On Belonging

What can I teach my boys, now 8 months and 3 years old, that would help them live happy lives? Is it helping them find purpose? Achievement? Comfort? When I looked at those around me, and back at my own life, and I was surprised to see that the thing that really mattered most was actually belonging. We are happiest when we feel we belong with our families, partners, friends, peers, teammates, classmates, colleagues, countrymen, generation. And we are miserable when we don’t feel we belong.

I actually shouldn’t have been so surprised. Belonging is a core need. In Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, I remembered the basic needs (food, clothing, etc.) and the highest ones (similar to purpose), but when I looked again, right there in the middle holding it all together is ‘love and belonging’.

Without feeling like we belong, we can’t perform; in the ABCs of Learning, chapter B is for ‘Belonging’ for that reason. Jonathan Haidt’s Righteous Mind explains that the main reason we argue about politics is not to convince others to change their minds (they won’t), but to strengthen our bonds with others who already share our views. We are passionate about politics because it helps us feel we belong.

I even realized that belonging is the main reason I care about achievement or purpose in the first place. If I fail at school, will I be excluded from my peer group of nerds? If I don’t succeed at work, will I be able to afford to live in this community in central London? If I don’t have a job that does good for the world, will my friends still like me?

Ok then, since belonging is so foundational, I just have to teach baby Cooper and brother Hunter how to feel like they belong. To uncountable set of social groups they will come across. Throughout their lives. For the next ¬100 years.

How the hell do I that?

The traditional solution to making people feel they belong is to design ‘inclusive’ institutions. If we only build the right campus dorm structure or ‘diverse and inclusive’ corporate culture, everyone will feel like they belong. Indeed Stanford’s president just announced they’ve restructured undergraduate housing in 700 person pods to inspire undergrads to gel better. So taking this ‘institutional’ approach toward parenting, I’d construct a lovely, sheltered, design-engineered bubble of people and interactions and arranged marriages so my poor little munchkins can easily feel like they belong.

That’s not going to work.

Fortunately, the other day my 3 year old Hunter did what kids do best : teach us how to raise them. In our neighbourhood there’s a playground with a big swing, in the middle of a local council estate. In my mind, Hunter and I didn’t belong there: we don’t live in that council estate or indeed any social housing, most of the kids are older (5 to 10 years old), and they all know each other already. But Hunter liked the swing, and the kids seemed kind and open to playing with him, so we started going there. Over time, he’s become part of this group. And I’ve gotten to observe how my skillful 3 year old fits in.

Belonging is an art and skill. It’s innate, and it can be learned and honed. Actually it’s three skills: First, you have to be able to be accepted by those you want to belong with. Second, you need to know when it’s time to move on. And lastly, you need to know what you who want to belong with.

Skill 1 : Being accepted

Babies are born knowing how to breathe, pee and poo, drink milk, and be accepted by their parents. They compel us to carry them with us everywhere (yes, even into the toilet when we need to pee on an airplane). At 4 months, Cooper would cry when he was on the floor next to the table instead of up at the table with us — he learned how to fit in at the table before he could eat or sit up. At 3 years old, Hunter refused to wear his nursery uniform outside the nursery, lest he stand out, but wears it inside — as long as everyone else is too. The skill of fitting in and being accepted is innate. They will continue to master how to fit in by watching and emulating people who already do. And so, in Montessori style, my job is to not let my boys lose this innate skill as they get older.

But if and when they do, there are now loads of places to learn it the nerdy way : acting classes, MBA, ‘soft skill’ trainings at work, blogs, books, and even fashion magazines can teach small but powerful tips like mirroring people’s behaviour, taking up the right amount of space, and intonation. They’ll figure it out. Other than during middle school, we all have.

Skill 2 : Knowing when you don’t belong anymore

Belonging is a skill, not a state. We don’t accumulate a sense of belonging over time; we move through moments of feeling like we belong, and then suddenly, we realize we don’t anymore.

There are three reasons why we stop belonging: we’ve changed, others have, or we never really belonged in the first place.

Here’s the trick : there will always be a time that you don’t belong anymore. Maybe you are at a wonderful, laughter-filled dinner party and the host starts tidying up the dishes; maybe after an election you find your political party has drifted too far from your values; maybe your neighbourhood gentrified; maybe you have. Or maybe you just tried a new group, gave it a whirl, but it just didn’t resonate with them in your heart. It’s time to move on.

In Grouped, Paul Adams points out that changing social groups is absolutely natural. He says we typically keep only around 4 friends from any shared social experience — like high school, college, different places you’ve worked, your kids’ school community, that time you lived abroad. Yet social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, this Aabservation mailing list) persists in a bizarre way over time, with no good way to let old acquaintance be forgot, without a painful ‘Liz has unfriended you’, ‘Liz, please unsubscribe me from your Aabservation list as I don’t even remember where we met’ or ‘Liz has left this WhatsApp group’. Having 1000+ Facebook ‘friends’ makes me feel I should belong to a group of people I once belonged to. We shouldn’t. We can’t. We don’t.

Yet while moving on is absolutely natural and common, it can be absolutely painful. My husband and I were in denial for over a year that our social life and indeed our friends changed when we had Hunter 3 years ago. And we were in denial yet again that it had changed yet again with the birth of baby Cooper. We’ve tried to get brunch on the weekends with friends that don’t have kids; but between the constant interruption/distractions, the mis-synced timing (by 11am they are getting breakfast, but we have been up for 5 hours and are on our 3rd meal), and the topics of conversations… it’s just not the same.

There is no ‘settled’. I’ve seen the other side of the timeline, as my parents’ generation goes through health challenges and death. Couples that had always belonged to each other suddenly find themselves not belonging to someone anymore. As they retire they lose the work colleagues they belonged to, the friend groups they belong to, maybe their kids now have their own kids and have moved far away (hi, mom and dad). And this loss happens at a time when they are most out of practice at the skill of finding new people to belong to.

So assuming I’ve taught my boys to recognize when it’s time to move on, how do I help them actually go through that painful process of saying goodbye?

Here I think Marie Kondo, of tidying fame, has some brilliant insights. You get rid of things by thanking them.

If it’s people you really connected with, thank them for the beautiful memories, for how they changed your life in little or big ways, for what they taught you. You don’t have to thank them to their face or even out loud. And it’s not permanent; there may be a time later in your life when you reconnect again, either because the situation changed or you did.

And if it’s people you don’t connect with (colleagues, a relationship, a group of friends, an activity club), thank them for teaching you where you don’t fit in. Or as Marie Kondo puts it, thank you for teaching me that I don’t like this kind of shirt.

Skill 3: Knowing where you want to belong

So poor Hunter and Cooper have a lot to learn! But perhaps the hardest, the most lifelong, is learning where they want to belong. Instead of asking ‘who do you want to be when you grow up,’ maybe we should be asking ‘who do you want to be with?’

We tend to feel we belong with people either because it resonates with something inherent in us, or because it’s familiar (like how just by hearing Britney Spear’s ‘Toxic’, I now can’t help but smile).

We like people we are used to. Few groups or people feel natural ‘at first sight.’ The first time Hunter stepped into the swing playground, I felt like I didn’t belong. The 20th time, I felt at home.

So to help feel more at home among new people, keep at it, at least 3, maybe 5, maybe 10 times. Don’t drop the awkward social experience because it was awkward the first time — it always is. With more familiarity, it will feel more like they belong.

But there’s a limit. We won’t feel like we belong with everyone. There’s something inside us, that resonates when we have found the right person or group or community. There’s something that just feels right. As Marie Kondo would say about a piece of clothing, we develop an intuition that this just ‘sparks joy.’

So how do I help my boys find their resonant frequency, that sparks that joy for them? By helping them try out new groups, meeting new people, and continuing to meet new people for the rest of their lives.

I am currently overcoming a lifelong fear of clothing shopping. Because I felt awkward (actually, terrified) buying clothes, I avoided it until I absolutely had to. Then someone whose fashion sense I trusted would rescue me by buying clothes for me; first it was my mom, then my sister, then good friends, now my husband. Which worked until my next fashion crisis.

Wrong. Having other people buy me clothes wasn’t the solution, it was part of the problem. A few weeks ago a friend told me, ‘Liz, are you kidding? I never shop with others. I only shop alone.’ She advised me to go by myself to the huge Westfield shopping centre in London and just wander about for a couple of hours. And it was so much easier! Suddenly, I had only myself to please. I didn’t have to see if this clothing suited me and also my mom/sister/friend/husband’s image of me. I didn’t have to pop out of the dressing room in a shirt that didn’t fit properly and ask, How do I look?

And yet we hold the same crazy requirements to belonging as I did to clothing : we usually only try out new social groups when we are with people from our existing ones. Which makes it seriously hard to belong in a new group.

Remember the movie Grease? Sandra Dee meets her true love Danny only when they are by themselves, away from the social pressures of high school. It’s true : when we are allowed freedom to meet others one-to-one, outside the peer/family pressure of their existing groups, we can find the one that we want, oh hoo hoo, honey.

Branching out to new groups often starts with just one person. One person outside our normal world, that we’ve met somewhere outside our normal world, that is totally unfamiliar — and yet we resonate with them.

This one person can pull us into their world like a thread through a cloth. These Threaders are the magic key of belonging. If I think back to Hunter integrating into his playground group, the turning point was when one friendly girl asked to play with him.

Threaders sometimes pull you into worlds you end up not liking. That’s fine. That was the other lesson of my shopping spree at Westfield : it’s okay not to like every shirt and every store. It teaches you what you don’t like.

And so in sum, dear Hunter and Cooper, here’s how I will try to teach you the lifelong skill of belonging:

I will not shelter you in a design-engineered bubble of people that I think you will like.

Instead, I will try to give you chances to learn the subtle art of fitting in, through encouraging you to watch and emulate others, acting classes, and sharing tips.

I will give you lots of opportunities to practice in new social situations, even if I find them uncomfortable myself.

I will encourage you to stick it out a little bit in those new settings, so you can tell if it’s a bad fit only because it’s unfamiliar, or because it doesn’t resonate with you.

I will give you space and privacy to shop for your friends alone.

I will comfort you when you need to leave groups and people you’ve belonged to, and help you notice when it’s time to move on.

I will watch you and continue to learn from you.

I will ask you to teach me and remind me as I get older, and out of practice just at the time I need practice the most.

And above all, I will do my best to make sure that our family always feels like somewhere you belong. I will save those childhood Smurf sheets for your visits back home. And maybe, one day, for your kids’ visits too.