What is Social Parenting?

People often ask Molly and me about our parenting philosophy. I’m both flattered and also mildly concerned by the question, as I  watch my three somewhat feral, mostly unkempt, and occasionally barefoot children scamper into the woods. In spite of my mild discomfort, I recognize the importance of sharing insights we’ve developed over  more than 30 years of working with kids (though, like all parents, we most often improvise).

Great Big Italian Family

Growing up in a great big Italian family profoundly influenced my educational approach. Memories of grandmas, grandpas, aunties, uncles, siblings, and cousins have always guided my work in outdoor education. For me, community meant strength and support. And learning the Art of Tracking made the wilderness part of that extended family, growing my community. When Molly and I founded Trackers, our goal was to empower kids with skills they need for greater independence so that they can  better contribute to their communities. This goal is what Molly and I often call “Social Parenting”.

Four Social Connections

For us, “social” and “connection” are interchangeable. At best, our modern education system often limits the parameters of children’s social connection to teachers, family, and peers. And it often asks us to assume an entirely child-centric viewpoint, which is not sustainable for the community nor is it healthy for the child. Social Parenting rethinks this breaking of childhood connections of community, place, and wonder. It asks kids to be of service now, not in some abstract postgraduate future. Social Parenting encourages children (and families) to cultivate four key connections:

  • Connection #1 Family & Community
  • Connection #2 Many Generations
  • Connection #3 Nature (the More Than Human World)
  • Connection #4 Quiet Mind (Mindfulness & Awareness)

Each of these connections presents unique challenges and benefits, and helps develop essential skills that serve the whole child. Let’s unpack them:

  • Connecting to Family & Community The ability to deeply connect with other people (in real life) leads to healthier and happier outcomes. And one of the most important and satisfying ways to connect is to help and contribute. Babies start out needing everything from their caregivers. They are healthfully and naturally self-centric. However, we often underestimate how much children crave more responsibility, and how early they are ready for it. Innately, they hope to contribute to the health of their family. Yet our culture now stretches childhood and adolescence well into adulthood, so it’s easy to miss opportunities to reinforce natural maturity. In Social Parenting, contributing to the family and community is a prime expectation for children.

  • Connecting to Many Generations Take a moment to consider how modern society often forces us to interact almost entirely with our own age group. This is especially true for children who lumped together into single-age classrooms. For most of human history, however, we grew up siblings, cousins, and friends of varied ages. We had older mentors all around us. Our increasing generational isolation is not healthy for children, adults, or older people. The role of elders in our community has become marginalized, leaving many older people isolated and depressed. Yet, the innate interest of children to connect with elders has not changed. There is much to be gained from this connection by both age groups. Older kids also need to understand and be entrusted with the responsibilities of caring for younger children. Practicing this shared parenting at an early age helps them become better caregivers as adults. It also builds an extended culture of support that can benefit more than one family.

  • Connecting to Nature (the More-Than-Human-World) Can you be social with the More-Than-Human-World? As a Tracker, interacting with nature creates a radical empathy that is missing from a human-centric perspective. At Trackers, we have a humorous saying: Nature Doesn’t Give a Fox. We find true beauty in nature by the need to be evermore flexible and adaptable. As kids develop wilderness survival skills, they begin to reconcile this modern drive for comfort with the need to truly “see” what is all around them. Squirrels teach me how to build shelters. A kingfisher’s call helps me to find water. A black bear’s tracks lead me to a hidden berry patch. True wilderness connection (and survival) requires us to empathize with creatures and forces that don’t play by human rules. A Tracker is always working to think like and empathize with the more-than-human-world. Building this sensory superpower leads to feelings of friendship with every facet of nature.

  • Connecting to the Quiet Mind (Mindfulness & Awareness) Mindfulness and awareness are at the very heart of Social Parenting. In contrast to our consumer culture that is continually co-opting our focus, a Tracker sees and senses the minute, even so-called irrelevant details in their real-life environment. Every piece of the puzzle becomes important, assembling into a complex mental map. The practice of being mindful, present, and aware helps children connect with people, place and purpose. Cultivating a quiet mind is easiest to do in places that are naturally quiet, like the forest. However, this connection to the Quiet Mind will serve children through the complexities of school, friends, work, and beyond. We give kids opportunities to practice awareness in challenging environments. Through such training, demanding situations will actually trigger a quiet fortitude and mindfulness.

These four connections come together to form an ecosystem, where each part is important and cannot exist without the other. Together they form a resilient “extended family” where kids can find strength, a sense of service, and their own purpose.

Responsibility & Freedom 

It’s important to stress that while high expectations and increased independence may seem to be at odds, the truth is responsibility and freedom build on each other. The more you have of one, the more you can handle the other. While it can be important for kids to feel comfortable and safe, too much of a good thing will hold them back.

Trust In Kids

There are countless ways we, as parents, can present opportunities that help our children connect  to the wider and WILDER world. Deeper connections that will bolster both responsibility and independence. It begins when we demonstrate faith in our child’s ability to rise up and make great contributions. To find their unique connections to family, many generations, nature, and their own quiet fortitude.