How Children Learn About Others’ Needs

by Miki Kashtan

In contemporary, patriarchal societies, mothering often leads to mothers giving up on their own needs, because of the lack of a communal context of togetherness and support. One of the results of this is that, as children, we don’t learn about the needs of others as an organic limit we bump up against and within which we weave the unfolding of life. Instead, we encounter an either/or way of being, one of many around which patriarchal societies are organized. We either find no evidence of our mother’s needs at all, as the giving becomes sacrifice and the mother as a human being with her own life and flow, or there is an assertion of adults’ needs that shows up through arbitrary rules and imposed limits. In the former case, we end up lost in an existence where we are, artificially, the center of attention. In the latter case, we learn to be afraid of punishment rather than to grasp the impacts we all have on each other through navigating all our needs.

In the few families I am aware of where parenting is dialogical, children learn differently. Dialogue is central to life in such families. Needs, everyone’s needs – adults and children, are put on the table. Decisions are made together, even with very young children, where most adults would believe it impossible. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, as I know firsthand from the example of my nephew. You can get a tiny taste of it by watching me interview him when he was twelve. In those families, the needs of mothers gradually and organically become part of the mix, as capacity shifts and grows.

Even such families, though, the ones that I know of, are largely within the modern, patriarchal form of a nuclear family even when, as was the case in my late sister Inbal’s family, there are two adult women rather than a man and a woman who are raising the children. Inbal frequently expressed anguish at not being part of a community. Since reading Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zöller’s The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love, and being exposed to the literature on matriarchal societies, I am now well aware that having two, or few, adults in a household with one or more children is not our evolutionary legacy. We are meant to come into a world in which there is a range of strategies to care for us from day one. As Maturana and Verden-Zöller suggest: “A baby is born in the operational trust that there is a world ready to satisfy in love and care all that he or she may require for his or her living, and is therefore not helpless.” This cannot happen in the world of scarcity in which we live, with the intensity of dyadic relationships that we mostly emerge from.

I am fortunate to have been invited to be part of a remarkable group of women who have come together around the courageous and meticulous work started by Heide Goettner-Abendroth in what she calls modern matriarchal studies. I often turn to this group with difficult questions, and so when the question first came about how children would learn about others’ needs, including and especially those of their own mothers, I approached them as teachers and colleagues. My question was simple: does mothering within matriarchal societies have dialogue built into relationships with children or does the flow unfold differently?

As the responses started coming in, I went through a literal leap in my understanding. I saw that my question was already making assumptions that only make sense within the context of certain kinds of relationships – between adults and children, between adults and adults, and between children and children – that only exist within the modern structure of nuclear families.

What I learned was so inspiring and shocking that I decided to share it more widely, to spark a conversation, to provoke deeper reflection in all of us who want to create pathways into a livable future. There is no way we can get there, I now believe, unless we shift the focus from the dyadic relationships of modern patriarchal societies (father-child, man-woman, mother-child) to the fluid, communal ways of living with mothering at the center, where all collaborate in the service of caring for everyone’s needs.

Summary of responses

I am grateful, in particular, to responses from Annie R.C. Finch, Erella Shadmi, Genevieve Vaughan, Irene Tazi-Preve, and Vajra Ma. Although I aimed to remain true to the spirit of what they said, these are my words and my interpretations of what they said, organizing it in ways that don’t necessarily reflect their views.

Also, the below is based on the more extreme forms of modern nuclear families which exist only in some places. It’s more of an abstraction than a description of any particular society. For example, Israeli society, more so in the past than now, was much more communal, oriented towards extended families and networks of neighbors filling in for the absence of true communities, where many gifts are shared within and between families. I still find it fruitful to make the stark comparison because it shows, I believe, some deep themes that would require active and conscious choice to counter them in order to shift rather than get more entrenched in patterns that pass on deep negative impacts from generation to generation.

To counter this a bit, I add in each line some possible strategies that families can bring in to consciously stand up to the social forces that pull us apart, individualize us, and make the lives of children and all of us more and more tenuous.

As I write this, and with great anguish, I am thinking about millions and millions of people who likely know that life isn’t working for them, and that life can’t work for their children. I imagine with agony that even though they wish they could give their children something else, something truly loving and open and honoring of the children’s needs as they children feel them, fully – they can’t, they just can’t, and they know that, too. Even if only in their cells, they know that life isn’t what it is meant to be, and there is nothing they can do to change that. I imagine how painful it would be to read all these thoughts below and feel the individual helplessness in the face of overwhelming systems that make changes of the kind I describe literally impossible. I also think of the many other millions of people around the world who live in the many places where the assault of modern, neoliberal capitalism is active, and who are part of communities still trying to resist and losing ground. I mourn how likely it is they know the impacts on their children from losing ground, how much they would know, precisely, the very losses described below, and still can’t give their children what they would wish to give them. There is great mourning in me as I write this piece.

Topic

Matriarchal Societies

Modern Patriarchal Societies

Family

Clan

Nuclear

The nuclear family puts enormous burden on the parents, often only one parent, which creates an artificial strain on that person and forms the basis of the either/or that so many mothers face in terms of their children’s needs. In matriarchal societies, as the care for children is distributed, there is no scarcity of strategies to attend to everyone’s needs.

Possible antidotes: creating pods of families that take on collective, communal care for everyone’s needs, so both children and adults have people to turn to for support, and all adults can participate in adult activities without thereby leaving children without relational care.

Economic logic

Gift

Exchange

Mothers and children are both subject to the market logic, putting pressures on both of them to adapt to the dominant patriarchal capitalism: the problems are individualized; givers are not nurtured; generosity is penalized. Children are educated out of natural giving which they would otherwise learn. There is no need to teach them about others’ needs within an economy of flow.

Possible antidotes: Conscious attention, within a family or within a pod of families, to nurturing and encouraging generosity, reducing exchange to the minimum possible within a capitalist world, and cultivating more and more ways to care for needs outside the market logic.

Relationship to objects

Use

Ownership

Private property creates false separation and obscures the reality of needs. By seeing what adults do, children learn organically. All children, everywhere, initially internalize the logic of gifting. Indeed, other-oriented behavior is more common in toddlers than previously believed. It is only later that children learn to separate and protect in modern societies.

Possible antidotes: The choice to reduce or even eliminate private property and, instead, to recreate and invent new ways of sharing resources for all, can give children a visceral sense of sharing resources that will increase their capacity to continue to share rather than aim to own resources.

Action and impact

Natural consequences

Reward and punishment

As part of the exchange model, the deep reality of cause and effect is hidden from children, because so much is mediated by adults without clarity about why. Punishments don’t teach children what is actually happening as a result of their actions. Instead they learn to fear, protect, and hide. In natural environments, children would learn by watching and experimenting how actions affect other people and this is an organic way of learning about everyone’s needs.

Possible antidotes: In Jean Liedloff’s Continuum Concept she documents how, in some societies, children are given freedom to move around and experiment in ways that would frighten most modern parents, and yet the societies she speaks of enjoy peaceful living without violence. Adults who want to shift to this pattern would engage in surrendering to the mystery of life and the potential risks it brings. This would then make it possible for them to support free exploration of life for children, so they learn from experimentation as well as information about what can happen if they do this or that rather than through being told what to do, or not do, through fear.

The nature of work

Caring for needs

Abstract, symbolic, indirectly related to needs, often destructive or meaningless

In matriarchal societies children learn through the organic flow of life from what adults are doing to attend to life and everyone’s needs, playing and learning as they grow, developing capacity to contribute over time, participating as they can. In modern, nuclear-family focused societies, most of what children can focus on in terms of learning from adults is relational capacity and provisioning within the household, as the bulk of what it takes to care for needs is either done elsewhere or is too abstract and complex for children to be part of. Instead, they are raised in isolation or age-segregated settings, making learning artificial, regimented, time-specific, and separate from the flow of life.

Possible antidotes: if family pods are not an option it may still be possible to create, instead of schools, multi-age, unsegregated learning environments in which children engage across generational differences and age differences, learning from and within life, based on natural interest and what others around them do, directly through seeing what is necessary to care for needs.

Social activities

Intertwined with caring for everyone’s needs

Focused on children’s activities

The threads that tie people together in matriarchal societies are based on real needs, on holding, collectively, the well-being of the community. In modern patriarchal societies, families that have children organize their social activities around the age of their children rather than anything beyond the individual. Children engage with each other in ways that don’t support learning from the adults or engaging with the adults in meaningful ways.

Possible antidotes: the more adults can make their own activities focused on caring directly for needs, rather than engaging in work-related activities that have little to do with attending to immediate needs, the more children can be with the adults and engage organically in their own activities on the periphery of adult activities. If family pods can be created, at least some of the adults are likely to be engaged within the community thus created: caring for the material and emotional well-being of the entire pod, and children’s activities and play can be oriented to those activities rather than separating them from adults and attending to their “boredom”, which only comes from having little of meaning to engage with.

Play

Integrated, informal

Focused on children, isolated

In matriarchal societies children play near and around adults in an integrated way, with other children always present. In modern patriarchal nuclear families, adults and children have completely different activities that take them, usually, out of home into adult-only and children-only environments, and then keep them together, or without other children, for extended periods of time. This results in adults doing children’s activities without there being intrinsic meaning for that kind of play for the adults, even while the children would prefer to play with other children.

Possible antidotes: a concerted effort can be made, even in nuclear families that don’t manage to create pods or other communal contexts, to bring play into everything done together, so that play and caring for needs are not separate activities. This becomes easier the more adults are involved, as natural flow towards activities of interest increases with more diversity and options.

Work

In the flow of living

Alienated, in specific places or ways

The result of modern ways of living is that most adults do alienating and alienated work, which is uninteresting for children, so they wouldn’t engage with it even if that were made possible, and which leaves the adults looking to time with their children as a relief from work in the absence of adult communities and vibrant networks.

Possible antidotes: there is likely no immediate solution individual families can adopt, especially families that are struggling materially. A full social reorganizing is necessary for work to be related to needs. That said, any little step towards more meaning and more direct relationship between work and needs will support both children and adults in relating to needs differently.

Status of mothers

Reverence for mothering

Lack of support and respect

In matriarchal societies mothers are fully integrated in society, as they are seen as the source of life and giving. Everyone is engaged in one form or another in support of mothers and children. In patriarchal, nuclear-family, modern life, motherhood is peripheral, assumed, expected, isolated, and exploited. The mother’s needs take a back stage because of systemic causes, both economic and political, not because of emotional reasons. Children learn to not take mothers’ needs into their being, because they are not valued anywhere.

Possible antidotes: any family can take a concerted effort to make visible mothering as a core organizing activity of life; to nurture mothers; to use mothering as a template for relating to each other regardless of who is, or isn’t, an actual mother. This can go a small distance towards countering the social and political forces that obscure the centrality of mothering in our species.

Conclusion

What I am concluding from this deep dive into these questions is that the only reason children would need to learn about others’ needs is because life is structured in ways that make needs, everyone’s needs, invisible and discounted, including the child’s needs, the mother’s needs, and everyone else’s. When mothers are in a sacrificial rather than simply giving role, when they have to choose between engaging with other adults and contributing to the whole on the one hand, and being with their children on the other hand, and can’t do both, everyone suffers. When mothers and all adults can’t engage in meaningful activities with other adults and have children engage with them and learn organically, there is a separation of needs that gets imprinted, along with the exchange mindset that makes giving and receiving difficult to master.

While I provided some ideas about little steps families can take to counter these difficult trends, they require immense strength and capacity, both within the family and in relationship with the world outside the family. If any family chooses to shift along the lines I envision here, it will require examining every last habit and assumption; reaching out to find support, companionship, and creative solutions; and being willing to stand up to the likely backlash from others. While such heroic efforts do yield amazing results, they are not a possible solution for the mass of humanity. Most of us carry too much trauma from patriarchal conditioning and its intensification through gender socialization, racialized divisions, class injuries, and more and more variations as we carry it from generation to generation. Most of humanity, also, faces survival challenges that would make any of the steps I point to above an impossibility. I mourn the horror of all this, the horror of all the children who are born expecting, naturally, what every baby anticipates, and being, instead, thrown into what we now have. I call out to life to show us the way to come together to shake off that legacy. I call out to those of us with enough resources and clarity to give our lives in service to this restoration. Our future, if we have any, can only happen if we have children who experience, again, living in love and community. Let’s learn again. For the children.

PHOTO CREDIT

Baby boy child – courtesy of pixabay

Circle – Photo: Conor Ashleigh for AusAID on Flickr

White and black bird on brown nest – Marty Southwell on Unsplash

COMMENTS

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5 thoughts on “How Children Learn About Others’ Needs

  1. Loretta Iris

    Dear Miki,
    Thank you for seeing possibility…for seeing what I experience has been and is my reality reflected in your article…my aims, my struggles to articulate my experience mothrring under excruciating conditions of separation. Thank you for naming these struggles and the living spirit of vital connection in communities that centre on everyone’s needs. These communities have pulled me through and have in turn inspire daily, my deep commitment to fortifying the same for all who will engage.
    Deep appreciation, Loretta

    Reply
  2. Thuan

    Agradeço a todas as mães que ajudaram na formulação dessas idéias e esse quadro, agradeço a Mikki por resumir e transformar numa linguagem compreensível para mim.
    Estou muito tocado por todo esse movimento, extremamente desafiado pela enormidade do patriarcado, mas encontrando muita força e suporte para mudar minha caminhada.
    Na comunidade onde vivo, existe o projeto de um “espaço” para crianças, e trabalhamos muito com suporte e educação.
    Vou traduzir esse artigo para o português e, caso você tenha interesse ou veja alguma utilidade, posso compartilhar depois.

    Vivo junto o enlutamento pelos anos que vivi guiado pelo patriarcado mas sem ter tido clareza sobre minhas escolhas, mas vivo também a intensidade natural de criar um mundo em alinhamento com o fluxo natural de dar e receber.
    Obrigado por isso.
    Seguirei sonhando.

    Thuan.

    Reply
  3. Julie Lawrence

    Dearest Miki, I am so grateful for your clarity and eloquence in expressing what has long been my experience. I heard you talk about these ideas in a call a couple of months ago, and I cried and cried. Thank you xxx

    Reply
  4. Emma

    my heart both rises and sinks reading this. relating deeply to each aspect. wishing for these changes with my whole heart.

    Reply

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