We are Wired to Raise Children in Community

Children playing in the “Frog” pond in Ecovillage Ithaca.

In the West, a grand experiment has been unfolding over the last one hundred years. For thousands of years, humans had been deeply embedded within a broader net of community life — fitted within the spheres of family, social class, faith, and work. But then we shed community and embraced the nuclear family as the container for our lives. We believed this small, isolated structure would allow us to create the lives we really wanted, unencumbered by the demands of extended families, meddling neighbors, and social pressures to conform.

The demands of the collective gave way to the liberation of the individual as, at the turn of the twentieth century, rural dwellers piled into crowded cities seeking jobs. By mid-century, a post war economy made a new exodus possible, and life in the suburbs became the new ideal. Citified folks were now moving out to expansive green lawns where splendid isolation was the new dream for modern life.

More recently, hip urban centers with lively cafés, cool cultural centers, and app-reviewable restaurants have captured our collective imagination as the best place to live. Young adults, in particular, are flocking back to cities. Despite skyrocketing rents and increasingly tiny apartments, these are great places to experiment with identity, seek out one’s tribe, and eventually search for a life partner. And it’s all quite wonderful — until perhaps two people meet, settle down, and become parents.

And here’s where contemporary culture may be encountering a profound but forgotten truth: Whether in the city or in the suburbs, I believe we’re not meant to raise children in nuclear families without the support of a community. We’re simply not wired for it. Raising families without community makes the burden of parenting exponentially harder for us all.

Community reinvented

A year ago, my wife Hélène, our children — then six and thee-years-old — and I made a bold move. We boxed up our life in Belgium and flew over the ocean while our stuff slowly made its way in a container across the ocean. We changed not just countries, but how we lived. We left a bustling city to join an ecovillage in Ithaca, in upstate New York. We now have views of rolling hills and ponds and woods and trails. There’s an organic farm on the village’s land, which feeds us. Our neighbors have become friends and extended family. And there are kids and playgrounds all around.

We loved our life in Brussels, but something had begun to feel off. Like everyone around us, “home” was limited to the four walls of our house. Outside, we greeted our neighbors but we barely knew them. The default assumption was that we should be self-sufficient, that we had to own everything we needed. It would simply be too awkward to ask a neighbor to borrow a drill. Or for some butter to avoid a trip to the supermarket. If something needed fixing, we had to hire someone for the repair. If our children wanted to play with friends, we had to call their friends’ parents or go through a long back-and-forth of text messages to arrange the logistics of a play date: How about Thursday? Can you drop them at 4:00 if we bring them back at 6:00?

A longing began to develop — for more meaningful relationships, for genuine community. For lives that were closer to nature. To consume less. To live a little lighter on the earth.

For all these reasons, moving to our ecovillage in Ithaca was an inspired decision. Three months after our move, we had to fly back to Brussels for administrative reasons, and it already felt like a past life. Boy, everything feels tense and complicated here, we thought. In no time, our new life just felt right.

From our stays in the village before our move, we knew that living here would be a priceless gift for our children. Cars are parked at the entry of the village so kids may roam safely and freely on hundreds of acres of meadows and woods. There are two ponds to swim in the summer and skate in winter, and several outdoor and indoor playgrounds. In our previous life, our children’s world was litterally the size of our house. Now it’s extended to hundreds of acres. Children here are truly “free-range kids”.

More important even than space, there are other children and loving adults. Children here are graced with autonomy; they run over to a friend’s house to play and when it’s time for dinner, will often spontaneously be invited to stay. I love to add a plate or two when my kids’ friends (well, really, they are my friends too!) stay for dinner, or add that extra mattress for a sleepover they’ve just organized. What a childhood they get to have!

So, we knew we would be offering our children a wonderful life, and yet there was something closely related we completely failed to anticipate — how much community would change our lives as parents. Being a parent is hard. Not all the time, of course. There are many joy-filled moments — times when we look at our children and our hearts nearly burst. Times we can’t possibly imagine what our lives would be without them. But studies find that over the course of a lifetime, happiness levels take a serious dip during the parenting years for most, while stress and tiredness peak.

Here’s what I’ve discovered: much of that strain is self-inflicted. The dream of individualized lives, of the nuclear family as the basis of modern existence, is not conducive to joyful parenting. For hundreds of thousands of years, children were raised within multigenerational family structures. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and other members of the tribe or community watched over the children and interacted with them. Not everything depended on the parents! As the saying goes, “it takes a village.” Both parents and children pay the price for modern isolation. I wonder how much of the stress, depression, and existential anxieties increasingly diagnosed in both adults and children might be related to this isolation?

Children can roam 200 acres of land, woods and meadows freely… What a childhood they get to have!

The solution, I’m convinced, is not to dial back the clock and try to rebuilt past forms of community. Who would want to live under constant scrutiny and judgment from extended family, neighbors, or fellow churchgoers, anyway? Ecovillages, co-housing, and intentional communities much better suit our need for privacy and community. In our particular ecovillage, we have our own house where we enjoy full privacy, as any other family might expect. But when we want or need it, a loving community is just at our doorstep. We can engage with our community as little or as much as we desire. People here are pretty diverse but we respect one another’s differences; we feel no pressure to conform to any particular mold.

Parenting transformed by community

How is parenting changed through intentional community? Here are a few things I’ve learned. Our children’s newfound autonomy to roam and seek out friends translates into the biggest luxury we as parents can ask for: more free time! Often, we are not quite sure where our children are, and we feel great about it (well that is, until its dinner or bedtime!). We know they are safe and they are having fun somewhere. At times, their autonomy even translates into more sleep for us. Last winter, my wife and I awoke some mornings to discover that our 6-year-old son had been up for two hours. Rather than waking us, he’d put on his skies and left for an expedition in the snow. Greater autonomy meets a deep need for the children. And boy, it’s been a blessing for us, as well.

While we are on the topic of more free time, did I mention our three common dinners every week? Some neighbors volunteer to cook regular meals for the community, and everyone is invited. Especially as young parents, to get a break from having to cook every night feels like luxury! Most weeks, we join two or three of these meals in the week, but at times, the four of us simply like to snuggle at home and may not join any common meals for a week or two. Other times, it all depends on what is on the menu.

The calming influence of nature has been another boon for us as parents. When things grow intense around the house, when a disagreement breaks out between the children, or when the noise level threatens to turn us into the kind of parents we don’t want to be, we tell our kids: let’s go for a walk. We often do this spontaneously, sometimes just before bedtime when the kids are already in pajamas. We simply close the door behind us and become enveloped by the quieting presence of nature.

No longer the only entertainers, no longer the only role-models

A few weeks into our lives here, we noticed we’d stopped planning for the weekend ahead. When we lived in the city, we had to make plans. There would always come a time when the kids needed to be out of the house or we would all go mad. Will we go to a park? A museum? Arrange a play date with friends? But here, something is always happening. There are blueberries to pick or apple cider to press. There’s a pond to swim in, or broom ball to play on its frozen surface in winter. A neighbor has a new pet! Or a grandpa has put out a telescope and kids line up to marvel at the moon. The pressure of entertaining our children no longer rests on our shoulders alone.

As our children grow up in the caring web of this community, their mother and I will no longer be their only role models and inspirations, which brings a subtle sense of relief. In the ecovillage, people have such a wide array of talents and interests. Hélène and I are not musicians, but we sense that our four-year old daughter has a musical inclination. Will she choose to spend time with Lizzie, who plays cello, or with Joe, a guitarist, violinist and touring songwriter? Or with Kathryn or Robert who play piano? Perhaps she’ll listen in on the village’s Cuban drumming group or its choir practice. And as she and her brother grow into teens, I’m sure the bonds they build will serve them well. Parents who’ve raised children through teenage years here tell us how wonderful it is when their sometimes shy and awkward teen has other adults with whom they can talk and relate.

Through spontaneous play, children and adults in the community get to know and appreciate one another and form special bonds.

Recently, Ethan, a strong, tall 18-year-old who grew up in our ecovillage returned home from college for a visit. I was walking with a neighbor, Phebe, in her sixties, who has known him since he was a child. Like many adults and children here, they’ve developed a special bond. When Ethan saw Phebe, he broke out in a big grin and started running. He threw himself into her arms. Witnessing the scene, I was deeply touched, tears springing to my eyes; I’d never seen a young man run and throw himself into the arms of an adult for an embrace. Here was a child that had been loved not only by his parents and grandparents, but by his wider community. And here was a woman who was blessed to be in a place where she could love not just her own child, but this boy too — and probably a few others in the community as well.

Community and non-violent parenting

Like an increasing number of people, Hélène and I try to raise our children without punishments or rewards, threats or promises. This is sometimes referred to as non-violent parenting. We strive to help our children express their needs, share with them our own needs, and together make decisions that work for everyone.

Most of the time, this works beautifully. Our children are both very strong willed, and yet they have developed a capacity for empathy and cooperation that many adults find surprising. But they are only four and seven-years-old. There are moments in which their needs are all-consuming, when they’re simply not open or able to engage. They insist on getting what they want, not matter what, and may yell, cry, or sometimes hit to make it happen. In more traditional parenting, this is where we’d bring out the arsenal of threats and punishments.

Recently, I talked about this with Miki Kashtan, a friend and leading figure in the world of non-violent communication and facilitation. I explained to her that in some of those moments, I feel stuck. I’ve forfeited the weapon that parents have used for thousands of years: to “make” my children obey me and do what I want, by threatening them into submission. And I’m glad I have. And yet, I can become frustrated at times when my children become stuck in a place where my needs (say, my need for quiet) are ignored, while they loudly insist that theirs get met. In those moments, I sometimes feel lost.

Miki’s answer will stay with me. She said, “You are trying to solve the problem in the wrong context. You can’t solve this within the nuclear family. You can only solve it in the context of community.”

Of course, she’s right! It’s not reasonable to ask young children to be able, at all times, to engage in problem-solving to meet everyone’s needs. It’s hard enough for them to understand and express their own needs (I mean, it’s hard for us adults too!), and at times, they are simply too overwhelmed to listen to our needs. In those moments, our greatest tool is the support of others. We must be able to say: I’m stepping out to get my needs met. Can you please take over?

The only way to parent in non-violent ways, without exhausting ourselves, is within the context of community. Now that Miki helped me see this so clearly, I’ve started knocking more often at a neighbor’s door to ask: Can you be with my kids for 15 minutes / an hour / the afternoon? I really need some time on my own! And I’m more than happy to do this for you next time you need it.

Too rosy a picture?

What are the downsides to parenting in community? Perhaps at this stage, it sounds like I’m painting a very rosy picture. When I question elders around our ecovillage who’ve been parents here before us, one downside is often mentioned. Living in close proximity exposes children to different parenting styles and rules. Our children often come home with challenging questions: Why can Julie keep playing outside when it’s bedtime for me? Can I watch x movie or play x video game since Flynn is allowed to watch/play?

In community, even more than in some traditional settings, our children will challenge us to justify — and sometimes even reconsider — our parenting choices. “Because I say so!” would be a difficult line to toe here!

There have been cases in the past where different perspectives and choices have led to tensions between some parents. We haven’t personally experienced this so far, and gratefully, we seem to be navigating differences in style with grace. Our children are still quite young, however, and I can imagine that by their teens, any issues we face together will grow in size.

Eager faces as the Easter egg-hunt is about to start. The joys of community: some parents somehow organized this, our children just got to show up, we didn’t do a thing.

What if we feel that a friend is not the best influence? If this is not a friend from school, but a friend living in the community, things could be both easier and trickier. We could witness things firsthand and have more power to participate in the dynamics and shape them, but that child’s parents would also be our neighbors and perhaps our friends.

I hope the shared context of community will invite us to work any potential problems out, to dive deeply into conversation, and continue communicating in respectful ways. That is essential to what I signed up for when I joined the ecovillage — sharing in meaningful conversations and not shying away from the beauty and occasional messiness of human relationships.

Rediscovering the obvious

Through 99% of human history, anthropologists tell us that children grew up in community. We know from surviving hunter-gatherer societies that adults don’t entertain the notion that children need to be “raised.” In these cultures, youngsters learn all essential skills — physical, social, emotional — through play with other children in the tribe and by imitating and interacting with adults. Children are much more autonomous than their modern counterparts, and play and learn all day in mixed-age groups. When they need adults, they seek out anyone at hand. Their parents aren’t their only resources[1].

While I knew this, I’d believed it was ancient history. It took living in supportive community to understand that we are still deeply wired for this. We can try and live in isolated, nuclear families, but there’s a price to be paid. Restlessness and anxiety rises in children who are denied the autonomy to roam and play and learn among peers. Stress and overwhelm reign for parents who shoulder a burden they are not meant to carry.

A century ago, people began rejecting communities which felt restrictive and suffocating, and aspired for the freedom of more individualist lifestyles. The good news is that we are reinventing communities of choice. There is a growing movement of ecovillages, co-housing, and intentional community-making around the world. Many offer the best of both worlds: autonomy and communion. Privacy and freedom. The liberty to express ourselves fully and wholeheartedly within the context of a meaningful, rich community — to whatever degree we choose. For young parents, in particular, I believe this combination at this time in history is almost irresistible — and perhaps deeply necessary.

What do you think? If the idea of parenting in community resonates, I encourage you to go and visit ecovillages and co-housing communities. Our ecovillage near Ithaca, NY hosts monthly public tours for a quick introduction. You can also come and stay for a few days in one of the village’s BnBs, to feel the place and see whether it might be something for you. Houses regularly come up for rent or sale, and we are always thrilled to welcome new families. Many of the children of the village’s founders have grown up, and we are currently welcoming a new generation of parents.

My experience is that it’s best to visit a few different places, to help you better understand what might work best for you and your family. They come in all colors and flavors. I wish you happy exploration and I believe your children will thank you. And I have a hunch you’ll thank yourself too! As my wife and I have so joyfully discovered, there is an easier, more fulfilling way to be a parent.

[1] I highly recommend Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn. Learning about childhood in hunter and gather societies asks powerful, and at times disturbing, questions about how we think about raising children, in families and in schools.

POST SCRIPTUM

  1. A neighbor pointed me to this article in the UK’s Daily Mail that traces how, within one particular family, an eight-year old’s world got gradually and drastically reduced over 4 generations. The map showing the size of the area each generation could roam is particularly striking.
  2. An image is worth a thousand words. Here is a short video that gives a good sense of what life can feel like in an ecovillage.