by Kim Rowe
There is not much that I can think of that tests and changes you more as a human than parenting. To me it is the ultimate adaptive challenge, needing the adaptive capacities of a Zen master. As soon as you think you have something ‘mastered’ or at least partly figured out, the environment and/or the child dynamically shifts, new challenges arise, and you are left bewildered.
Way back in 2003, when I was first introduced to concepts of the human learning ecology (which wasn’t even a term yet) and the human venture, I didn’t understand much. I have been trying to figure out both parenting and this human venture ever since. I am sharing some of what I have learned here in the hope that it may be helpful to others as they think about what is needed to support kids, their families, and those that care about them.
Start with Function
What is the function of parents? Thinking about function in any situation helps to clearly understand the underlying purpose when considering good design. Here are a few ideas to consider regarding the purpose of parenting.
Species survival – ultimately, parents of humans (and others) are there to ensure the survival of their offspring, genetics, and the species – parents meet the basic needs of the child such as food, clothing, basic security. This may seem easy at first glance in a country like Canada, with knowledge and access to healthy food, and healthcare, including vaccines and modern medicine. But screaming toddlers, or teenagers don’t always make it easy.
As you move up the hierarchy of human needs there are also psychological needs like love, belonging, emotional regulation, and capacity development. Parenting includes meeting these needs and guiding kids in their own capacity development, until they can figure out their own survival and self-actualization. Achieving this requires the collaboration of many other humans working together in community. So, perhaps parenting is leading small humans to themselves be contributing members of the group, i.e. citizens. Of course, the complex question is – what does it mean to be a contributing member of the group? Ideally a resilient, capable someone who works to decrease waste, suffering, and injustice.
Traditional Baby Raising and Human Development
The human species has the longest periods of infant dependency of any animal, and over generations has developed many ways of meeting infant needs. There are several approaches that traditional human societies use that may be helpful to modern parents. These strategies include; responding quickly to comfort and co-regulate a fussy, crying baby, nursing/ breastfeeding (where possible) on demand, lots of skin to skin and constant physical contact, co-sleeping with baby, and carrying them upright and facing forward.
Many of these methods have now been shown to benefit the neurological and emotional development of infants and children. For example, carrying upright and forward (as opposed to backwards or horizontal in a stroller) may help develop superior spatial understanding. I am also very aware that this list is far easier to write than to implement, especially with the level of sleep deprivation and physical changes new parents experience.
One of the things that our society falls far short on is supporting families during this critical time. We could and should do so much better. Parent respite and support should accompany a new birth and be as important as medical care and birthing plans. Which brings us to more ideas from our human past that are helpful to young humans’ development.
As They Grow…
The current dominant model of the isolated nuclear family is a recent development. For thousands of years, and still today in many cultures, parenting was a collective activity that was undertaken by several generations of extended family, neighbors, and community members. These others are often called alto, or other, parents and can be important parts of children’s development. Involving others is something that we could do more of, including seniors, extended family members, and/or close friends in children’s lives. As community members we can support parents and children of all ages through caring relationships. Alto parenting benefits all involved.
Multi-aged play groups also naturally happen in a tribe or extended family situation and they can support children’s development and increase their capacities by exposing younger children to more advanced skills and capabilities towards which they can strive, and help them develop empathy for others.
Building a community to support children should be all our responsibility. Children lacking opportunities for playing with others of all ages may be poorer in their development, but there are lots of possibilities that can be considered. Parents can look to friends, other caregivers, playgroups, senior home visits, and even public settings like parks and playgrounds to fill gaps.
Adaptive Capacity (Maps 11 & 12, for those following along in the Human Venture map book)
A trap that parents may fall into has become so common that we have a name for it, helicopter parenting. As adults we can see many threats and opportunities that children cannot, and we may try to ‘support’ them by reducing threats and providing opportunities. This can be especially true for moms, who have so much (physically, biologically, emotionally etc.) invested in the small human. After all, one of our ‘jobs’ as parents is to keep them safe, right? But this often tries to short cut their learning with ours, usually unsuccessfully. Over time the reduction of these threats and the provision of every possible opportunity does nothing to increase children’s own adaptive capacity, caring, and levels of responsibility–and may even decrease it.
Increasing challenges, responsibilities, and abilities are what will increase adaptive capacities in humans. There are many capacities that cannot be built without direct experiential learning. You cannot learn to walk without trying and falling. Part of parenting is figuring out when (and how to safely) let kids fall and fail.
“Support always” was one of the answers I got when I once asked a youth leader what their parents had done for them that others may not. This means always meeting our children’s needs, even when challenging. Feeding the hungry child usually stops the baby’s crying, toddler’s whining, and even the teenager’s irritability, and these physical needs are often apparent. We also need to support the emotional and other less apparent needs of children, usually through connection.
There is much new research on the need for human children to have their emotional needs met and to be securely attached to their caregivers for emotional and mental development. This needs to be done even when we are pushing away and it is much easier at some ages, stages, and situations than in others. Responding to a crying baby that is then comforted by your presence is one thing. Saying yes to a toddler who has been whining at you all day when you are exhausted is another. And teenagers, who know all our ‘buttons’…. Whew.
Humans have a deep need to be connected to others, as being part of the group was the only way to survive. Supporting kids’ emotional development is done through appropriate empathy, connection, and co-regulation. That can be the hardest work there is as a parent, and needs work to reconstruct our own thought process and emotional baggage. Supporting others also needs selfcare so that there is enough of you to give to others.
Connection Not Punishment
When was the last time you were reprimanded or punished, and it made you want to be more connected to the person doing the punishing? I doubt it has happened. But our society sees children who ‘misbehave’, and thinks that punishment will correct their behavior. And as with other uses of violence, sometimes it does in the short term. But in the long term, it is more likely to cause damage or trauma. Instead, what if we saw children’s behaviors as a call to meet their needs for connection? It goes by several names including peaceful, conscious, or gentle parenting and there are many resources and groups that can support caregivers in this area. There are various ways to connect with kids, and they depend largely on the kid, and adults involved. Daily reading with children is just one example of connection time that helps build relationships and healthy long term habits.
PLAY, Play, and More pLAy!
Kids explore and learn through play, just as all humans do. But children especially are developing their neural paths through play and the freedom to explore and experience their world–or as we say in human venture language, through engaging in level 2 experiential learning. It is so important that without it we don’t develop into normal humans. Kids need play and the freedom to explore and experience their world and we should play with kids and do everything we can to enable play. This doesn’t mean that we as adults shouldn’t manage and mitigate risks.
Children see everything as play, including what adults do. Opportunities to engage with caregivers as part of adult ‘chores’, can be made fun and playful. It is also a great way to connect. In fact, when kids say, ‘play with me’ they are likely saying ‘come and connect with me’. Connections and play can also involve taking the garbage out, cooking, putting things away, or other household tasks.
Kids are born knowing how to explore and play but they shouldn’t be expected to know how to play on their own, especially young ones or for long periods of time. But as with all skills, self-entertainment (not passive activities like watching TV) can be learned and developed over time. It also means that the best toys are often not purchased at a store, but the real ‘found’ items, like sticks, Tupperware etc (limit packaging in both foods and toys please.) Playing outside as much as possible is ideal and increases independence.
Play is something that humans do not outgrow and can be used for all sorts of learning. It can be especially useful when working through emotional challenges and can be used to support kids of all ages. Games and play can also be used to develop intellectual capacities, examples include dice, cards, board games, riddles, travel games, family fun nights, even role-playing games. Teenagers’ play experiences tend to be much riskier and there is lots more to consider as kids age – (but that is for another time).
Responsibility Towards Mastery
To raise competent, or at least functioning humans, we need to guide and enable their capacity development. Notice I did not write ‘develop their capacities’. We don’t usually decide for babies when they will take their first steps, but most humans have learned to hold their heads up, sit up, pull themselves standing, and may even walk that first step in their first year. Children strive intrinsically, often falling and failing along the way but will be successful eventually. Adults can support and facilitate children’s learning, often by just getting out of their way, being there if needed and providing an enabling environment.
As humans develop, they watch and are motivated to mirror, mimic, and emulate other humans. They want to be involved, engaged, belong, and help. Increasing responsibilities, challenges, (even failures,) and striving, guided by caring adults, supports the development of responsibilities and co-responsibilities both for individual capacities and collective connections. Debriefing with kids on their experiential learning is vital to good integration and sense making. This guidance by caring adults supports the development of responsibilities and co-responsibilities both for individual capacities and collective connections. These collective connections, i.e. community, are essential for any human society.
Growing bodies need physical challenges to develop properly, and play is the most important way for kids to do this. Other challenges, including sports, can build on this, but should not replace play. Competitive sports have many advantages (and some downsides) for developing humans, including working with others, persistence and striving. (Some of my great formative experiences were as part of an individual ski team, which taught me so much about working with others and other’s perspectives.)
Connections to Real Life
Other strategies that are helpful for developing humans include experiences with other languages and cultures. If you are blessed to be multilingual, share this capacity with your children.
Travel is another excellent way to share new and different perspectives and I believe the more the better for kids. Not holidays, with the replication of our western culture in a warmer setting, but real cultural travel experiences, with challenges and struggles. We were fortunate to have many of these as a family and my boys – now young men – joke that our family motto is ‘guaranteed adventure or your money back’.
After World War II Dr. Doris Twitchell Allen, a noted American psychologist, founded a charitable organization, Children’s International Summer Villages (now CISV International www.cisv.org) to foster intercultural understanding and friendship among children, with the goal that they would grow up to become ambassadors for a more just and peaceful world. Since then, thousands of youths, (including my kids and myself) have had the opportunity to learn from others and other cultures through CISV. There are many similar exchanges and work abroad programs that can provide some of these experiences.
Volunteering, paying attention to current events, and experiences in community services provide connections to others, context and understanding of community issues, and a sense of co-responsibility. Youth can play, test, strive, and learn in all sorts of areas. These experiences and healthy news contexts help build capacities to understand current events and reality.
Real Connections to Nature
One of the most important connections is being connected to biological life – nature. Real connections in this area are essential for active human development and are sadly decreasing in much of our western world. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv wrote about the importance, and the growing lack, of children’s connection to nature. His point was that without being connected to nature, kids would not do what is needed to protect nature. Humans are part of the natural world, although we like to think that we are above and in control of nature. The patterns of life move us, and we come from it. The more we connect our kids to nature, the better off they (and we) will be. (For me it was specifically animals as a child and beyond. They have taught me so much, including patience, horse whispering, and parenting.)
Live an Inspired Life
Kids need us and we need them. They learn from us but we have much to learn from them also. They need us to be connected to them, to support them, to build capacities to care about ourselves, others, and our communities. But one of the best things that you can do for children in your life is to live an inspired life. They will always be watching and learning from you, always. So, embrace life and live it to the fullest. That is also what our kids need from us.
There are lots of parenting books and resources. This is a short list of some that I have found helpful:
Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen
Hunt, Gather Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans – by Michaeleen Doucleff (My latest favorite parenting book.)
Teacher Tom – blogs for young children and learning (not just ‘education’) that are short easy reads.
And of course, the Human Learning Ecology map book and Ken.
Kim Rowe is a community builder, trainer, strategic planner, and facilitator, with non-profit governance expertise. Involved in Human Venture learning since 2004, she has raised her family in the foothills west of Cochrane, Alberta.