Confession time: My partner and I are not as handy or crafty as we wish we were. When my first kid was little I started a raised bed garden in our backyard. Three beautiful raised beds with soil and seedlings from the local organic nursery. And I had my little one involved and helping at every stage, because I wanted him to learn and love it. I wanted hands in the soil to feel natural and right. And I wanted the connections between human labor and care, the natural world, and the food we eat, to be clear.
But…I had no idea what I was doing. I never learned to garden myself. I was winging it and it wasn’t coming naturally. Many of my fancy plants developed a mold. Was I overwatering, did I need more enriched soil, was there too little or too much shade, why were there so many ants? I was a new mom, totally overwhelmed by momming - but wanting so much to give my kid the kind of childhood he deserved. I kept the garden up for a long time, but it was taxing. And as time went on and I continued to try to make myself a baker, a grower and maker of things, a home-maker, a child development expert, and a cheery, energized mom all while potty training a reluctant trainee on little to no sleep, the ploy began to give. I wanted desperately for these grounding practices to feel natural to him, but I wasn’t being true to myself and I wasn’t thriving. I had to let go.
Flash forward a couple years and we’ve moved to Albuquerque to be a part of Cohousing ABQ. The buildings aren’t built yet, but we are already a community and ours and another cohousing family bought houses across the street from one another so that we could pre-cohouse. In the evenings, when my kids are in the bath, theirs are out in the front yard with them gardening. Alexej and Liz don’t look hurried or worried. They move at a leisurely pace, soaking in the cool evening air and the glorious sunset skies. Their kids “help” as much or as little as they want to. Digging and playing.
The stool on my porch is broken and one day Alexej is there with wood glue and a vice and the kids are gathered around, fascinated and helping. Some pieces to a puzzle are moving around in my head but haven’t connected yet. Because although we’ve moved here to be a part of cohousing, I’m not actually very practiced at asking for help. And I don’t even know exactly what it is I’d be asking for.
Then another cohousing family recommends a parenting book called Hunt, Gather, Parent. Learning from the parenting wisdom of smaller, traditional communities that manage to maintain peaceful home lives and respectful relationships with kids through the right balance of togetherness and autonomy. The book is kind of a missing piece in my own parenting knowledge and a couple of the takeaways point directly to my lovely neighbors across the street - the way kids really learn, and the concept of alloparents.
According to Hunt, Gather, Parent, the way kids naturally learn is with 1. Opportunities to practice, 2. Modeling, and 3. A pinch of acknowledgement. When you want children to pick something up, whether it’s cleaning or baking, you simply do it and get the kids involved with manageable tasks or subtasks. It’s never forced, but there is a sense that their effort will really help to accomplish the common goal. There is a feeling of togetherness and cooperation, ease and even enjoyment. We start practicing this in our home, but because we don’t do hands-on projects often, a connection to that kind of work is still missing.
The concept of alloparents is simple, it’s anyone other than the biological parents - grandparents, siblings, older kids or other adults - who share in the work of parenting. In many traditional societies the role of alloparents in kids’ lives is substantial and an integral part of their development and sense of safety and belonging in the world. In the western world, the role of alloparents has diminished greatly and is all but lost. Cohousing is really the only way I could think to make it a substantial part of my own kids lives and a big reason I’ve made cohousing a priority. Here I am with alloparents across the street and a clear need for their unique strengths. So, I worked up the courage to ask: “Hey Alexej, when you do projects, could you invite my kids over to help?”
Two days later, my 3 and 6 year old were making the feeder for Alexej and Liz’s chickens out of a 5-gallon bucket. Two days after that, they made the chickens’ water dispenser. Alexej says that looking back he may have learned more about doing a project with a 3-pack of boys than they did about DIYing. But that learning was valuable too. And for all of them, the highlight of the project seemed to be the discovery that a chicken is very easy to catch when it has its head sticking into a 5 gallon bucket of feed. A discovery they never would have made without alloparent, Alexej.
When Alexej and Liz’s kids are at my house, they say it’s one of the few times their kids get a bath. So you know, we all have something to give. I’m laughing writing this, but really, I am sincerely excited for the ways my authentic interests will someday enrich the lives of Alexej and Liz’s kids and all the kids in our community. And for all the ways the beautiful people in our community will contribute to shaping my kids lives, and my own. This is just a tiny slice of what learning and growing together in Cohousing will look like, and I’m grateful for it all.