Previously in this column, I have often discussed the shrinking ability of our culture to support authentic connection, and its value for young people and parents alike. It is not difficult for most of us to acknowledge, at least in theory, that healthy relationships both at school and at home matter when it comes to growing up with a smile. However, many of us may not be aware of how these relationships are treated in other cultures, and how spectacularly successful they have been in helping young people to be raised in ways that are reflective of their needs. There are some natural challenges in our own modern culture as well that can really hamper experiencing positive childhood and teenage years.
Recently I attended a seminar about the raising of children within aboriginal culture, and how this had been a key element to supporting a people who lived and thrived on our continent for thousands of years. To get to the key point made, extended family was critical in helping a young person have the personal connections and learn the lessons he or she would need in order to grow up with purpose and contentment. In essence, there was a responsibility for raising children that was accepted by the whole community, and having a “nuclear family” of two parents and 1.8 children was totally unheard of. Further, family actually was considered to consist of not just the biological parents and siblings, but also virtually all other members of the community who had some degree of connection with the child; friends, neighbours and mentors were all considered to be brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers alike.
The huge payoff came through helping that child to feel like their world was large and well-rounded, and they could fairly easily have their needs to connect, learn new skills, and gain independence met on a significant level. As a result, there was far less need to create drama and suffering for themselves and others around them! Relationships have mattered deeply for aboriginal peoples, and this could be instructive for us, if we accept the premise that the same could hold true in our own society today.
My own journey, through 15 years as a teacher and counsellor, is riddled with countless examples of kids and teens simply seeking to belong and be fully heard. While it may not be possible to simply have a collection of known relatives move into our general area, it is absolutely possible to employ a few simple strategies that acknowledge what has worked before in history, and may be worth taking a serious look at for our own children. Here are a few:
1) Increase the amount of time (and even willingness) to connect with other family members by making a conscious effort to put down the phone, and eliminate unrequired distractions for a period of time each day. I have had to learn, on a personal note, to recognize when my kids want my full presence to share about a new activity they enjoyed, a story about someone at school, or anything else they might want to talk about. Giving the gift of presence is cheap and very rewarding, especially if its only real cost is leaving your phone in another room.
2) Facilitate opportunities for your kids to connect with others and expand their own worlds. Organized sports are but one option, and can be done in conjunction with playdates, trips to local areas with great hikes (Pincushion Mountain near Peachland is a great example), and belonging to fabulous groups like Brownies and Cubs, which contain many opportunities to talk and create new social connections and skills. If your son and younger daughter are seemingly always in conflict, and reactions when you step in to restore order escalate quickly, it might be a symptom of needing to expand the number of good friends and interesting experiences they currently have.
3) Get to know your neighbours on a more personal level! When young people feel there is a larger community around them that they are part of, it not only provides a further source of people who are prepared to invest into the lives of our family members (“Hey, how are those dance lessons going for you, Ashley?”), kids pick up on the desirability of getting to know others around us. And hey, you might even create a couple of new and keen babysitters in the process!
Aboriginal traditions acknowledge that we are all better off when we are surrounded by people, and as parents, we have an ability to create many opportunities to belong, as well as modeling what healthy relationships can look like. When we mix these opportunities with a variety of activities that your kids and you enjoy (without overburdening them with a heavy schedule, of course), we may be teaching to the heart of who a child is. It is from this place that true resiliency and health can grow from.