The Tribe Is Dead



It takes a tribe to raise a child, they say. This is true, I suppose, for a few reasons. One is that kids learn more from more people. Another is that having other adults around is helpful for the adults – while one caretaker cares for a child, another can rest and recharge. Another reason – one I was thinking about today – is that the presence and support of other adults makes up for the shortcomings of the parent. This is important because we all lack some abilities – abilities which are necessary for creating a peaceful, healthy home.

Different Strengths and Weaknesses

For example, one adult isn’t a great problem solver. She struggles to figure out why her child cries, but this same adult is a marvelous story teller and can entertain the child for hours with her words. Another adult is loving and understanding but is hopeless at cooking and nutrition planning. This woman’s child has all his emotional needs met but suffers ill health, both mentally and physically, because of his bad diet. One adult is a great teacher but has very little interest in hugs and kisses. This child will be smart but needy as she grows up. Another parent is as playful as a child but cannot discipline to save his life.

I know all of these parents. Together we would make an incredible tribe. Alone, we make incredible mistakes with our children.

But such is the 21st century where we raise children alone and with little help but from facilities.

The fact is, old ways are not going to be revived – not as long as capitalism guides our ways and individualism eats away at our communities. Our economic and social structure isn’t likely to be uprooted. The giants keeping it in place are not likely to be usurped by some peace loving clan.

For years I have lamented this sad truth. I have revered ancient ways and have felt sorry for the children and parents of our modern times. This isn’t the way we are supposed to be. This isn’t the way nature intended things to work.

And then today it occurred to me: This is the way it is. The tribe is dead. One to two parent family units have replaced them. Single family homes cover the surface of the Western world. Families live in private behind walls.

We must adapt or we will fail.

What is the answer? In the absence of the tribe, what is the best way to raise our children?

Still we can learn from tradition, and still we can create grassroots movements to revive certain aspects of the past. In Latin America and other places, community remains strong but if they were more affluent, wouldn’t community be lost as it is here?

If this is the direction our world is heading – and it does seem to be – we must create a new paradigm. Like it or not, this will involve our lonely twilight homes at, day care facilities, and technology. Families are spread all over the country and mothers go to work all day. Some people will join communes and slip away to the “ideal” setting, but that is not for the billions. What is?

How is the average home to raise their children now that the tribe is dead?

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  1. You hear the phrase “tight-knit community”. That’s modern parlance for “tribe” – a collective of folks with something in common, something that binds together. From anarchist societies that I have been a part of through attempted respectability, I now find myself, my wife and our “kids” living fairy close together and having a number of social circles. We get invited along to their parties, and we definitely bring them and their partners into our social events.

    That’s a lot further down the track for you, through, but the seeds are planted now.

    Get to know your neighbours, get to know their friends. Build up that network of friends, people you can look out for and who will look out for you. That’s the foundation of a modern tribe. Before long you’ll find all manner of people know you, know your kids … go with it.

    Don’t be a victim of fear thinking there’s bad around every corner that you need to protect your kids from but opportunities for them to grow through experience with all manner of interesting people.

    Where I am now, we’re a close-knit community. Thankfully, it was not a closed community which did not invite outsiders, but I can honestly say after just a year living here, I feel like we’ve always been here. We have a gang of maybe 30 of us who know each other really well, look out for each other, put on neighbourhood gatherings … and the age range is very diverse, including our kids and their partners, who live close but not immediately close.

    That’s the seed you can plant now.

    If you don’t have a tribe. Start one. When it comes to people, you get out what you put in. We’re like the Ice Age clan – a real rag tag of individuals, but such great backgrounds, stories and such fun had when we’re all together. Beyond that, you’ll find that you can really rely on some folks within that … and be a strength for them, too.

    • Paul,

      That’s really great advice. The tribe isn’t dead if we create one ourselves. When I was a kid in California my street was like that. Kids roamed and adults looked out. We enjoyed each other’s company and life was pretty good. Here in Colorado things were different. The street my parents moved to was shut up. Nobody knew eah other. I was just 10 when we moved there so I didn’t know to take the reins and try to change it. Maybe we could have…

      Since then I have moved too much to create that neighborhood you experience but I think it’s always in my spirit to interact. Sometimes I’m disappointed with the response, sometimes not.

      But I don’t know if you could really recreate the “tribe” in just any old neighborhood. As a culture we retire to our living rooms after dark, we don’t want to take responsiblity for anyone els. We are afraid of what might happen to us or our children (that is definitely not me by the way! Free range kids all the way here.).

  2. The way you write about the tribe reminds me of villages. Some villages have a holistic approach to community support (e.g. child raising, teaching, sharing, generosity, etc.) but you will find that they will also be some which aren’t as holistic or helpful. It’s either the leaders weren’t exposed to such teachings or practices; or they were just bad leaders to begin with.

    A big part of it had to do with trust and that others will not violate that trust. It’s not easy to create this “trustful” environment but it will work with helping hands and generosity with no expectation of gratitude back.

    I find the British concept of being polite works when it comes to mixing with strangers. You can have a casual chit chat that is very intimate to the outsider but in reality, there’s no need for gaining more trust beyond a casual chitchat with a stranger i.e. I don’t expect a total stranger to live up to promises or taking advantage of me.

    Today, I find that if I want an open environment, I have to create it first by mixing with people or even being more open with invitations or meet-ups for chitchats.

  3. In what way is the community involved in Latin America? What does the middle ground between a tribe raising a child vs only the parents look like?

    My experience growing up the Middle East was that all adults loved and cherished all children. The family did the raising (and it was generally a bigger and more bonded family than here), but strangers would always be watching over and engaging any children in the vicinity. (This meant I could take the bus alone at 6 years old!)

    There was always a sense that while the family is the core, the world outside the home is a friendly place you can engage with and *live* in. Here, the external world is cold and uncomfortable, and the home is a fortress. I think this has no small impact of psychology, and how much a child ends up taking on their parents’ mental patterns.

    But I don’t know what a solution might look like here. On an individual basis, you can work on bettering yourself in as well-rounded a way as possible, but not everyone is going to do this or do it well.

    On the other hand, I don’t feel like institutions have shown themselves to be anything more than convenient in this regard.

    Technology is the one that is still an unknown because it isn’t ‘done’ developing yet. Still, it’s hard to imagine how it can fill a human-shaped hole.

    • I agree Alexandra, I don’t see how technology could fill a human-shaped hole either. But I wonder if it might be able to play some small part. I have always been anti-tv and even anti-technology with young children but I wonder sometimes if I might not be wrong in that regard. I don’t have enough experience with well done programming and products to know.

      I think Latin America is similar to what you describe in the Middle East. People love and accept children. Here people find children annoying and parents a bummer. There kids run around and adults guide them. Here, when parents see kids doing things they shouldn’t do, they keep quiet – not wanting to “interfer”. Friends and families are tight there and convene in the evenings. They gladly help each other and share.

  4. We’ve made our own tribe. We are three families in the same neighborhood with backyards that butt up against each other, all of us transplants from some other place and only one of us with extended family nearby. A few summers ago we cut small gates in all of the fences, which allow the kids and parents (and dogs, too) to easily (and safely) wander from home to home to home via the backyard gates. The gates stay open much of the time. All of the children are fed, nurtured, disciplined, and loved in each of the homes. The parents support each other and prop each other up when needed, and the children always have playmates at the ready. As parents, we share many of the same values but, as Peggy suggested above, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and we do our best to complement each other and fill the voids.

    This is both our village and our surrogate family. We are constantly told by others how fortunate the children are to have this, but really, the parents are very fortunate as well. Being on our own, several hundred miles from the closest family members, was a huge challenge for us; building this community (and it most certainly was built; the relationships were cultivated, and we tested the waters before we jumped in) has made a huge difference in the quality of all of our lives.

    • Wow Kelly, that is beautiful! There must be a little bit of luck thrown in, but I think that if you work for closeness with the people around you, you can build a family. I love the gates idea! I won’t forget this one. I’m going to make this happen at some point!

      • I’d say there was a lot of luck, indeed. We live in the Washington, DC suburbs which is, by definition, a very transient area. Having loads of friends who “used to live here” became normal, and cultivating new relationships often felt like a chore, since ultimately we knew that eventually everyone leaves here.

        Ironically, these two other families had been our neighbors for years (years!) and we didn’t even know it, thanks to fences and job responsibilities and none of us having any children. Within a few months of having our second child, both of these neighbors had children of their own, and suddenly we all had a connection, albeit a tenuous one. As the children got older we saw more of each other, and eventually we started a babysitting co-op, which on its own was a wonderful thing. We didn’t have teenagers babysitting our kids: we had an officer in the Coast Guard, a tennis pro, a chief marketing officer, a PhD in public health, and an Emmy award winning editor as babysitters.

        The babysitting co-op lead to the gates, and the gates lead to our “village.” The village, of course, has become our surrogate family. The children are all tired of hearing about how fortunate they are and they’re surprised at the delight that others express over the gates when they see them for the first time, because this is their normal, which is so much better than the normal that we used to know.

  5. maybe the tribe isn’t dead. maybe it has evolved.

    tribes were born out of necessity and out of fundamental human need.

    the internet is a great tool for creating virtual tribes. tribes that are large or small. tribes that you can choose, based on your interests. the tribes that have been born on the internet have been born from necessity and fundamental human need.

    example: my mother raised myself and my brother in a small town, mostly alone. she was young and was raised in less-than-ideal home. she did the best she could, but made choices that shaped my adult health– for the worse.

    i now have a son. and little “tribe” to speak of. nonetheless, the internet gives me my tribe.

    on the internet i can connect with those that have “been there.” i can get advice. i can feel community. i can sit in counsel with my sisters (blog forums like this). i can visit the medicine man (hello, pubmed). i can learn about the best ways to nourish myself, why breastfeeding is invaluable, how to educate my child, and how to speak to him in a way that supports his development. i am SO grateful for my tribes across the world. and i am so grateful that the internet fuels this communication.

    • Megan,

      The virtual tribe is born!

      You are so right – people need support from other people and they are finding that if it isn’t as easy to come by in the physical world, they will get it in the virtual world. And so our support systems are found on websites.

      These support systems are different though. The differences are interesting. The Internet is a bigger world which we have to navigate. And the way we navigate it is different too. Some aspects are clearly better, but some aren’t. This is a topic for another day!

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