Category Archives: tribes

One Reason We Fail to Parent From Where We Want To

We have a bad habit in our society of saying that societies standards are the problem. In fact, society is what keeps all of our most base desires in check. While the many certainly influence us, the small cultures that we’re a part of have the biggest pull.

We absorb our larger culture and our more particular culture. Whether we say pop or soda. Whether we take our shoes off at the door. Whether 80s music is classic or trash. Whether screaming at your kid is normal or looked down upon.

Immediate Return Environment

As humans, we respond largely to the incentives right in from of us. Like lions on the savannah, our ancestors had an urgent need to figure out what was going to bring them pain or gratification now, not in a month and certainly not in 20 years. We lived, for most of our evolutionary past, in an “immediate return environment.” This means a lot of our brain’s coding pressures us to favor the present over the future.

This is why people smoke when they know it will kill them, don’t save when they know it puts them in a bad position, and scream at their kids even when they know it is damaging.

Game Theory

Somehow, though, our ancestors did manage to save. Large scale civilization isn’t possible without some savings. But if our hardware told us not to think about tomorrow, how did we?

One of the few things that we understand clearly in the past, present, and future is our relationships. The prisoner’s dilemma shows the importance of the tit-for-tat function that we use when interacting with other people. Working with others produces the best outcomes for humans. This is why we like other people and need to be liked by them.

If we do defect—if we do bad things that people don’t like in social situations, we will no longer have a social situation. Social rejection, ostracism, and exclusion are tools used by our primate relatives. They mean stress and, if taken to their extreme, death.

So, we developed social emotions to help us override our desire for instant gratification. If you let me have of your food this time and I don’t give you mine next time, that might be the end of our exchanges.

If, instead of just keeping my food for myself, I can see that giving you food will benefit me in the future then I’ll want to share with you.


Social Emotions

To give long-term choices the boost of instant gratification, we developed a host of pleasant emotions that we get when we’re pro-social. Dr. David DeSteno goes over the three big emotions in his book, Emotional Success.

Gratitude: This emotion makes you feel pleasant when someone does a nice thing for you. Emotionally salient things are easier to remember, so you’ll be able to keep their favor in mind in the future.

Pride: This is the feeling you get from contributing in a meaningful way. We feel good when others acknowledge our work.

Compassion: This helps you feel connected to others, motivating you to make their lives better.

We also developed an emotion to feel bad when we do something that hurts others: guilt. It stops us from repeating behavior that is likely to get us punished from the group in the future.

Putting it Together

Looked at from an evolutionary psychology point of view, we never do things in the future for ourselves. If there aren’t others around, we are dead. There is no reason to plan for the future.

That’s why you can’t stick to your habits. That’s why you don’t yell when friends are around but do when you’re alone.

That’s why finding a tribe of people who believe in the same parenting ideas as you is so important. When you don’t have anyone around to value the future for, you live in an accountability vacuum. That is something that we just weren’t designed for.

You need people around to get you to accomplish your long-term goals. While you may be able to persevere in the short run, you’ll never get to where you’re going alone.


Taking Action

Ideally, you would have a large group of people who all held each other equally accountable for following specific, desirable norms. You can start trying to build that, but in the meanwhile, make do with what you have.

I have one partner to hold me accountable for my writing.

I have one partner to hold me accountable for my exercising.

I will add more partners as I need more help developing different skills.

Eventually, some things will become part of your identity and you need less help. Eating healthy is part of who I am and I don’t need help being me.

Other things can be automated—that’s how I save. Still, other means of accountability can be outsourced through technology like the app Stickk.

Whatever it is, recognize that not accomplishing your long-term goals isn’t a failure of character. It’s a failure that happens to anyone who doesn’t have a community who share their values—and that is something you can take control of.

Try to spend more time around the people who act like you wish you did. Who parents the way you wish you did? Give them a call today and ask to set up a lunch together.

Consistency is NOT Key

children-817365_960_720.jpgConsistency is not key.

It is a common refrain among parenting coaches and educators that one of the most important things that you can do for your children is being consistent.

Which forces us to ask what the benefits of consistency are.

Consistently responding sensitively to your child’s needs creates a secure attachment.

For children and adults, there is a real upside to having routines and schedules. It allows us to be centered and mindful.

But consistency for the sake of consistency is garbage. Things for the sake of themselves often are.

What if you told your kid no ice cream, then thought about it, and you realized it really wasn’t an issue with you? What if you were angry in a moment, and disciplined your child—and then realized that it was disproportionate or useless?

There are many times when not being consistent is extremely important. Saying, “I’m sorry” means that you’ve changed your mind, or your behavior, or your attitude towards something. You in the present and you in the past do not agree on how to handle something.

Change isn’t always a good thing; but we have to be willing to change our minds. With new information comes new possibilities. With new energy comes new alleyways to discover. With new surroundings comes new structures.

What we create constantly gets knocked down, and that includes ourselves. The principle of non-self (anatta) tells us not to hold onto an idea of a solid, unchanging self because it is a lie. If anatta truly does reflect reality—and I very strongly believe it does—then to be totally consistent overtime is impossible.

One reason people think consistency is so important is because they think children are less intelligent and flexible then they are.


When I was a kindergarten teacher, I would let my students jump up and down on my stomach. It was very fun for the all of us, and I like to make kids feel big and powerful. The owner of the kindergarten asked me not to do it because she was afraid that they would think it is okay to do with other teachers.

I talked to her about all of the different ways that the different teachers run their classrooms. About how I teach letters this way, but Teacher Ryan taught his this way. About how I played these games and Teacher Claire played those games. About how I let my kids scream, and Teacher Sean always liked his classrooms quiet.

We shared students, and of course, the children had no problem switching from one situation to another. They didn’t get confused with the different English speaking accents.

I asked the students: Who it was okay to jump on? They screamed, “Teacher Amelia.”

As excited as I could, I said, “Can we jump on Teacher Ryan?” and the kids laughed and laughed and said “No!”

“Can we teach on Teacher Claire?”

“Hahaha, no!”

These were 3 and 4 year olds, and we were talking in their second language. They were not confused at all that different people want different things, and that even different times required different behaviors.

If I came in feeling unwell one day, the kids did not feel uneasy when I said, “We have to be quiet today because Teacher is feeling sick. We won’t play many games.” Did they require a reminder or two?


Sure, of course.

But it didn’t make them fundamentally distrust me, or feel confused about our relationship, or feel that the rug had been pulled out under their feet.

There are ways in which consistency benefits children. Again: responding sensitively to their cues, and having some semblance of a schedule so that they aren’t all over the place. Having an attachment figure, of course.

But children are very smart and adaptable. They start gaining the ability to empathize very young, and they live in an ever changing world. They are humans. Human are excellent generalists. We are amazing at building tools and finding ways to adapt to a variety of situations. We know how to reorient ourselves to new people, new rules, and new cultures.

The concept of consistency is important in a few domains. But in most, it is not. Not only do our moods change over time, but so do our values. What our children are capable of is constantly changing, and if you’re sensitive to their development, you will open up new doors for them at every opportunity. Today’s “No, it is too dangerous,” often can and should be Tomorrow’s “Yes, please give it a try.”

Monkey See, Monkey Do

monkey see

When we take an evolutionary look at ourselves, it becomes easier to forgive ourselves for our follies and foibles. It makes it possible to keep in mind what our default settings are, and once we are aware of something, we can often do something to stop, change or leverage it.

I have talked before about how in our evolutionary past, it was much easier to raise children because there was a fixed number of possibilities in their world, and how that is no longer the case. I’m here to give everyone another out concerning the difficulty of parenting: you were never taught how to parent.

Modeling is one of the most important things that we do for our children. Monkey see, monkey do; not monkey hear, monkey do. Modeling is also how we learn most skills. A cursory thought will make it clear that watching other people perform tasks well helps you learn quicker than reading about them.

If our brains are made primarily to reflect the models that we see, both to construct an image of the world we live in and to grow into it, I want to ask you one thing: What models did you have for parenting?

I am not saying your parents were bad parents. Either they were wonderful, or you’re here making sure you don’t repeat what you feel are their mistakes. Or both.

The point is, even if you had excellent parents, how many times did you see children being raised? If you include yourself, once. On the right tail of this bell curve would be someone growing up in a day care, and in the middle someone with a few siblings.

In the past, you saw parenting modeled again and again. Because society was largely out in the open, not behind closed doors in the absolute nuclear family, we had a lot more information at our disposal.

Now, we don’t know what’s normal. Is my baby sleeping too much? Are they supposed to be this gassy? Are this many tantrums okay? Shouldn’t he be developmental milestone-ing by now?

There is a huge amount of anxiety that would be reduced if we just spent time around families as we were growing up. If we had a large variety of responses modeled for us. But we don’t.

Parenting obviously isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are customs passed down, cultural norms, and variation. Did you see some women breastfeed their baby on both boobs during one a feeding? Only one breast? In the cradle hold, football hold, side lying? Did you see some women burp their baby by patting their backs, by gently rocking them up and down, by sitting them bent over your knees, by laying them across your lap? How hard should you hit babies back if you’re burping him? What counts as shaking?

Did you ever see the colic hold?


How do you take care of a penis? Is your intact boys penis supposed to balloon with pee like that? (Yes.)

Infant care in particular is daunting because people want to present their babies perfectly. As well as internal motivation, the fear of child protective services looms large for many people. Dread around germs also daunts most of us, and sometimes rationally so because we are in such close quarters with so many in our cities.

These are all concerns that would virtually never materialize in an evolutionary environment, and as such, your anxiety would be reduced. With reduced anxiety, it would be easier to remain unruffled.

We lack tribes, which would not only give us a greater sense of community, but more information on the task at hand. In light of this, I suggest spending a lot of time around other moms with an open dialogue about how you handle different issues. Instead of reading it online, you might actually see it modeled. This is an essential part of learning for us.

The world gives to the givers and takes from the takers. Be a giver. If there are younger women in your neighborhood who are interested in having children of their own, be open and honest with them about what your struggles are, and show them how you approach common baby problems: sleep, diaper rash, pottying, etc.

We have lost a lot when we lost our communities: modeling, predictability, and togetherness. We know that we should show, not tell, to our children. The flip side is also true. See if you can be shown, not told, what to do.

Journal Questions:

  1. What is a quality that I need to model for my child more?
  2. What examples did I see of parenting before I became a parent? What was useful? What was not?


  1. Get together with one mother that you know and ask her to show you how to do something that you’re struggling with.