August Newsletter: Lessons from the animal kingdom, and stealing advice from “Parents”

Each month, I share what I am learning and writing about the importance of extended family in US social policy and – when I can – add some cute animal pics and pop culture references. Reach out by email or follow me on Twitter. If you enjoyed this newsletter, subscribe here!

Here comes Peter Cotton-Top Tamarin…

I recently had a high school friend visiting, which is a great excuse to be a tourist in your area. We had the chance to check out Liberty Science Center, a fantastic interactive experience in Jersey City. While I’ve been there on a handful of trips when I was younger, it was my first time going with our toddler in tow. We got there just in time to watch the staff feed what we thought were monkeys – but were actual cotton-top tamarins.

If you start reading up on extended families in the animal kingdom (what, you haven’t?), it doesn’t take long to learn cotton-top tamarins are kind of a big deal. Eminent anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes in her riveting book Mothers and Others that while many species collaborate to raise young, tamarins are among the very few species – along with humans – that she defines as “full-fledged cooperative breeders.” Elsewhere, she explains that when female tamarins give birth – a task generally done by just one or two dominant females – help is not far behind:

“Fathers and alloparents of both sexes are unusually eager to help mothers rear their young. Babies are carried throughout most of the day by one or more adult males, which expend so much energy doing so that they actually lose weight. Other helpers, typically but not exclusively kin, voluntarily deliver even prized animal prey to youngsters.”

These alloparents – kin and other tribe members who are  not the biological parents – step in to lighten the  load, to the well-being of the whole tribe. Blaffer Hrdy notes that “immature” – or, pre-reproductive – females often play the role of eager alloparent, which helps improve their own fitness for reproduction down the line, though they are “concerned lest their charge’s cries attract a competing allomother.” I always get a laugh out of that image – a very scientific way of summing up that younger cousin every family has who is unboundedly excited to help out with a new baby, and hesitant to share them with anyone else.

Tamarins are just one of the fascinating species I’ve learned about as I’ve dove into the alloparenting research, and I’ll share more soon. In the meantime, I definitely encourage you to visit some in person or at least bookmark these images if you’re having a bad day.


Impostor syndrome? Fight it by focusing on someone else

I was quoted in a piece on Hello Giggles where professional women shared their moments of breaking through “impostor syndrome,” where I reflected on how growing into the role of mentor helped reshape my view on my own development:

“When I started shifting from being the one asking for letters of recommendation and connections to getting to play that role of connector for other talented early career professionals, I started seeing my status in a new light. No one tells you that you have become a mentor—I sure didn’t tell my mentor when I picked her, it just naturally happened.”

I felt like an impostor even responding to this reporter’s query, which sort of shows you how deep this all goes. Fighting my own “impostor syndrome” as I shift from an early career professional to a leadership and management role has been tough – plus the shifting dynamics of my own ego and my changing work-life balance as I parent. I firmly believe mentoring – having a mentor yourself, mentoring others, and creating a climate for success – is key. I went a bit deeper on this on my blog, drawing inspiration from both writer Ann Friedman and soccer star Abby Wambach.


Fostering learning, for Parents and other adults
I also had the pleasure of being a contributor to the “Ages & Stages” section of this month’s Parents magazine, on ways to foster early literacy, math, and social-emotional development. Talk about impostor syndrome on this one! I was delighted to find out this piece would be not only online, but also in print. This is Parents! Every pediatrician I know has it in their office! And now that I’ve seen the other contributors – including Roberta Golinkoff, whose work I’ve long admired – I’m even more excited to have my voice represented.

While the publication is obviously geared towards parents, I feel strongly that the guidance works for any adult in a child’s life. I almost wish we could reprint the article in something called Aunts and Uncles and Godparents Too! – lots of parents already get great advice on how to incorporate learning and skill development into their home life, but many other adults who are deeply invested in children they love lack guidance on making the most of their role.

You can snag a copy of the Back to School issue for this and other great articles on Amazon.


The Whole Tree: Extended Families in Education
It’s almost here! I’m heading down to Florida in a few weeks to present on extended family engagement in education, which has been a key area of my research in the last few months. I’ll share the slides when I’m all done, but here’s the key takeaway: family engagement has increasingly become a priority in schools, but most state and local education agencies continue to gear their engagement around nuclear families – and that’s not a model that works for families today. Empowering extended family members, who are already deeply invested in a child, can improve child outcomes, but schools need examples of how to do this in a realistic way. I won’t have all the answers at this conference – but am looking forward to starting the conversation with practitioners to better understand their experience, and helping to shape a new model.