otherwise respond with aversive behavior. In doing so, they make it a little more likely that peaceful behavior will replace aggressive or unpleasant behavior. When they succeed, they build the capacity of others to react to stressful situations calmly and perhaps even warmly.

You might be inclined to respond to this line of thinking by saying, “Yes, we know all this. It is all in the teachings of people like Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, and many others.” That is quite true. It is no accident that each of these leaders had an impact on millions of people. However, I’m also offering something I believe to be new and I hope helpful: that the behavioral sciences have developed systematic ways to aid people in controlling threatening or antisocial behavior without acting in ways that simply provoke further aggression.

Only when we spread these practices throughout society and reduce the number of people who arrive at adulthood with coercive repertoires will we achieve the kind of peaceful society that Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King envisioned. Spreading warm, supportive, caring interpersonal relations requires that people have skills for dealing with others’ aversive behavior without further escalating it.

My admittedly behavioristic shorthand label for the skill we need is “stepping over the aversives of others.” It might also be called forbearance, which means “patient self-control,” “restraint,” or “tolerance.” Every one of the effective parenting programs developed over the past forty years helps parents get better at stepping over the aversive things that children naturally do: an infant cries and a mother who might otherwise respond abusively or neglectfully receives encouragement from a skilled nurse to step over this aversive behavior. The nurse teaches her to hold the infant and rock him, talking soothingly. The nurse makes it clear that the mother’s frustration and distress are natural and understandable (which is an example of the nurse stepping over the distressed behavior of the mother). The nurse commiserates with the mother while also modeling more patient — and more effective — ways of soothing the child.

In numerous family interventions, parents learn a variety of strategies for helping children develop the self-care skills and routines they need to get through the day. These may include praising and rewarding what the child does, or simply doing things together. In essence, parents get a lot better at responding not with anger or impatience but rather with support, interest, and calm, patient guidance, and they thereby help their children develop an ever-expanding set of skills, interests, and, most importantly, the ability to regulate their own emotions and restrain angry or impulsive behavior. In short, parents learn to ignore the milder forms of their children’s aversive behavior and simply do what it takes to comfort and soothe their children and guide them in developing new skills.

The same is true for couples who aren’t getting along. Psychologists such as Bob Weiss and John Gottman have carefully observed the interactions of couples in conflict, who often escalate aversive behavior because it may make their spouse stop doing something aversive. Effective couples therapy helps both partners replace cycles of criticism, blaming, anger, and cold silence with forbearance, patience, and positive activities. It doesn’t work in every case, but it does save many marriages.

Stepping over aversives is also useful in helping people who are depressed. Research I conducted with Hy Hops and Linda Sherman showed that depressed mothers got some respite from the aversive behavior of their family members by being sad and self-critical. When mothers acted this way, their husbands and children were just a little bit less likely to be angry or critical. No one was having fun, but the mothers occasionally avoided negativity from other family members. Based on that finding, other researchers tested whether reducing conflict between depressed women and their spouses would reduce their depression. It did.

So what we need to do is to build people’s repertoires of forbearance, forgiveness, empathy, and compassion. This will undoubtedly be a bootstrap affair. But every time we influence someone to replace coercive reactions with behavior that calms and supports others, we have one more person who is cultivating these same nurturing reactions in those around them.


Anthony Biglan is a senior scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, and a leading figure in the development of prevention science. His research over the past thirty years has helped to identify effective family, school, and community interventions to prevent the most common and costly problems of childhood and adolescence. He is a leader in efforts to use prevention science to build more nurturing families, schools, and communities throughout the world.

[1] Removing the Rubbish: Consensus, Causation, and Denial, by Lawrence Torcello, Scientia Salon, 24  April 2015.


51 thoughts on “Nurture effect on caring relationships

  1. Unfortunately, we’re all tilting at windmills, because the author still hasn’t checked in. Massimo, can you “ping” him? I mean, Sunday morning is the 5-day “kill” period for comments here, but I’d venture you’d make an exception for the author.

    It’s kind of frustrating, to be honest, for something like this book, based on Amazon blurbs, the author’s group affiliations and more to be open to multiple, widely varying, interpretations, and him not weighing in.

    As for more skeptical interpretations (or more federal-dollars driven ones, as Occam notes), until he does weigh in, the old maxim of “silence gives assent” at least halfway applies, in my book.


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