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Review: Hardwired To Connect

YMCA of USA, Dartmouth Medical School, Institute for American Values 2003) Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, A Report to the Nation from the Commission on Children At Risk, 82pp.


Hardwired to ConnectThis may be the most important Report on our children’s and youth’s problems and needs of the twenty-first century. It provides both diagnosis of our children and youth’s ills and a helpful prescription for bettering their health. Its implications provide critical advice to families, communities, and the entire context of a rising generation.

The two-part crisis leading to this study and report is

(1) … more and more young people are suffering from mental illness, emotional distress, and behavioral problems. Let’s call this aspect of the crisis epidemiological [patterns, causes and effects of a disease]
(2) The second part of the crisis is intellectual. It concerns failures of understanding… our inability as a society to respond effectively to these deteriorations in child and adolescent well-being. (p.8)

Leading experts: children’s doctors, neuroscientists, social science researchers, and professional children’s service providers, formed a 33-member Commission on Children at Risk from the Dartmouth Medical School, YMCA, and Institute for American Values. Among them was, Robert Coles, noted for his studies of children and youth.

From their own, and careful review of the research, they have given us a new social science term intended to influence public health and policy: “Authoritative Communities.” They have also used the term, “hardwired.”

Finding troubling and growing statistics as to stress, anxiety, conduct disorders, depression, suicide, and other behavioral and mental difficulties among US children and youth, the Commission asked two critical questions: “What is causing this rise in distress and dysfunction among the young?” and, “What can be done about it?” This Report is their answers to these questions; it provides three major goals and eighteen recommendations.

From the neuroscientists especially came the finding that children are “biologically hardwired” to connect with others, attaching to others in supportive community in order to find moral and spiritual meaning. Such attachment and belonging promotes both individual and social health and growth—in ways demonstrable at the biological level.

The essential finding of this study is that “science is increasingly demonstrating that the human person is hardwired to connect.” (14) This connection is two-fold: that all are hardwired to attach to others, “beginning with mothers, fathers, and extended family, and then moving out to the broader community.” And, less definitively, the finding that “we are hardwired for meaning… and drive to search for purpose and reflect on life’s ultimate ends.” (14)

The study found ten planks making up the case for authoritative communities: that being hardwired or biologically primed is “increasingly discernible in the basic structure of the brain,” that “nurturing environments… affect gene transcription and the development of brain circuitry,” “that the old ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate… is no longer relevant,” that “adolescent risk taking and novelty-seeking are connected to changes in brain structure and function,” that “assigning meaning to gender in childhood and adolescence is a human universal that deeply influences well-being.” These are the first six planks; the second four planks all reinforce the idea that morality and spirituality are biologically primed and fostered or neglected through attachment in authoritative communities. “The human brain appears to be organized to ask ultimate questions and seek ultimate answers.” (15)

It is, this study found, “authoritative communities,” social groups including families and community schools and organizations that can provide the attention, connectedness and teaching children and youth need. Authoritative communities contain people who are committed to one another over time and pass on moral and spiritual ideals.

The Commission argues that current models for dealing with youth’s ills are inadequate. “The Pharmacological Model,” and “The At Risk Model” both tend to treat symptoms (rather than underlying causes) of youth’s ills in well intentioned but inadequate ways.

An ideal authoritative community exhibits ten characteristics as a social institution:

  1. includes children and youth
  2. sees children and youth as ends in themselves
  3. is a warm and nurturing group
  4. exhibits clear boundaries and limits
  5. is composed and structured at least partly by non-specialists
  6. is multi-generational
  7. has a long-term focus
  8. encourages spiritual and religious involvement and development
  9. reflects and transmits a shared understanding of “a good person”
  10. is committed to the equal dignity of all persons and loving one’s neighbor.

Examples of authoritarian communities are families with children, schools, community and recreational organizations, businesses, libraries and cultural societies, and religious groups—all such which serve those under 18 years of age.

The Commission asks: “Will we as a society find the will, identify the material and moral resources, and engage in the hard thinking necessary to improve the lives of our children by building and renewing authoritative communities?” (47) It responds to this challenge with three proposed goals:

(1)  To deepen our society’s commitment to values that build and sustain authoritative communities (enduring marital relationships, family connectedness, community action and civic engagement, and concern for moral and spiritual well-being of all children), and to reconsider our societal commitments that often replace or undermine them… “me first” and consumerism as ways of living, materialism, and the notion of the individual person as self-made and owing little to others or to society.

(2)  To increase measurably in the next decade the proportion of U.S. children who are members of authoritative communities and whose lives are improved through their participation in them.

(3)  To win support for a major shift in public policy, in which policy makers at all levels seek to meet youth needs by utilizing and empowering authoritative communities. (47)

The Report’s eighteen Recommendations address seven areas of concern. It asks all citizens to assess how they are positively influencing young people, how they could do a better job, and for families and community organizations to assess the degree to which they fulfill the ten basic criteria of authoritative communities (above).

Concerning families, neighborhoods and workplaces, the Report urges emphasis on the family as prime authoritative community. Industry should therefore be slow to move workers with families geographically and should put more emphasis on helping workers become better parents than more productive workers.

Concerning adolescents, the Commission recommends serious attention to adolescent needs for risk-taking, novelty-seeking and peer affiliation. Needed correspondingly is “a philosophical commitment” to seeing and using young people as resources rather than seeing them as problems. Their developmental needs and their quest for identity, including sexual identity, should move adults toward young people, rather than away from them.

Concerning moral and spiritual development, the 8th recommendation is worth quoting:

We recommend that youth-serving organizations purposely seek to promote the moral and spiritual development of children, recognizing that children’s moral and spiritual needs are genuine, and as integral to their personhood, as their physical and intellectual needs.

For organizations that include children from diverse religious backgrounds or no religious background, this task admittedly will be difficult. But it need not be impossible and should not be neglected. In a society in which pluralism is a fact and freedom a birthright, finding new ways to strengthen, and not ignore or stunt, children’s moral and spiritual selves may be the single most important challenge facing youth service professionals and youth-serving organizations in the U.S. today. (49)

The concluding 18th recommendation, and end of the Report proper, urges a nation wide discussion of today’s youthful crisis and “the most effective way to meet that crisis.” (51)

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1.  How important do you consider this Commission and its Report to be? What one or two things presented here most impresses you?

2.  Do you know what the Commission means by “hardwired?” How do social scientists and neurologists determine babies to be hardwired to connect, and that children need continued and more complex connections?

3.  How does an authoritative community differ from an authoritarian (autocratic) family/community, on the one hand, or a laissez faire, permissive family/community on the other?

4.  How does a “secular” study/report, which recognizes the pluralism of our society and its faith and no-faith perspectives, come to put such an emphasis on the moral and spiritual needs of children and youth?

5.  Do you think adolescent tendencies toward dangerous risk and excess can be channeled in healthy developmental directions by authoritative communities—as this Report suggests?

6.  In a nutshell, what is this Report asking of families and the systems that surround them?


1.  Infants, children and youth need attention, attachment, and nurturance from adults who invest in them. This is the high challenge for families, schools, communities and the corporate world these days.

2.  We need broad cultural and systemic change if children and youth are to thrive. Our individualistic, materialistic, consumptive, and even narcissistic (“it’s all about me”) society has been weighed in the balances and found wanting. Children suffer from such social ills.

3.  There should be much more discussion of this Report at all levels of our society. Its analysis of the youth crisis, the importance it puts on the authoritative community with its ten characteristic, and its clear and practical recommendations, ought to be either accepted or rejected. If the research and Report of these experts are accepted, we still have much work to do.

4.  The Decade mentioned in this Report is past (2003-2013). We deserve a second report from this Commission as to the outcomes of their three goals and eighteen recommendations—and some advice for this new decade.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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