Boy and Grandpa reading newspaper

One simple thing we can all do to help our children grow, develop social skills and feel a sense of their place in the world is to make sure that they have engaging contact with people of all ages – from babies to elders.

Our society these days is obsessed with dividing things by age, peddling to our children the idea that the only interesting and acceptable people are same-age peers, while perpetuating the idea for elders that no young people are interested in being with them. What a tragedy for both ends of the life spectrum, as well as for all the ages in between!

There is so much to be shared between us all and so much to be learned from each other. Think of the older child who learns how to play gently and simply with the 2-year-old down the street; call to mind the image of the grandfather telling the grandsons stories about his first job; see this 40-something Jewish neighbor drive his 80-something neighbor to her church for Easter services. This is where the tender heart of life thrives and reminds us all of the interconnection we share; deeper and more real connections than all of the Facebook “friends” we may accrue, or the number of “followers” we have on instagram.

While technology may promise us connection to the world without having to lift our eyes (or fingers) from our phones, we all know these connections are not providing us with what we need. College students these days Рthe most technologically connected generation ever Р are tilting the scales with unheard of amount of anxiety disorders and depression.

Of course, if you are lucky enough to live near extended family, you know firsthand the joys (and, yes, struggles, too) of mixed-age community. For those of us who don’t live in this situation (which is so many of us these days), what are some small, doable ways we can ground our children in the world of “virtuous” community, rather than “virtual” ones*:

  • Meet your neighbors, and not just the ones who have children the same ages as yours. Stop to chat, ask them about their garden or their bird feeders (ignore the political signs on their lawn, if you need to).
  • Join a community (a community garden, a Unitarian church, a synagogue – whichever applies to you); go to services/events as a family, meet people (old, young, whatever) and do good work together.
  • Find mixed-age activities for your child – a camp where ages mix frequently, playdates where all the siblings are included etc.
  • Model mixed-age friendship and respect: Expand your own notion of who might be your friend. As always, your children will see and learn from this (and, as always, in modeling for your children, you may just find that your worldview shifts and expands).

Being around older and younger people helps all of us to remember our place in the family of things.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

*Thanks to Davina Muse, LMHC for the idea of “virtuous community” and “virtual community.”