Raising children in a modern day household is nothing short of hardcore. From the outside it’s all ‘babies first words’ and adorable little socks but under the surface it seems most parents are left feeling consistently and chronically overwhelmed. If ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ then it’s no surprise that many (if not most) parents who are shoehorned into the nuclear family model end up feeling that they are sorely lacking in the kind of support they require.
That being said it’s important to highlight that the experience of child rearing in the currently preferred two parent nuclear mould is often as beautiful, magical and amazing as it is intense, challenging and soul sapping. And in years to come there is even a chance we may unequivocally conclude that it is indeed the best (or at least the most feasible) approach to raising happy and healthy kids in the 21st century.
But for now the jury is still out and I have a strong sense there might be better ways to do it. And in this I’m far from alone. In fact there is a nascent movement coalescing around the idea of community parenting and this article introduces one such approach in that broader protopian tradition.
It’s a child rearing model I’ve come to think of as Six Person Parenting although I don’t claim it to be a wholly original idea (if such a thing even exists). I imagine the stirrings for such a notion first took root in my mind after reading Island by Aldous Huxley. It’s a utopian novel written in 1962 in which Huxley introduces the concept of Mutual Adoption Clubs as a replacement for what he sees to be a deeply flawed nuclear family model. Here one of the characters describes their take on the predominant experience of most modern day families in the west:
‘Take one sexually inept wage slave,” she went on, “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 fifteen years in their own juice.’
Such an image suggests there is still plenty of room for improvement in how we raise our kids and while I believe certain parts of the culture have made important strides in the right direction since Huxley first penned these words it’s my sense that we’ve still got a long way to go. Hopefully a range of alternative approaches like Six Person Parenting can help us to get some of the way there.
But before laying out the concept in its entirety let’s first take a dip into the turtle infested waters of my psyche in order to weigh up the pro’s and con’s of having children in a two person nuclear family in the 2020’s. It’s a decision many Millennials and elder Gen Z’ers are currently weighing up and by exploring both sides of the debate we will be better positioned to appreciate how Six Person Parenting may be a timely prescription for a significant chunk of potential parents to be.
The Decision To Procreate: Turtles All The Way Down
I’m approaching a crossroads. At thirty five years old one part of me wants to have a child while another part of me feels it might be a decision I regret. Naturally each of these warring parts of my psyche takes the form of a different Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Leonardo the straight shooting righteous turtle argues in favour of having children while Raphael the free thinking and rebellious terrapin argues vehemently against the idea. The two of them have been locked in fierce debate for years and I generally just leave them to it. But seeing as the biological clock of my generation ticks steadily along I’ve felt a renewed urgency around soon declaring a winner. So let’s listen in and see who currently has the upper hand.
Leonardo’s Pro Baby Position
Leonardo: Every sinew of our psycho-biological make up is screaming at us to procreate. Sex Sex SEX SEX SEX. Just get out of your own way, trust the process and do what nature intended.
Raphael: Yes but heeding all of our biological impulses doesn’t always end well does it? Do we really want to blindly follow in natures footsteps? I mean there is rape, infanticide and cannibalism all throughout the animal kingdom. Perhaps we should lean into our more rational inclinations on this one.
Leonardo: But babies are cute! You love cute things.
Raphael: That’s true. But hamsters are cute and they only cost fifteen to twenty dollars. That’s an average saving of two hundred and thirty two thousand US dollars over the average life span of both creatures. (Based on the average cost of raising a child born in 2015 in the US)
Leonardo: Don’t you want to bear witness to the full flowering of a little conscious being? To have front row seats to the miracle of birth and the most complex and fascinating developmental journey in the known universe? Don’t you want to have a hand in shaping that? Is it not the ultimate act of creativity?
Raphael: Yes, yes I do. But I don’t necessarily need to be one of the primary caregivers of a child to experience that. After all there are already plenty of children in my life and I can always spend more time with these little people that already exist.
Leonardo: Surely you want to have a family of your own though? Not to mention continue on the family line, it reaches back a long way you know. What would our ancestors think? And who’ll look after you when you’re old?
Raphael: These are valid concerns but I feel forging a family constellation of chosen kin (a small network of very close friends) is the better path forward. And honestly all this allegiance to DNA bonded kin groups is rather archaic if you ask me. After all when it comes down to it we’re all one big genetic family anyway aren’t’ we? And wouldn’t our cooler ancestors actively be cheering us on for braving the path less trodden.
Leonardo: But you’ll never get to experience the quality of love you’ll feel for your own child. You love love! You consider yourself a connoisseur of love. And this type of love is completely unique. It fills you up in ways you couldn’t possibly have imagined.
Raphael: I appreciate that. But in my experience the intensity of love I share with another is closely related to how much time and energy we both invest in each other. So all that time and attention we’d direct towards children would essentially be stripped away from other relationships in our life. This means that by having kids we’d likely never experience the depth and breadth of the love we would otherwise be able to cultivate with our friends and lovers. In this sense it’s merely substituting one quality of truly intense love for another.
Leonardo: What about all the young parents and kindly old folk who say it’s the best thing they ever did?
Raphael: They’re all biassed and have a lot invested in convincing themselves that’s the truth. There are no impartial participants in the debate around having children.
Leonardo: What else are we doing with our time? Making art? Making money? Trying to change the world? Are we really making that much of a difference? Isn’t our energy better focussed towards having a direct impact on the hearts and minds of the next generation?
Raphael: Obviously the impact of our efforts is relatively minute in the grander scheme of things. But that’s the nature of being a single person in a population of over seven billion. What counts is that our work and art is incredibly meaningful to us (and a few others too). And that matters. While raising a good human would no doubt have some kind of positive impact on the world I feel the resources saved by not having kids and the amount of time we could then spend attempting to make the world a better place in other ways would far outweigh the potential benefits of raising our own child.
The two turtles take a breath and order some pizza before getting back into it. This time Raphael is on the offensive.
Raphael’s Anti Baby Argument
Raphael: Two person parenting is bone numbingly exhausting. It leaves very little time to take care of yourself and often claims the lions share of both parents income.
Leonardo: There’s some truth to that but you kind of get used to it after a while and ultimately make it work in the end. You can sleep when you’re dead.
Raphael: There are already too many people on the planet. The last thing we need is more mouths to feed.
Leonardo: Yes but is one person more really going to make that much difference? And surely our child will be the kind of person that ends up making our culture that much more sustainable in the long run.
Raphael: Having a child locks you into a life long commitment with the other parent and knowing us we’d likely end up feeling obliged to keep the family unit together at all costs. This kind of subtle life sentence sets the scene for some particularly weird relational dynamics to emerge.
Leonardo: You can always seperate. There are healthy ways to raise kids without the parents staying together.
Raphael: The modern approach to raising kids (nuclear families in highly industrialised cultures often with two working parents) seems to end up subtly traumatising them in a number of ways. I’m not sure I want to inflict that upon a new born child.
Leonardo: Obviously the currently preferred model is far from perfect but it continues to evolve every generation and even with its current shortfalls…isn’t the miracle of life ultimately still a gift worth giving?
The Verdict: A Synthesis
I don’t know about you but for me the two arguments are very evenly balanced. Around seventy per cent of the time I end up coming down on Raphael’s side of things but even that part of me doesn’t feel wholly at peace with the notion of never being a father.
Thankfully a third possibility which synthesises these two positions has recently come to my attention and for the first time it’s allowing me to imagine a future where I have no reservations about parenting a child.
Introducing: Six Person Parenting
Essentially the idea is to form a six person parenting pod with five other people and agree to all share in the duties of raising a child.
I’m suggesting six people because it seems like the sweet spot between ‘many hands make light work’ and ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. These six people could be either a group of wholly platonic friends, a collection of couples, or else a hybrid and potentially polyamorous version of the two.
Here’s How It Could Work
While there are many different ways to six person parent here’s how I imagine it might work best for me:
One or two people first conceive the idea to start a Parenting Pod.
They then decide on the location where they wish to raise the child.
Next they begin calling in other potential parents and go through an interview and co-parent platonic dating process.
After six people have been found the group then takes the time to agree on the fundamentals of their Parent Pod Agreement (ie. adoption vs birthing, the parenting philosophy the pod will employ, each parents responsibilities, how decisions will be made disagreements resolved within the Pod etc.)
The six people would then enter into an intensive and extended Pre Parent Podding experience together. This would involve practices around relating authentically, a group therapy like process as well as trust and team building exercises. If someone drops out or is voted out by the group during this phase of the process a decision would then be made collectively whether to recruit a new parent or else proceed with just five.
After the final grouping has been settled on a shared agreement detailing everyones rights and responsibilities would be drafted up and then signed by the group.
At this stage there may be some kind of financial bond that each person commits to before commencing the birth or adoption process. This would mean that if someone then reneges on their commitments (or if all five of the other people agree that one individual has consistently fallen short in living up to their responsibilities) then they are removed from the Parent Pod and their bond is forfeited towards the ongoing costs of raising the child.
The group then either adopts a child or chooses two of its members to give birth on their behalf.
There is one particular residence where the child is raised and lives out its childhood years. The six parents each have seperate residences in the same town, city or region and rotate through living in the house with the child. The roster would be broadly agreed upon in advance but would also likely change in response to the evolving needs of the child and parents along the way. While each Parenting Pod would come up with its own unique approach I imagine they would all take into account psychological advice around what would be most healthy for the child. I could imagine a staggered roster where there is up to two or three parents living in the house with the child at one time before rotating out again every two or three weeks.
If it all went smoothly I foresee the benefits including:
More support and energy on hand to raise and nurture the child. Instead of there being only two (often overwhelmed and chronically sleep deprived) parental figures there would be a freshly rested roster of parents who would consistently bring a renewed sense of enthusiasm and excitement to their allotted caregiving days. This is the equivalent of having one basketball team with five substitutes playing another team without any substitutes at all. Even if the team without substitutes is very highly skilled if they don’t get the chance to rest and recuperate they will almost always be over run by a team with lesser skills but fresher legs over the length of a season. Not to mention the fact that the team without subs will be lacking in the wide range of strategic options that having different kinds of players available for different kinds of match ups will afford them.
The financial burden of raising a family would be spread out across an extra four people. This would likely result in a better quality of care and education for the child and much lower levels of stress for each parent.
The child would have a wider range of different role models and be able to benefit from the different kinds of wisdom that each parent would bring to the table.
It would be much more likely that the child would always have someone to turn to for high quality emotional support in times of need. Often if just two parents are together and in an (acute or chronic) period of disagreement then the child may lack access to support when it is most required. In a system where there are six parents who are not all romantically connected it is much more likely one of them will be steady and stable enough to hold meaningful space for the child in moments of need.
Due to the extra time afforded each parent in a six person system they would likely be able to maintain a much greater connection to their own sense of ‘self’ by being able to lead more balanced lives, take better care of themselves, continue their careers and actively maintain their passions, hobbies and spiritual practices. This would in turn benefit the children by providing them more ‘balanced’ parental figures in their life. It would also mean there would be less of an unspoken sense of ‘I have given up everything for you’ in any of the parental figures.
The child would likely have a better chance of avoiding absorbing too much of any one particular parents shadow side or psychological hang ups. When children are continually stuck in a house with two stressed out parents it tends to increase the likelihood of them unconsciously marinating in the stickier aspects of any one particular parent. This is the equivalent of being eternally pickled in a sealed jar as opposed to having ones parental waters continually changed every few weeks in a constantly rotating six person system.
There would be up to twelve grandparents and likely a wide range of uncles and aunties on hand to offer up additional love and support. This is a kind of baked in communal kinship support network.
Less stressed out and generally more supported parents would likely have all sorts of positive second order effects on the wider society as well. It would result in less instances of childhood neglect and no doubt lower the instances of bullying, crime and all sorts of other interconnected phenomena over the long term.
Six Person Parenting also aligns us much more closely with how we cared for our children for hundreds of thousands of years in hunter gatherer societies. It could be argued this is how we evolved to raise our kids.
I imagine some of the downsides of such an approach would be:
It involves an increased number of moving parts and this means there are more ways it can all unravel.
It also requires a very high degree of ongoing communication and negotiation. A relationship or partnership of two is already a lot to manage, having six people around the table significantly increases the chances of disagreement or miscommunication.
It might present legal difficulties as most modern legal systems are designed around a two parent system (more on this below).
It involves the ongoing management of a relatively complicated rostering system.
It requires the blending together of six different individuals parenting philosophies. This involves integrating six different opinions on what to feed the child, whether to vaccinate them, how much sugar and screen time they are allowed etc. That can be difficult for two let alone six and will require a great deal of compromise.
Considering modern parenting culture there is a risk that the child could be oversaturated with constant energy and attention from its six parents and twelve grandparents. If not handled carefully this overabundance of attention could actually end up hindering the child’s development.
If two of the six parents have a genetic connection to the child that the others don’t (ie. the group doesn’t adopt and chooses two people to be the biological mother and father) then there may be an extra sense of custodianship or even possessiveness arising in these two people over the child. This could lead to tensions over time.
Having a constant rotation of caregivers may create some kind of unique attachment issues in the child.
A sense of competitiveness to be the favourite parent could arise. This is already common with just two parents but is often intensified between grandparents because there is more ‘competition’ and often less quality time available with the child. If all six parents and twelve grandparents were subtly trying to be the childs favourite it could soon learn to manipulate this dynamic in ways that may be of benefit in the short term (more toys!) but that could be subtly detrimental to its character over the longer term.
What about other variations beyond the six parents and one child model?
There are many different ways to structure a parenting pod. You could have three, four, five or ten people (etc.) parent pods. You could have three already established couples share in the raising of one child each (ie. six parents and three kids in total). The possibilities are endless. But the idea underneath remains the same, decoupling child rearing from the confines of a nuclear family and sharing the duty of parenthood between a larger group than two.
If adopted en masse wouldn’t this lead to a society made up primarily of only children? And wouldn’t that be bad?
If this model really caught on and six parent pods with only one child became the norm, then yes there would be a lot of only children in society. This would likely have both positive and negatives effects. In such a scenario I feel it would be wise to mitigate the downsides of there being so few children with siblings by also adopting new kinds of communal structures (Collectives, Neotribes, Childrens Pod’s etc.) that could ensure children learned the lessons of living in close relationship with others from a young age.
How would romantic love best factor into a six parent pod?
I’m still pondering this one myself. A part of me feels that not having any of the parents romantically connected with one another might create the most stable environment for the child. But another part of me feels that exposing a child to the intensity and warmth of romantic love between two parents is an important thing. At this stage my sense is that the optimal balance might be having some of the parents in the pod being romantic partners and others not.
What role would the romantic partners of parents who were outside of the pod play?
I imagine they would be the equivalent of aunties and uncles. It would be up to each parenting pod to decide whether these people would spend time living in the house with the child when their partners were rostered on.
Doesn’t this idea just reflect the selfish impulses of a generation that is too afraid to face up to what it takes to be a modern day parent?
Perhaps! I can at least appreciate how it might come across that way. But if you look at it from another angle perhaps accepting the status quo and subjecting another generation of children and their parents to an incredibly stressful and often subtly traumatising nuclear family experience is the more selfish move? Perhaps it’s more courageous to prototype a way of child rearing that has the potential to provide everyone involved with that much more support and assistance.
Is this legal?
Most modern day legal systems follow a Law Of Two which only officially recognises two people as parents of a child. However this is starting to change as various campaigns continue to push for an expansion of that number. For example in California a law has been passed that recognises a third parent and in New York in 2017 a judge granted three people shared parental custody of a child. But in the mean time there may have to be an arrangement where only two of the six people in the parenting pod are legally parents.
At some point in the future will it possible to mix up six peoples DNA and create a baby out of it?
I believe that is within the realm of possibility. Although it may take some time. If it were possible I would consider this option as I feel all six parents having a genetic connection to the child would likely result in an even deeper bond and thus potentially better outcome for the child. Naturally though you lose the benefits of adoption with this approach.
In Conclusion: Send Me Your DNA
So there you have it. The broad brushstrokes of a still forming and potentially controversial idea. While it started out feeling highly unorthodox the more I think about it the more I feel it’s how I would like to raise children. So consider my Parenting Pod formation inbox unofficially open. Please send all interview videos and DNA swabs to Nulife laboratories in Geneva for further analysis.
Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can find him on Facebook & Twitter.