There is no doubt that as we move through life our relationships with other people change considerably. We add people to our relationship collection at some points and subtract people at others. Some people are more important at certain points and less important at others. There are two theories that provide an explanation of how and why this happens.

The first is the “socio-emotional selectivity” theory, which says that we form relationships based on what we need from other people. So early in life, people who can supply us with knowledge and skill are important. Then it is people who give us a sense of belonging. Then it is people who can assist us in advancing our station in life, and so on.

Personally, I think that theory is rather cold. It implies that we simply use others to fulfill our requirements of the moment. I much prefer an alternative explanation-the “social convoy” theory-that states that we are in the middle of a set of concentric circles, and that the composition and closeness of those circles change as we journey through our life.

So, in early childhood, we are surrounded by a close circle that consists of our family. Then, as we move into middle childhood, we add another circle that consists of our friends. But, our family is the inner circle and our friends the outer circle.

In adolescence, however, our friends move to the inner circle and our family moves to the outer circle. In early adulthood, we add yet another circle that consists of colleagues, professional contacts, and such. They quickly move to the inner circle, our friends move out a bit, and our family moves out even farther.

Then, as we start our own family, family moves back to the inner circle, our colleagues and professional contacts move out a little, and our friends move out even farther.

In other words, the social convoy theory says that we never actually lose relationships that are meaningful to us, rather there is an ebb and flow in the emotional importance of those relationships. Sometimes a collection-a circle-of people (family, friends, colleagues) is very near to us, and sometimes it is more distant. But the collections, or circles, are always there.

I like to use my best buddy from childhood as an example. I met Dave in kindergarten and we became good friends. But he certainly was not as important to me as my mother, father, and sister.

Then in adolescence we were inseparable. I valued his companionship and support more highly than anything I could get from my family during that turbulent period. But as we went off to college and started our careers, we started to drift apart. He was my best man at my wedding, but our contact became increasingly sparse and sporadic. And as we became fully focused on our careers and new families, our relationship became nothing more than a couple of phone calls a year and an in-person get-together maybe once or twice per decade.

Even though Dave moved out to ever more distant circles, he was always there. And, in recent years, he has taken a giant leap back inwards. He is one of the few people “who knew me when.” Consequently, there are few others with whom I can share some very special memories. And, our grandchildren are delighted to hear the hysterical stories about just how dumb and delinquent their respective grandpas were back in the day.

Dave may not be all the way back to the most inner circle he occupied during our adolescence, but he probably would be best placed only one or two circles out from center now.

“Social convoy” is a critical theory for parents to appreciate. When your child is an infant, toddler, or preschooler you are her entire world. And that is extraordinarily flattering and fulfilling.

Then when she enters the elementary school years and starts to spend more time with her friends, you may feel a twinge of loss (but you may comforted by the fact that you still are her number one).

Then she becomes a teenager and you may as well not exist. You bemoan that she has virtually shut you out of her life, actively avoids you, and suffers miserably every minute that she is forced to be seen with you or spend time with you.

So it is nice to know that as painful as those years may be to endure, you just need to be patient. You will eventually return to an inner circle. As your child forges her own way, she may geographically move farther away, but emotionally she will want to come back closer to get your guidance, encouragement, and support. And when she gets lost in romance and thinks she has found “the one,” you may temporarily become irrelevant again for a while. But, if and when she eventually marries and has children of her own, you will once again be her primary source of guidance, encouragement, and support.

I can’t say I fully appreciated the social convoy theory with my own kids, perhaps because I was too heavily involved emotionally to consider what was going on intellectually. I do, however, enjoy the opportunity to see it in action with my grandchildren!

When my granddaughter Elizabeth was little, I was unquestionably her favorite playmate. And even when she was in grade school, I was still the “cool” guy who would take her and her friends to the movies, the arcade, or the mall, as well as the “fascinating” guy who was her first choice to tell her a story when it was time for her to go to bed.

Then during Elizabeth’s years in junior high and high school, well, I was nothing more than an old fart that was completely irrelevant to anything that was significant in her life. She did everything she could to get out of weekend visits and even holiday dinners. And when she was forced to be around me, if I tried to talk to her, all I got was stony silence and rolling eyes.

But, now that Elizabeth is getting ready to go off to college, I have become something of a best friend to her. She calls at least a couple of times a week to use me as a consultant in conflicts with her parents, course selection, and even boyfriend problems. And she is eager to visit whenever she can; I can count on getting a delightful hug that is filled with genuine affection.

I am sure that when she starts college and makes new friends, has serious romantic relationships, and becomes immersed in her studies, I will once again drift to an outer circle. But I’m confident that circle won’t be too far out, and there is a good chance I may move back in, at least a little bit, at some point in the future. I take great comfort in knowing that I will always be somewhere for her just as she will always be somewhere for me.

So as you look at your little one nestled snugly in your arms, be forewarned that there very well may come a day when you feel you have lost her, and there probably will come a day when she tells you to get lost (or worse). But know that you will always be circling somewhere around her for the rest of your life.

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From issue: 28/03-04