Act Like Your Kids Are Watching: An Ancestral Model for Modern Parenting
News coverage and the mainstream narrative tell us that this is an unprecedented time. But is it really? Sure, COVID-19 is a novel virus, not yet seen in human populations. Our current lockdown conditions are entirely new to everyone alive today. But historically speaking, neither the pandemic nor the response is novel. Pandemics and other global crises are common throughout history. Shelter-in-place orders and mandatory business closures are new only to the last 50 years. In many ways, the current restricted lifestyle would seem much closer to normal to early humans than the modern system that we all miss. By looking to this ancestral norm, we are better suited to thrive right now than we realize.
For most of us, modern life is a set of tiny blocks that each meets an individual need. We wear special clothes to go to a gym to attend three 60-minute exercise classes each week. Yet for the rest of our time, we give little thought to how we move or if our clothes and shoes even allow optimal movement. We segment work hours from leisure time. Kids go to school to learn for six hours a day, five days a week, but rarely have an occasion to read or talk about what they’ve learned outside of school hours or after graduation. The school-day further segments time into subjects with little discussion of their overlap or application to more broad lifestyle values. Even those of us committed to life-long learning and growth, fail to incorporate most of the new information that we ingest into our lives. Our reading brain is partitioned from our practical, daily pattern brain. Modern life, for most, is a compartmentalized life.
We feel upheaval right now because we’re cut off from all of our special little schedule boxes. Even before lockdown, our segmented schedules held us back from a more vibrant, natural way of life. Now, self-quarantine reveals how hollow our modern schedules are and how beholden we have become to external factors to support our health and fulfillment. It’s time to draw inspiration from our earliest ancestors.
Every daily task for a hunter-gather would simultaneously meet their needs for movement, sunshine, leisure, social time, solitude, acquiring food, and occupying and educating their kids. Similarly, their children would move, play, develop cooperation and social skills, learn about their environment, learn essential crafts and skills, and internalize values by the examples of the adults and older kids. None of this required schedules, curriculum, or specifically defined roles.
Although we can’t return to anything close to this ancestral norm, we can draw inspiration to create a more fluid lifestyle. You can meet your personal needs, ensure that your kids meet theirs, and all grow healthier and more connected in the process. Your kids can learn better than ever before possible, and you can do it within the confines of the current restrictions.
This all sounds far too good to be true, but this lifestyle has always been available. The standard model of modern life just made it far more convenient to compartmentalize our lives and outsource many of the responsibilities required to raise kids. Now that our modern norm is hardly available, we have an opportunity to build new lifestyles on two learning principles: intrinsic learning and stacking.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Do as I say, not as I do. No other idea in modern parenting more clearly defines the category of “dangerous bullshit.” Kids don’t listen, they observe. They model the communication patterns that they see between their parents. We may preach patience, compassion, and kindness, but find that Junior has somehow developed the habit of identifying the “fucking morons” every time he sees you getting frustrated in traffic. Likewise, you might aim to instill the values of movement and time in nature, but demonstrate that the proper way to end a workday is to grab a beer and plop down on the couch. You might aim to teach the value of education, but never pick up a book and always complain that you “just aren’t a math person.” Kids are fascinated by phones because Mommy and Daddy constantly demonstrate how much fun they are. They are just as fascinated by cooking, knitting, mowing the lawn, carpentry, and basketball if these are the examples that they observe.
Hunter-gatherer children grew up to be strong, healthy, and useful adults because of the examples around them, not from specific instruction. This is intrinsic learning. Modern education is built on the opposite—extrinsic teachings. Teachers teach specific facts, figures, and subjects. Coaches teach only sport-specific movements from the comfort of the sidelines, rarely moving their own bodies. Then, we expect summer camps and after-school programs to take care of the rest—a bit of socialization and “well-roundedness.” Modern parenting relies on outsourcing education to specific people, times, and places. But true education comes from intrinsic examples and lived experience.
Your kids now spend a much greater percentage of their time with you than they have since infancy. You are more responsible for both occupying and educating them than you’ve ever been. Doing both effectively requires that you demonstrate the right values rather than impose structure and demands on them.
An old adage tells us to “always behave as though your kids are watching.” Well, now they are. How are you going to eat, speak, move your body, and spend your leisure time? Sure, you’ll likely watch some TV, but how much? What other activities could fill your days? Card games, a home project, learning an instrument? The sky is the limit. None of us are perfect and there is nothing wrong with a guilty pleasure or a lazy day, but when these become the norm, it's time to look in the mirror. Your values aren’t just affecting you. This seems like a heavy responsibility, but acting like your kids are watching is also becoming the person you want to be.
Stacking Your Life
Biomechanist, author, and mother of two, Katy Bowman uses a method she calls “stacking” to help habitually meet more of hers and her kids’ needs all at once—to live her values and set a better intrinsic example.
Stacking sounds like multitasking. But true multitasking is impossible (that’s why we devoted two days of the 30x30 Challenge to this idea). Multitasking means attempting to do several things at the same time—the classic rub your tummy and pat your head challenge. Stacking is choosing activities that check multiple boxes at the same time. There’s a big difference.
When you take a yoga class or spin class, you meet your need for movement. When your kids read an assigned book, they meet their need for learning (or at least their need to finish their schoolwork). These single-need activities fill the bulk of our modern compartmentalized schedules. They aren’t stacked activities (stack-tivities?).
Early humans lived almost completely stacked lives. A day of gathering met their needs to acquire food, move, and absorb some sunshine. But the time together also served other purposes. The adults could socialize and preserve communal cohesion. The kids would learn to cooperate, learn about their environment, and develop vital survival skills from the example of the adults. This was also a bonding time for friends and families or solitude for a person who wished to wander off alone for a time. Everyone felt a sense of connection and purpose to the group. What appears like a full day spent on a single task (gathering), actually met many individual and communal needs.
Stacked activities are like a superfood, delivering many vital nutrients together. The single-need activities that fill our modern schedules are nutritional supplements that check only one or two boxes. Optimal nutrition is impossible with supplements alone, no matter how many you take.
Shane and I both ride our bikes to and from work each day. This looks like a single-need activity (get to work) until you look closer. Our bike commutes create a longer time block than driving allows. We use this time for audiobooks and podcasts or sometimes ride in silence to enjoy the serene state that comes with casual, rhythmic pedaling. With or without headphones, a bike ride provides the perfect transition between work and home. Exercise, sunshine (or exposure to some other, less idyllic weather), and fresh air calm you like driving never could. The single choice to commute by bike stacks our lives and puts us much closer to an ancestral norm, even though our primal ancestors would have marveled at our bicycles (imagine how well you could chase down a mammoth on a mountain bike!)
A lifestyle that keeps you and your kids happy, healthy, sane, and continually growing requires activities that stack many needs together. This might not mean commuting by bike, but to find the right activities for you and your family, you may need to release some of your expectations. Many single-need activities are no longer viable options. You might need to drop your four-day-per-week yoga class routine to allow other multi-need, whole-family activities. This doesn’t mean sacrificing your need for movement, or even your need for yoga. There are many online, kid-friendly yoga classes.
Even better, play “human jungle gym”—lay on your back with arms and legs in the air and let your kids climb and play on you like a jungle gym. Create new moves and routines. Challenge yourself to balance in different positions for a full minute. Let your kids take turns inventing a move for the other to imitate. This is essentially just acroyoga with your kids. It’s also a fun bonding experience that can quickly become a tradition as it was with my dad, my brothers, and me. We used to ask for the “gymnastics game” every night. We still talk about this as one of our favorite childhood activities and my dad still talks about it as a workout. Nothing like your kids’ enthusiasm for more to help you push through the burn in your legs.
When Shane was a kid, his family had placemats of state capitals and presidents. As they ate, he and his brothers could study for the quiz they knew their dad would give as soon as the table was cleared. A family bonding ritual and educational experience. This little game also instilled the value of continual learning outside of defined school hours. Author Michael Lewis has a similar ritual with his kids. They listen to an audiobook version of a literary classic over breakfast. His kids absorb countless classics and he can revisit his favorite childhood books or read classics that he’s never made the time for. And, they have a fun tradition together.
Maybe the “gymnastics game” doesn’t appeal to you or your kids (although I promise, it’s pretty darn fun!). There are nearly infinite stack-tivities that meet either your personal needs or your family needs, even within your currently limited options. Rather than Netflixing the next few weeks away, you can—with a bit of intention and a shift in perceptive—use your quarantine time to build positive lasting habits.
Think beyond fun games with your kids that double as a workout for you. You can all learn a new skill or learn about your environment together. You can get your work done as your kids complete their school work if you craft the time properly.
Here’s a detailed list for some stacking inspiration. They all meet some combination of your needs (work, movement, learning and growth, time with your kids, time outside, time with our partner) and your kids’ needs (schoolwork, learning new skills and crafts, learning about food or the environment, family bonding time, movement, and time in nature). I encourage you to try a few out and create a few of your own. Get creative.
Build a Fort - One of everyone’s favorite rainy day activities as a kid. Resurrect it and play with your kids. Use all the classic supplies in your house: furniture, blankets, pillows, toys, the vacuum, the broom, and sheets. You can add challenge by set rules (ie. use at least two things from each room of the house) or build it up the stairs. If you have a backyard, build an outdoor fort with branches, patio furniture, scrap wood, trees, bushes, and sports equipment. One of my favorite childhood memories is the week that a huge tree limb fell in our backyard—the perfect beginnings of a fort before it was removed.
Family Work Picnic - This pairs well with the fort that you just built. But, fort or no fort, lay out a picnic lunch for the whole family. You can all eat together and then read, work, or do schoolwork. This is great indoors or in a yard or local park if you have access. It’s not only great work time for you and your kids, but you can demonstrate a focused work ethic as well.
Acroyoga with Kids - Same as above. It deserves another mention here because it’s a blast with kids, romantic partners, and friends alike, whether you’re in quarantine or not. Now is a perfect time try it out.
Preparing Traditional Food Stuffs - Long hours at home and squirrelly kids to entertain offer the perfect opportunity to explore preparing a large batch of some traditional food staple.
Jam - Making homemade jam is incredibly easy to even the most novice chef. Just simmer berries, stone fruit, or other fruit to reduce to a paste. Add water depending on the water content of your starting fruit. Add sugar to taste (or not). You can thicken it by adding pectin or citrus peels (natural pectin) to thicken it. You can use fresh fruit or frozen fruit (bonus points if you and the kids picked it). There are so many options and it’s a low cost, minimal-experience-required activity that teaches kids where our foods come from. Don’t be intimidated. Jump in—there’s no such thing as bad jam! How-to resource
Canning Vegetables - Canning or jarring veggies is only slightly more technical and tricky than making jam. It’s another great way to teach kids about food (not to mention that you’ll already be prepared for the next global quarantine). How-to resource
Gnocchi - I spent a Christmas in Rome with large Italian family. Their tradition was to begin the meal with homemade gnocchi. Every member of the family was involved in one step of the progress: boiling potatoes, smashing dough, or rolling individual gnocchi. They let me join in and soon I was rolling them up with the most experienced Italian grandmas. You need only three ingredients and little bit of trial and error to prepare this traditional Italian feast. Boils some potatoes, crack a few eggs, sprinkle with flour, and learn the rolling technique with a fork. How-to resource
Tortillas and Tamales - For the most adventurous chefs out there, try making tortillas or tamales from scratch. This can take several days if you process the corn yourself. For an easier route, just buy ground maiz and add water. I can’t give any personal recommendations from experience on this one, but I include it on the list because it’s been a lifelong goal of mine. Please let me know you’ve done it, or if you try it soon. Seems like a great how-to resource.
Build Interactive Furniture or Decor - For kids, being trapped at home doesn’t have to mean being kept from your favorite swings, jungle gyms, or climbing structures. You can bring these things into your home or even into their bedrooms. This article shows a few innovative ideas for interactive furniture and wall decor. The design and build are great family activities as well. Here are some really neat ideas!
Please leave a comment with any other stack-tivities that you’ve found or created.
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