Fourth Way for Dads to Change the World: Help Start a Community Group

By Jeremy Adam Smith

That’s me in the goofy brown and green sweater, reading a customized version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar; that’s my wife talking about the puppet show we did at our local farmers’ market.

As you’ll see in the video above, we were part of a group that involved almost 20 San Francisco families called “Bees and Butterflies,” whose mission was to explore the life-cycles of bees and butterflies and to introduce basic ecological concepts to our kids. Want to start your own neighborhood group? My pal Olivia Boler describes how we did it over at Shareable.net.

I once wrote an essay for Greater Good magazine about how my circle of families came together in our San Francisco neighborhood, Noe Valley — a process that has resulted in numerous community-building spinoffs. Our urban tribe went on to form a cooperative preschool and, as Olivia describes in her “Bees and Butterflies” piece, a neighborhood group designed to connect our kids to nature, among other projects. As I think is revealed in both Olivia’s article and my own, these activities enriched all our families’ lives in countless ways.

The Bees and Butterflies group was initiated and basically run by moms, with lots of father involvement. In my experience, that’s pretty typical. Most of these moms were the primary caregivers, and I think they really enjoyed the meetings at night, when they’d get together sans kids and partners to plan the group’s activities over dinner and wine. That’s fine with me; they deserve nights out, and they do great work.

But, as has been noted in many places, the estrogen-drenched atmosphere of these meetings can keep dads away, even if everybody wants them to be there and involved.

That shouldn’t stop dads from organizing their own activities (as well as trying to find a place for themselves in mom-dominated groupings). As I write in the Greater Good essay, I was very deliberate in building a community for my son. “You have to work very hard to have a community here,” says my friend Viru Gupte, who was raised in a cooperative and tightly knit urban community in India. “It requires planning.” Viru and I organized playgroups, all-dad-and-kids museum trips, monthly brunches, and lots of other stuff, with the help of other dads and moms.

As a result of all these regular, planned activities, our bonds tightened and we started helping each other out in various ways. We set up weekly kid swaps so that the parents could take turns going out on dates, and we all developed genuine affection for each other’s children.

One day on a beach outing, reported our friend Jackie Adams, a woman next to our little gang said she “couldn’t tell which kids were connected to which parents because all of the adults gave equal amounts of attention to each kid, and each kid seemed familiar and comfortable with each of us.”

Scientists have a name for this kind of behavior: alloparenting, where individuals in addition to the actual parents take on responsibility for children. “Among humans living in foraging societies,” writes the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her 1999 book Mother Nature, “a helpful mate and/or alloparents were usually essential for a mother to rear any infant at all.”

In recent American history, childcare fell exclusively to mothers and their female relatives—but perhaps economic and social changes are rendering that arrangement obsolete. In a time when biological families are scattered across the world, we might once again be seeing a need for dads and other adults to form voluntary tribes that can share in the care and rearing of children.

The need is there–but for many Americans, that need isn’t being met. Many of today’s moms and dads have spent their adult lives chasing jobs and fleeing their relatives, and so they must forge new communities virtually from scratch. Many studies have found that Americans are spending more time alone, and 25 percent now say that they have no close friends—twice as many as two decades ago. This loneliness is linked to mental and physical health problems.

Dads might want to see themselves as more tough and self-reliant than moms, but they are not immune to the effects of isolation. In fact, many studies find that new fathers are plagued by feelings of depression and anxiety, and at least one recent study finds that stay-at-home dads are especially susceptible to stress-related illnesses.

So, dads, whether you’re the breadwinner, the caregiver, and a little bit of both, do what you can to build community and community organizations. It’s good for your kids, good for your mental and physical health, and good for our world.