I believe that authenticity matters; hiding who we are stifles growth opportunities for the individual and collective. So in this blog I write about all things that genuinely fascinate me: art, spirituality, the puzzles of personhood--and their ongoing interplay. For some, learning the artist's thoughts contaminates the experience of the art, and I respect that. It might be best to avoid this blog and visit only my gallery pages. Personally I can't get enough of the stories, ideas, and people behind art, so this blog is most appropriate for an audience similarly curious and open-minded, and who won't take offense at challenging perspectives and taboo topics. It's especially for those who are aware they're undergoing a spiritual awakening and seek to feel less alone in that process. I wouldn't be at this better place in my life if it weren't for the wayshowers I found online who helped me understand what was happening to me and to the world, and I hope to pay it forward by doing the same for others on the awakening path.
Systems Busting | It Takes a Village: Support Networks for Healthier Child Development (and Parent Sanity)
This is the fifth in a series of posts on what I've learned from my dysfunctional upbringing and my thoughts on how the systems and beliefs that comprise our culture can improve. For my full story, see the December 2020 post titled, "We Are Shaped by Our Experiences: An Origin Story Pulled from the Shadows." My intention is to inspire others to develop greater awareness about their own lives and to share ideas for building healthier, more supportive families and communities. Because I believe, as Teal Swan says, "We are given the very wounds we are meant to teach others to heal."
The title of this post comes from an African proverb: "It takes a village to raise a child." This is the way many traditional cultures around the world operate--a concept unfamiliar to most of us in the modern United States and some other "developed" countries.
Lessons on Family and Community, from India
The thing that most impressed me during my two visits to India--once at age 15 and another in my twenties--was the sheer number of people around at any given time. It was not unusual to have three generations of a family all living together under the same roof--as was the case for my extended family living there. There was always someone around to help out or talk to or play with. Multiple women would gather in the kitchen to prepare meals together, chatting the whole time. There seemed to be much more interaction with neighbors, too; in India it is common for children to call women "auntie" and men "uncle" even if they are not relatives, because the concept of family extends to the broader community.
Elders hold an important place in Indian households. My paternal grandmother, instead of sitting alone in her own house or a nursing home on the other side of town as she likely would have if she were an American, was a physically active, mentally sharp, and very much loved member of the family. She drew a beautiful new chalk mandala on the ground outside the house every day and showed remarkable agility in her continued help with household chores--tasks that her American counterparts likely would find physically taxing at that advanced age. (How do elderly Indians keep so fit? They move around a lot.)
Households in India seem to offer a more supportive environment for children and also for adults who could all use help at one time or another. There was a lively energy to homes that ours stateside lacked. I wonder if my mom June had visited India early on, if she'd have noticed/realized how the presence of many caring people in the household is the critical condition for a less-stressful experience raising children.
Most families in India might be materially poor, but they are incredibly wealthy in social interaction and support--much wealthier than most of us raised in middle-class America. I do believe this is why my dad, who was raised in poverty yet displayed a remarkable ability to learn, work, and persevere under stressful conditions, had much greater mental and emotional resilience than June and his children did--four people who grew up lacking the very social support he enjoyed. (As I've explained in previous posts, science now confirms that personal contact with mentally and emotionally healthy adults is the critical condition for a child to develop a resilient nervous system.) I watched my dad as he interacted with our extended family on our visits to India and he was playful and happy. This is what he had grown up with. People need people, just as much as we need food, water, and shelter.
Yet my dad clearly took for granted how much his socially-rich upbringing had benefited him, since he--like many others who came from difficult economic circumstances in neighborhoods full of people--focused all his energy on making money, at the expense of developing relationships with his family members and potential friends. In my opinion, my dad’s major oversight was assuming that all his children needed was shelter, food, and education in order to thrive in life. I’m living proof that it’s not enough. We might have been financially well-off, but we were socially--and thus emotionally and developmentally--poor.
Physical Proximity Matters
Another fact of life in India is the crowded character of most urban areas, with buildings and people jam-packed together in ways we rarely see in the U.S. Of course, this living arrangement stems from poverty, and I'm not about to romanticize a culture where poorly distributed resources and political corruption--not to mention sexism and the toxic legacy of the caste system--remain big problems. But a byproduct of population density is greater social interaction and support, which tends to increase well-being for those involved.
In contrast, the dominant family structure and community design most commonly found in the United States don't offer this degree of social contact. Parenting is challenging even with two mentally/emotionally healthy adults with standard work obligations (and as my case shows, impossible with absent and abusive adults). Yet a nuclear family headed by just two working adults living in a residential unit known as the “single family home” prevails among living arrangements in our culture. Plus the dominant community design these days is suburban sprawl, where various uses (residential, work, leisure) tend to be segregated in different regions and getting around on foot is impractical. This enables fewer opportunities for informal interaction among people, contributing to isolation.
It wasn't always so ubiquitous. One of the most radical and revolutionary urban planners of the 20th century, Jane Jacobs, pioneered our modern understanding of how community design affects psychological health and physical health and safety. As she observed in her classic 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, certain urban centers like in New York City and Boston with their "mixed-use development" (i.e., places of living, working, and leisure all mixed together in the same physical area) and close spacing of buildings with small setbacks from streets encourage foot traffic and ensure that large numbers of people are present at all times of day, producing a friendlier, safer environment. In recent decades urban planning has experienced a revival of interest in designing communities with a greater degree of mixed-use development, pedestrian-friendly streets, and features like farmers' markets that encourage more social interaction.
Why is the presence of people so important? Humans--like most mammals--are a fundamentally tribal species; we seek the safety of the herd and have done so for millennia. We’re biologically wired to need other people in order to develop and thrive (I've already covered this in previous blog posts). Yet our modern way of life has increasingly promoted isolation--the very thing that engenders loneliness and stress, and thus a decline in mental and even physical health. How can people be healthy and happy themselves under these circumstances--and raise healthy, happy children in the process?
But a truism I sure experienced at home and in school is that one can be surrounded by people and still feel incredibly lonely. So the quantity of people in one's environment doesn't guarantee social benefit; what matters is quality of character, emotional stability, and capacity to love. In a family like ours with a history of severe trauma running through my mom's lineage, I doubt having extended family members such as my maternal grandmother--one of the most traumatized and saddest people I've ever met--around our already-dysfunctional household would have helped either her or us. At some point, someone has to break the ancestral trauma cycle with an infusion of good human energy from outside the family. Which leads me to . . . .
Creating the Village
So what are some practical solutions for an unhealthily individualistic culture like our own? One is cohousing--an alternative, deliberately more social living arrangement that has taken root in some industrialized countries. Here's an excerpt from the 2011 documentary, Happy, featuring an example of cohousing in Denmark:
As one little girl says in the video, “It’s nice to have grown-ups who are always looking out for us.” This echoes Jane Jacobs’s explanations of why mixed-use, compact neighborhood blocks with sidewalks and storefronts are inherently safe for children: because there are always adults around watching out for them.
But the increased presence of adults provides children with more than physical safety benefits. Dr. Gabor Maté’s observes in his interview with Russell Brand how today’s children spend an unnatural amount of time sequestered among their peers (e.g., in daycare, school, playing with siblings while parents attend to housework or business). Without frequent, substantive interaction with adults, children lack opportunities to observe and assimilate more mature behaviors. This has significant repercussions for the developing brain and, ultimately, the quality of our social fabric. Maté explains:
If you look at how human beings evolved, we evolved in hunter-gatherer groups, when children were always around parents and adults--and not just one parent, and not just one set of parents, but the whole tribe would be your mentor and your parent. That's gone, but at this point in human evolution, it hasn't been that long. Now the human brain needs to attach, needs to connect to somebody--we're just wired that way, especially the immature brain, because without attachment we don't survive, the infant does not survive without attachment. But we're not told who to attach to. Nature doesn't tell us who attachment figures should be. A duckling hatching from the egg, in the absence of the mother duck, will imprint on a moving toy--which is not designed to bring her up to adulthood. In our culture, the kids lose the contact with adults very early, spend most of the time with other kids, and now their brains connect with other kids' brains--and now they become each other's mentors and models and . . . go-tos. And the result is prolonged immaturity, the result is resistance to the parents . . . the absorption of immature values that we see enacted throughout the culture.
If children naturally imprint on whoever is in their environment, and healthy adult behaviors are crucial to child development, the diversity--not just the presence--of those adult behaviors seems to matter on a whole other level. I haven't seen anyone else discuss the benefits of "the village" quite in this way, but I now have a hypothesis based on my own childhood experience of very damaging tunnel vision generated by the dominant adult force in my life: a highly-controlling parent. Humans are naturally sponge-like as children, more readily absorbing perspectives and behaviors during this critically formative time than at any other life stage. When kids can hang out with multiple adults, each with different outlooks on life and ways of being, they are presented with a self-development opportunity that goes beyond mere imprinting: exercise of choice in perspectives to embrace and behaviors to emulate.
My central assertion in this blog series is that we are shaped by our experiences--which, I know, sounds passive, because frankly many of us did experience powerlessness growing up in restricted environments. An important part of becoming a sovereign human being is developing and exercising personal agency: What do I like? Who do I admire? The diversity of adults inherent in cohousing or other village-type living arrangements seems like it would naturally encourage children to make use of their discernment in trying out and deciding who they want to be like, instead of passively defaulting to the limited parental (and peer) examples that would normally dominate their worlds. A true village gives children the chance to shape themselves by choosing their interpersonal experiences from a diversity of options, based on personal preference.
But back to cohousing. Here is a TEDx talk from Trish Becker-Hafnor of University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work--who has direct experience creating and living in a cohousing community:
As Becker-Hafnor admits, "cohousing is not for everyone--but human connection is." Not interested in cohousing or don't have access to it? Do what you can, where you are, to create more of a village in your life. A great source of inspiration for families is YouTube video creator Ellen Fisher, who, along with her husband, has created a support network composed of friends and neighbors on the island of Maui. Their best friends--a couple and their two young children--moved into a smaller house on their property and they all often eat meals together and help each other out with childcare. This arrangement ensures there are always other people beyond the nuclear family to talk to and play with. Ellen and her husband fully understood how important the first few weeks following birth are for the family to bond with the newborn, so before the births of their children they organized “meal trains” by inviting their big community of friends to provide a steady stream of prepared food to the household during the first two post-natal weeks. In true community spirit, Ellen and Andrew happily do the same for other new parents. They also set up a babysitting duty rotation where couples can enjoy a night out once a week while another set of parents in the circle babysit their kids. The Fisher family homeschools their children and so do many of their friends, so they often share homeschooling duties and enlist people from the surrounding community to help teach their kids about farming, cooking, and other things of practical value.
The Necessity and Power of Mentors
It seems that while most people have dysfunctional childhoods to some extent, they’ll fondly look back at, e.g., a grandparent, next-door neighbor, or teacher who provided them with love and guidance that maybe their parents couldn’t give them. (Even June had a high school teacher take her under her wing and introduce her to, in June’s words, a “whole new world.”) In her powerful speech at Variety’s 2017 Power of Women event, Viola Davis references studies on children’s ability to succeed, and asks:
What is that one element that literally helps that kid who has nothing achieve ultimate success? What is that one factor? And they always say, it's one person who was a mentor. Usually it's an educator--but not necessarily--who teaches them how to master a skill, who teaches them how to fail, and who ultimately likes them. Because we know that mentors allow us to see the hope within ourselves.
I was a fairly hopeless, lonely kid. There wasn’t a single adult in my childhood or teenhood who stepped in as the long-term mentor, confidant, or friend I needed. But this disconnection had a silver lining: The awfulness of it only reinforced to me, in ways that I can’t ignore or keep to myself, the importance of a supportive community for child development and parent sanity. I don't want that to happen to any other--that's why I'm writing here. And someday I'll be at a good enough place in my own life to be able to help out kids more directly. (I have a post coming up on why this can't be rushed. The world is full of parents and teachers who prematurely took on "helping" children before becoming aware of/taking care of their own crap first--and this does more harm than good. You can't pour from an empty cup.) If you had a mentor, really think about how they influenced you and whether you took that for granted. Take action in whatever way feels right to help other children access the same privilege early enough in their development to make a difference in their lives. Because prevention is always easier than remediation.
Yes, Parents Can Have Favorite and Least Favorite Kids--and That’s OK!
Now for super taboo topic. Think about how common it is for us to declare our favorites: colors, foods, movies, t-shirts. We have “best friends” and “true loves.” It’s only human nature to develop and rank our preferences in every facet of our lives. So why should we expect parents not to do the same with their kids? Expecting parents not to have favorite children is demanding that they not be human--so parents unfortunately will feel shame for this. Sure, not every parent has favorites, but it happens. I sensed it in my family, witnessed it in other families, and recall coming across a postcard submitted to the PostSecret project (a website for sharing anonymous and often painful secrets) in which a parent admitted having a least-favorite child.
Parents not admitting this to themselves is actually more damaging to their children than openly acknowledging it, since staying in denial means they're less likely to do something about it. If a loving, responsible parent can acknowledge that they don't have energy for one (or more) of their children, then they might be more willing to make sure that kid has in their lives other adults who can provide them the support they need to develop a healthy sense of self. This only reinforces how important it is to have that village, i.e, a support network of kind, caring adults available to help with raising children. Can't connect to your kid? Someone out there will! The internet is full of examples of people who adopted unwanted children--like this story of a single dad who adopted a girl with Down Syndrome who had been passed over by 20 families. “'When I held her in my arms, I was filled with joy. . . I felt she was my daughter immediately. I knew I was ready to be her father.'” Yet I can see how giving up children through adoption might feel stigmatizing for some parents, even as it might be in the kids' best interest. The built-in social network of cohousing or some other kind of "village" seems like it would offer parents a much easier way to find alternative adult support for their children without resorting to the finality of adoption.
Here's a perspective shift if you need one: Doing your shadow work to become aware and honest about your true feelings and then letting others know that you can't fulfil a caregiver role allows someone else to step in and fulfil their caregiver role--which likely is part of their soul's mission here on Earth. Everyone has an important part to play in this grand shift we're making from separation back to unity consciousness, where ultimately we're all family.