Novelist, social commentator, and drug addict Aldous Huxley had many great ideas. But is he the kind of person that you’d leave your kids around? The answer should be yes.
No matter how much time the politically-awakened dedicate to speculation, it seems that history’s greatest challenges always catch us with our pants down. In just a few short months we went from a laughably ignorant vision of rock bottom to an entirely new kind of panic so hysterical that, in the U.S., Penguin Publishers actually sold out of George Orwell’s 1984.
But with a mind to steer clear of subjects best left to every other writer in the world, I’d like to direct your attention today to the prophecies of Orwell’s only slightly lesser known contemporary, Aldous Huxley. Brave New World might be more appropriate to the politically-charged times, but it’s his later, more optimistic, project Island that I want to talk about. And maybe you, like me, would prefer to take a short break from weeping inconsolably into a smartphone.
A utopian novel written in the ’60s, Island is full of great ideas that make an idealist daydreamer like myself conceptually rigid but that probably don’t really work in real life. Independent of Zen meditation, animal magnetism, and contemplation of the mind on psychedelics, the pages within hold some plausible program ideas – such as community parenting.
In Island, the people of the island nation of Pala raise their children as families but also within what they call “Mutual Adoption Clubs” (MACs). Parents look to their MAC for support when the strain of parenting is becoming a bit much and their children will go and stay with one of a large group of other families with whom they and the parents develop a close relationship. Children might also opt for some time away if they are struggling emotionally at home or, more commonly, when they just feel like a change of scenery. Children are expected to pull their weight around whatever house they are at but are also given the opportunity to socialize with other children, experiencing different kinds of familial cultures and relationships, and develop bonds outside of their own family that will benefit them later in life. The MAC acts like a miniature version of wider society into which the children will eventually emerge, whilst sharing the load of parenting results in a net balance of the economic burden.
Parenting has become almost like a cult – a pathway toward the kind of self-fulfillment once sought in religion or romantic love. Community parenting gives the chance to escape this narrow paradigm and retain some energy for personal development.
Community parenting was not a new idea when Huxley wrote about it, nor is it ignored by academics today. Many academics, like philosopher Anca Gheaus, have pointed out that we are more or less guaranteed to pass on some of our slightly-less-than-healthy psychological foibles to our children when we deny them a proper chance to analyze people with different ones.
Huxley saw this as well and described the Western recipe for raising children thusly: “Take one sexually inept wage-slave, one dissatisfied female, two or (if preferred) three small television-addicts; marinate in a mixture of Freudism and dilute Christianity; then bottle up tightly in a four-room flat and stew for 15 years in their own juice.” Our recipe today is slightly different with parents placing unrealistically high expectations for their children’s achievement in sport or academics, overburdening them emotionally, or modelling them on Instagram; but the equation is no less toxic.
But turning parenting into a responsibility of the community rather than individuals is for the benefit of the parent as well.
What prompted me to make the connection between a novel written six decades ago and our lives today was another article posted in The Guardian a few months ago discussing the taboo around parents who regret having children. Parenting, it claimed, for mothers in particular, has become almost like a cult – a pathway toward the kind of self-fulfillment that we once sought in religion or romantic love. Any parent raising their child with anything less than this pious vigor is vilified by the community, ostensibly because their less-than-obsessive relationship with their child isn’t good enough, but, in reality, because they risk breaking the illusion. Community parenting gives parents the chance to escape this narrow paradigm and to retain some energy for their own personal development.
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- A parent’s fine lines, and not just around the eyes
Apart from the more philosophical arguments, there is significant scientific literature which suggests that community parenting is in our blood. Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy believes that we are not just suited for more open styles of parenting but that we are actually biologically inclined to do so in that our evolution as a species has been shaped by communal parenting. This is not difficult to imagine when you look at East Asian families in which non-parental family members play a much larger role in a child’s life or Indigenous Australian families where even individuals outside of the immediate family can play an important role.
Non-parental care already exists in a number of forms in modern society including daycare, babysitters, and formal education, but there is room for much, much more and the benefits, I think, are worth investigating. A full Palanese-style MAC system may be a distant and possibly even undesirable outcome but formalizing systems of early childhood care and parental cooperation is a very achievable goal.
Huxley’s genius lay in his ability to show us the future in the very familiar and revolutionary ideas consisting of small changes. The potential of community parenting is more than just an alternative to traditional ways of raising kids; it offers us a way to give parents more freedom to live full and happy lives and their children a better chance to live up to their own potential. The future will show us that true fulfillment comes in living a balanced life, and ideas like this empower us to pursue that balance; so, why not?