Dirt. Fresh Air. A truckload of love: Working out what it takes to grow a great kid

There were a lot of years at the Canada Day parade that Shannon Paul marched up front, holding the sign, as the rest of the Growing Great Children tribe walked behind her, wrangling their kids. She was the only one without any, so her hands were free – for the organizing. And supporting. And upholding. So that’s what she did.

The chiropractor, who treats as many babies as adults in her 8 year old practice at Pemberton Valley Wellness, always wanted kids herself and when little Mariya finally bliss-bombed her way into existence, Paul continued to devote spare hours she doesn’t have (stolen mostly from her own sleep) to write grants, organize events, and bring parent-growing opportunities to Pemberton.

photo-by-amie-leblanc

Because the bottom line is, what it takes to grow great children, are parents. And the more support those parents get, the better the outcomes for everyone.

As Christine Gross-Loh notes in her book, Parenting without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, North America has a unique and two-faced attitude toward parents – all saccharinely supportive on the surface, but with very little actual follow-through on a systemic level. Where Gross-Loh found countries like Japan, Sweden or Finland had support systems for families baked into the very fabric of society – programs like free daycare, paid parental leave, blockwatch programs that allow kindergartners to walk to school, a free baby box of basic supplies for every expecting family – in North America, new parents are sold to, targeted by marketing campaigns, and blogged at, as they struggle to balance work and family, all the while being watched closely from the sidelines by commentators who tend to be quick to note when you fall short of the high bar that has been set. The unspoken mentality skews less “children make us all richer” and more “you wanted kids, now you’ve got them, it’s your problem how you make it work.”

The reality crash for a lot of new families, that is foreshadowed the moment you walk out the hospital doors with a newborn and the biggest case of imposter syndrome you’ve ever experienced, is that you are on your own. And that cultural shrug – “hey, you asked for it” – creates a lot of cracks for people, marriages, mental health, and children, to fall through.

Community support for families, then, tends to depend entirely on the actual specific community, and the people who live here. Happily for those of us breeding here in Pemberton in the last decade, a small volunteer group got started in 2008, and the Growing Great Children collective have miraculously managed to sustain their efforts for eight years.

Shannon Paul’s daughter is the same age as my son. In 2008, for the record, I was not volunteering my time for the new parents of Pemberton, organizing princess and pirate playdates and Bobs and Lolo performances. As my friends slowly turned into breeders, I left them to it. I didn’t take them freezer meals, I did not offer to babysit, I gave their kids chocolate cookies at 8pm and chased them up and down the hallways at dinner parties, reveling in their laughter, feeling like a hero, oblivious to how badly I was winding them up for a bedtime debacle I wasn’t going to have to deal with. At the occasional birthday party or baby shower, I took inappropriate gifts like crayons that scribble all over the bathtub. (Insert horror-face emoji here.)

Paul, however, can revel in the fact that a lot of the events and supports in Pemberton that her family (and mine) can now enjoy, (Glamour and Glitz, the Princess and Pirate Playdate, the Closet Clean Out, Music Together, shade trees at the Water Park) are the legacy of her own efforts, and those of a half dozen superstar off-the-sides-of-their-lives busy, compassionate, fellow mamas.

“We’ve been doing what we’re doing for a while and we need to hear your new ideas. It’s very low commitment. Everyone is busy.” Paul’s invitation is for new mamas (and dads and grandparents and caregivers and people who care about growing great children) to add their energy to the collective. Come to the table with a few hours of time and an answer to the questions: “What are you passionate about? What are your needs? What shall we do next?”

As Paul distills it, growing a kid takes love. “Lots and lots of love. Parents with a healthy relationship, even if they are not together anymore. And community. When you don’t have family close by, our community helps to keep on grounded, and not feeling like you are a train derailing all the time.”

She’s not looking for people who have the answer to the question, but for ones who understand that it’s worth asking. What does it take to grow a great kid? Because it’s a lot more than any of us can figure out on our own.

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