Missing Multigenerational Interaction

Family of many ages on wooden rope swings, youngest to oldest, left to right.
It’s normal for humans to be around other humans of all ages. Image via Adobe Stock.

I ran across this article today in Aeon by Sarah Menkedick. It is a long-form reflection on the segregation of family (kid-centered) and adult life in the United States. She makes some interesting points, but it really got me thinking that this divide, which she attributes partially to a lack of community, cuts both ways.

I am a single, childless adult who was raised in home daycare. I think it is weird when someone doesn’t know how to interact with a kid or is uncomfortable or incompetent around them. As an adult, I have worked with kids in various capacities, from my earliest jobs day-camp counseling and clerking at my local rec center to my latest adventures in substitute teaching.

Right now, the only kids in my life are my nieces. (Who are awesome, but really teens at this point.)

I miss them. Don’t get me wrong. I could never do the home daycare that my mother did, and I’m not looking for a kid-centric career. But since I am not working with kids, and my nieces are older, there are no places in my life, even once we are all out of quarantine, where I will have any significant interaction with anyone too young to hold a job. There is just no context in our society for a childless adult to be around kids. In fact, custom dictates that we snub them as noisy, messy, and inconvenient.

The implicit theme of Ms. Menkedick’s piece is that kids and families are missing something by being shunted into kid-oriented spaces and even explicitly segregated from events such as weddings. They are, and so are the adults.

Hanging out with kids exposes you to different paradigms. They haven’t yet learned or internalized all the conventions that adults don’t even notice they are living within. If we’re all swimming in the same current, kids perspectives can be so different, based on such different assumptions, they might not even be in the water.

When adults are around kids, they laugh more. In multigenerational interactions, it’s okay to be really enthusiastic, which would be weird in adult-only company. Grown-ups get a chance to teach, a chance to be joyful, and even a chance to share woe in the empathetic way we respond to tears. We get a chance to look out for someone. We are more mindful of our surroundings. We get to think things are neat and show them to an appreciative audience.

An ability, and usually the impulse, to do all these things was baked into us by evolution. We want to give our own offspring the best chance to survive, and the next best thing is to give our kin’s offspring the best chance to survive. It isn’t hard to expand this impulse to a multigenerational community. It takes a village, and all that. It’s natural for humans to be around human children, and it’s weird that we live in a society where we aren’t.

The hole in American life that was once filled by community ties impoverishes us all, kids, adults, and the elderly, alike. Multigenerational interaction is part of community, and it is a key element that is missing in our lonely, self-sufficient (but not really) lives. It’s not just kids who miss out when they aren’t included as citizens and participants in society.

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