I was a pretty shy kid.
Until I was 13 years old, my parents literally had to coax me out of my bedroom (where I was typically buried in a medieval fantasy novel) to get me to simply shake the hands of our visitors and look them in the eye.
Then I’d quickly duck back into my room.
But somehow I survived college and a modern working environment (barely!) and I’m now raising my twin boys to give them as much social success and social confidence as possible, and today’s article will delve into six natural and ancestrally-based ways that you can do the same.
The Importance of Tribes
Many of our animal relatives spend a great deal of their time wandering or living in tribes, groups, flocks, herds and schools – even going so far as to eat bugs off the body of their friends and families. Although I’m a fan of the burgeoning cricket protein food movement, I’ll admit I am somewhat glad we humans aren’t necessarily social to the extent of grooming via bug-picking. But unfortunately, nowadays we don’t even come close to the tribal attachments displayed in nature or in our ancestry.
But consider this: in multiple studies, relationships and spending time with family and close friends is consistently correlated with amazingly higher levels of happiness and well-being. Despite this fact, the last several decades have seen a significant decline in many aspects associated with tight-knit social circles – including qualities like family and household size, club and social participation, and number of close friends.
Sadly, we’ve instead witnessed an increase in solo or isolated activities such as television, long commutes, the internet, and digital relationships.
In other words, we seem to be making a stark transition from tribe to individual. However, we humans are biologically hard-wired to be social animals. As a matter of fact, we’re such social animals that the mere act of joining a club (e.g. dance club, chess club, bridge club, tennis club, golf club, etc.) halves your chance of death in the next year. Or consider the fact that – as mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers – living in a close-knit town of three-generation households can singlehandedly lower your risk of heart disease.
So how can you get a jump-start on making your kid ready for tribal interaction that makes them live longer and be happier?
During early childhood development, from birth to 3 years old, much of our neurobiology and core personalities are formed. To increase propensity for social and tribal engagement, increase empathy and decrease risk of anxiety and depression in children, it is during this time that it becomes highly important to simulate the close-knit parent-child bonds displayed both in nature and in the practices of our hunter gatherer ancestors. I realize that was a mouthful, but in a nutshell, we can begin by increasing attachment at an earlier age.
For example, in a recent national symposium, University of Notre Dame psychology professor Darcia Narvaez highlighted six key practices consistent with the concept of attachment parenting (a philosophy originally championed by well-known pediatrician Dr. William Sears). The six practices for increasing attachment are detailed below.
Six Ways To Increase Attachment in Kids
1) Natural birth: Research shows that medical interventions such as C-sections, whisking a baby away from a mother and off into a separate ward for post-birth testing or treatment, and baby formula feedings can inhibit important hormones like oxytocin from being released, which interferes with the natural mother-baby bonding process that jumpstarts the tribal feeling.
2) Breastfeeding: Many of our previous ancestral cultures breastfed their infants for two to five years. This not only helps to form a properly functioning gut-based immune system, but also decreases anxiety and forms important social bonds between a child and mother. Obviously, if you have a high schooler you can’t do much about this, but if you are currently expecting or currently breastfeeding, I recommend you take breastfeeding to at least the two years old level.
3) Cuddling: Along with the nutritional value of breast milk, kids develop a sense of wellbeing from the positive touch that breastfeeding involves. Positive touch has benefits to brain development, hormone-functioning, and appropriate social interactions. For this reason, breastfeeding into later ages is important, as is co-sleeping, and plenty of cuddling. My wife Jessa, me and our six year old twin boys River and Terran often simply lay on the living room couch in a big pile of family togetherness for 20 minutes after they get out of bed – and I can feel that oxytocin surging through my veins.
4) Responsiveness: In most ancient cultures, there was not much value placed in letting a baby fuss or cry. Don’t worry – comforting your child when distressed is not going to ruin their chances of becoming a tough, Spartanesque, future Cross-fit games champion or some other kind of professional athlete (if that’s what you desire in a kid). In contrast, children who have responsive parents tend to develop greater empathy, they tend to develop a conscience earlier, and they will be set to interact more cooperatively with a tribe.
5) Multiple Adult Caregivers: Our early infant ancestors benefited from being cared for not just by mom and dad, but by other adults and tribe members who loved them. Surrogate parents also help to share some of the burden of parenting, helping to prevent parental exhaustion. For this reason, raising up children in some sort of a tribe setting can bestow an incredible advantage to your kids and to you too. This approach can save you work, since with other trusted caregivers around, you have more time flexibility. In many cultures, kids run around everywhere with their parents nowhere in sight. But all the neighbors know each other. There are aunts, uncles and other family members and friends who are keeping their eyes on the kids. As Eric D. Kennedy describes it in his excellent online essay “On the Social Lives of Cavemen”, there is a healthy middle ground between not being allowed to cross the street and a high school house party. As children are allowed to become independent of parents, they are able to do it, but within a trusted support network of family and friends.
6) Free Play (With Kids Of Varying Ages). This concept actually builds on the concept of having multiple adult caregivers. Our ancestors’ children weren’t separated into age-specific play circles, but were instead exposed to kids at different stages of development – thus enhancing the child’s physical and mental growth. I’d highly recommend you read a recent article in The Atlantic (available for free online) entitled “The Overprotected Kid”. The article describes how preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery, without making it safer. It goes on to describe new kind of free-play, junk-yard type playground. This miniature outdoor city is full of fire, fences, mud, wood scraps, tires, and other random materials where children of all ages spend the entire day exploring, forming tribes and generally being left to “fend for themselves” – but under the watchful eye of older tribe members such as friends, family members and parents who are within close proximity – distant but present.
Contrast these reasonable risks with casual tribal supervision with our modern practice of extreme supervision by parents only, antibacterial hand sprays, plush bumper-guarded playground equipment, shouting at kids not to “run with sticks” and other ridiculous coddling, and it’s understandable why children are not only growing weak and fragile, but more socially anxious, less cooperative, and more picky and judgmental about spending time with anyone outside their peer group.
Practical Steps You Can Take
So from a practical standpoint, what can you do to implement some of the tips you’ve just learned? Try these quick tips:
-Breastfeed to a later age and don’t be embarrassed about it. Cuddle. Be responsive if your child cries or gets hurt.
-Make friends with your neighbors, try to live close to family if possible, kick your children outside to play for long hours, make sure they know it’s OK to play with a mix of older and younger kids, and then quit worrying. They’ll survive.
-Have family dinners. Have dinner parties. Read the good book “Never Eat Alone” and incorporate the same concepts into your childrens’ lives.
-Have your kids spend more time with trusted adults who aren’t their parents. Then do the same for yourself, spending time with the kids of adults who trust you. Hang out with mixed age groups and make sure your kids do too. Have your kids spend more time at older people’s homes or with grandma and grandpa.
-Become familiar with the concept of unschooling (visit Unschoolery.com). Unschooling is simply a rough version of learning that prepares a child for life, for being an entrepreneur, for learning anything, and for being autonomous. Whether your child is homeschooled, in private school, or public school, you can use unschooling concepts to generate important lifelong skills. Pay very close attention to what your children develop a natural interest in, and then teach them to learn about the world through activities, trips, and adventures. For example, our kids have recently become interested in singing. But rather than going out and purchasing formal music curriculum, we started playing a home version of the singing competition “The Voice”, we record songs on the computer with a microphone, we bought an electronic keyboard, and we brought them to a musical.
Ben Greenfield is an ex-bodybuilder, Ironman triathlete, professional Spartan racer, coach, speaker and author of the New York Times Bestseller “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life” (http://www.BeyondTrainingBook.com). In 2008, Ben was voted as NSCA’s Personal Trainer of the year and in 2013 was named by Greatist as one of the top 100 Most Influential People In Health And Fitness. Ben blogs and podcasts at http://www.BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and resides in Spokane, WA with his wife and twin boys.