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In the absence of ‘the village,’ mothers struggle most

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Dear mothers,

I'm writing you today because I can no longer contain the ache in my gut and fire in my heart over an injustice that you and I are bearing the brunt of.

Though this injustice is affecting everyone, mothers not only feel its burden more than most, but we also feel disproportionately responsible for alleviating its pervasive and deeply damaging symptoms, which is adding hugely to the weight of the world we're already wired to carry.

The injustice is this:

It takes a village, but there are no villages.

By village I don't simply mean "a group of houses and associated buildings, larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town, situated in a rural area." I'm referring to the way of life inherent to relatively small, relatively contained multigenerational communities. Communities within which individuals know one another well, share the joys, burdens, and sorrows of everyday life, nurture one another in times of need, mind the well-being of each other's ever-roaming children and increasingly dependent elderly, and feel fed by their clearly essential contribution to the group that securely holds them.

I'm talking about the most natural environment for children to grow up in.

I'm talking about a way of life we are biologically wired for, but that is nearly impossible to find in developed nations.

I'm talking about the primary unmet need driving the frustration that most every village-less mother is feeling. Though the proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" has become cliché, the impact of our village-less realities is anything but insignificant. It's wreaking havoc on our quality of life in countless ways.

In the absence of the village…

—Enormous pressure is put on parents as we try to make up for what entire communities used to provide.

—Our priorities become distorted and unclear as we attempt to meet so many conflicting needs at once.

—We feel less safe and more anxious without the known boundaries, expectations and support of a well-known group of people with whom to grow.

—We're forced to create our tribes during seasons of our life when we have the least time and energy to do so.

—We tend to hold tight to our ideals and parenting paradigms, even when doing so divides us, in an attempt to feel safer and less overwhelmed by so many ways and options.

—Our children's natural way of being is compromised, as most neighborhoods and communities no longer contain packs of roaming children with whom they can explore, create and nurture their curiosity.

—We run around like crazy trying to make up for the interaction, stimulation and learning opportunities that were once within walking distance.

—We forget what "normal" looks and feels like, which leaves us feeling as if we're not doing enough, or enough of the "right" things.

—Depression and anxiety skyrocket, particularly during seasons of our lives when we instinctively know we need more support than ever but don't have the energy to find it.

—We feel disempowered by the many responsibilities and pressures we're trying so hard to keep up with.

—We spend money we don't have on things we don't need in an attempt to fill the voids we feel.

—We rely heavily on social media for a sense of connection, which often leads us to feel even more isolated and inadequate.

—We feel lonely and unseen, even when we're surrounded by people.

—Our partnerships are heavily burdened by the needs that used to be spread among communities, and our expectations of loved ones increase to unrealistic levels.

—We feel frequently judged and misunderstood.

—We feel guilty for just about everything: not wanting or having time to be our children's primary playmates, not working enough, working too much, allowing too much screen time in order to keep up with our million perceived responsibilities, etc.

—Joy, lightness and fun feel hard to access.

—We think we're supposed to be independent, and feel ashamed of our need for others.

—We make decisions that don't reflect our values but our deeply unmet needs.

Perhaps most tragically of all, the absence of the village is distorting many mothers' sense of self. It's causing us to feel that our inadequacies are to blame for our struggles, which further perpetuates the feeling that we must do even more to make up for them.

It's a trap. A self-perpetuating cycle. A distorted reality that derives its strength from the oppressive mindsets still in place despite our freedoms.

Here's a new mindset to try on for size.

You and I are not the problem at all. WE ARE DOING PLENTY. We may feel inadequate, but that's because we're on the front lines of the problem, which means we're the ones being hardest hit. We absorb the impact of a broken, still-oppressive social structure so that our children won't have to.

That makes us heroes, not failures.

No, we're not oppressed in the same ways that we used to be (nor in the ways other women around the world still are), but make no mistake about it:

In the absence of the village, we're disadvantaged like never before. We may have more freedoms than our foremothers, but our burden remains disproportionately, oppressively heavy.

Since the beginning of time (and until very recently), mothers have borne life's burdens together. We scrubbed our clothes in the streams while laughing at splashing toddlers and mourning the latest loss of love or life. We wove, sewed, picked, tidied or mended while swapping stories and minding our aging grandmothers. We tended one another's wounds (both physical and emotional), relied on one another for strength when times were tough, and sought counsel from our community's wise, experienced and cherished elders.

Village life fostered a sense of safety, inclusivity, purpose, acceptance and importance. These essential elements of thriving were built in.

Now? We're being forced to create all of that for ourselves within a society that has physically and energetically restructured itself around a whole new set of priorities. It's a profits before people model that threatens the well-being of nearly everything we mothers are wired to protect.

Though I'm optimistic and hopeful by nature, this dilemma has left me discouraged many times over the years. How does an entire nation of mothers shift a storyline this massive while individually and collectively weakened by the absence of the very thing we so desperately need?

Major cultural shifts in prioritization, structure and power are clearly in order (and I do believe they're happening, however chaotically). In the meantime, each of us has a choice to make:

We can buy into, make peace with, and conform to the way things are, or exercise the freedoms our foremothers and fathers won for us and commit to doing our unique and essential part in creating change, starting within us and working our way out.

You and I aren't likely to experience what it's like to raise children in an actual village, but that's okay. That's not what this generation is about. This generation is about waking up to who we really are and what we really want, and resetting society's sails accordingly.

Playing your part in the re-villaging of our culture starts with being wholly, unapologetically, courageously YOU.

Here are a few tangible steps you can take whenever you're ready:

1. Get really clear on one thing.

The fact that you're struggling is not a reflection of your inadequacies, but the unnatural cultural circumstances you're living within.

2. Own + honor your needs.

Most mothers are walking around with several deeply unmet needs of their own while focusing almost exclusively on the needs of others. This is precisely the thing that keeps us from gaining traction and improving our circumstances, both individually and collectively.

3. Practice vulnerability.

Rich, safe, authentic connection is essential for thriving. Cultivating this quality of connection takes courage and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone. What you want most exists on the other side of that initial awkward conversation or embarrassing introduction.

4. Own your strengths.

What makes you feel strong and fully alive? What lights you up and gives you energy just thinking about it? Who would you be to your village if you had one? Tapping into your strengths and engaging them is one of the greatest ways to attract the kinds of people you want into your life, bless and inspire others, and build a sense of community in ways that fill rather than drain you.

5. Become an integral part of something.

Whether it's a knitting group, dance troupe, church, kayaking club or homeschool collective, commit to growing community around one area of your life that enlivens you or fills a need. Use the connections you cultivate within this community to practice showing up bravely and authentically and asking for what you need, whether that's support, resources or encouragement.

6. Do your part + ONLY your part.

Though it's tempting to fill our lives to the brim with commitments that make a difference, doing so only further disempowers us. Read Essentialism by Greg McKeown if you struggle with this one.

7. Learn self-love + self-compassion.

In a culture of "never enough" it is essential that we forge healthy relationships with ourselves in order to be able to fend off the many messages hitting us about who we're meant to be and what makes us worthy of happiness and love. In fact, I see self-love in action as the greatest gift our generation of mothers could possibly give to the mothers of tomorrow.

8. Speak your truth.

Even when you're terrified. Even if it makes you the bravest one in the room.

9. Imagine a new way.

Where we're headed looks nothing like where we've come from. Creating the kind of future we want requires envisioning that future and believing a new way to be possible. Get specific and think big. What do you want?

I've tasted village life.

—During college, when my tribe of idealists and dreamers were all within walking distance, and we'd yet to subscribe to "adult" social rules that told us what what was most important.

—When my young adult cousins lived with us for several months at a time. I've never enjoyed motherhood more than those days when I knew that the needs of the children, home and its individuals were joyfully shared among eager, loving souls.

—On retreat with other women, when each of us was reminded how very similar our struggles were and how very desperate we all feel for consistent support, everyday interaction, healing, lightness and ease.

—At outdoor festivals, when the village is re-created, if only for a weekend of camping, and everyone settles into a communal way, cooperative rhythm and lighter state of being.

—During the time I spent with Mayan mothers in impoverished rural Mexico. There I witnessed the blessings made possible by the presence of a tribe, however disadvantaged.

My soul was fed deeply during those time periods. Every time I get a taste of what we're missing, I become strengthened and hopeful again. THAT is the energy needed to create change. THAT is what the powers that be don't want us to feel.

I have no idea what the future holds, but I do know this:

We're supposed to be crying, celebrating, falling down and rising together.

We're supposed to have grandmothers and aunts and neighbors and cousins sharing the everyday moments, guiding us and helping us see the sacredness in the insanity.

We're supposed to be nurtured for months postpartum, cared for when we're sick, held while we mourn, and supported during challenging transitions.

And our children are supposed to cradled and allowed to grow within the social structures WE deem best for them.

Find yourself, then find your people. Or do it the other way around. Just don't settle. Don't ever settle for a way of life created by those who don't honor your soul and cherish your babies.

Change-making right alongside you,

Beth

A version of this article was originally published on Revolution from Home.

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No kid is born a picky eater, but there are plenty who will give you a run for your money come mealtime. Whether it's a selective eating phase or simply a natural resistance to trying something new, getting your little one to try just.one.bite can be easier said than done.

But sometimes your attitude about eating can make the most impact. A 2017 study found a direct correlation between "mealtime emotional climate" (AKA, how positive meals are for parents and children) and a child's consumption of healthy food―meaning the difference between your child trying their green beans or not could depend on how positive you make the experience.

Not sure where to start?

Here are 10 positive parenting techniques that can help overcome picky eating and lead to more peaceful mealtimes for all.

1. Make them feel special.

Sometimes just knowing you have a special place at the table can help kids eat better. Create a special place setting with dishes just for them.

Try this: We love OXO's Stick & Stay plates and bowls for creating less mess at mealtime. Not only will the kids love the fun colors and designs, but the plates also come with a suction cup base that prevents little hands from knocking plates to the floor (or in your lap). Trust us—we've tried it.

2. Take off the pressure.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Plate

Think about it: If someone kept telling you to take one more bite during lunch, how likely would you be to go along without bristling?

Try this: Instead, use the Satter Division of Responsibility of feeding, which lets parents be responsible for what, when, and where feeding happens, while the child is left responsible of how much and whether. Besides promoting a more positive environment at mealtime, this method also boosts your child's confidence and helps encourage better self-regulation of food as they get older.

3. Serve a variety.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Divided Plate

It could be that your child is bored with the usual rotation. Keep things interesting by regularly introducing new ingredients, or reworking a familiar ingredient in a new way. The familiar setting might make your child more likely to take a bite without a struggle.

Try this: Sub in spaghetti squash with their favorite pasta sauce, or add in a new veggie to a beloved stir-fry. We love OXO's Stick & Stay Divided Plate for creating a "tasting menu" of new flavors for little ones to pick and choose or using the center spot for an appetizing dip.

4. Don't bargain or negotiate.

Many kids resist trying new foods or eating at all because it gives them a sense of control over their lives. By resisting an ingredient―even one they have tried and liked in the past―they are essentially saying, "You're not the boss of me."

Try this: Instead of resorting to bargaining tactics like, "Just take one bite!" or "You can have dessert if you try it!" lower the pressure with a neutral statement like, "This is what we're having for dinner tonight." There's no argument, so you avoid tripping their "Don't tell me what to do!" sensor.

5. Serve meals in courses.

Even adults are more likely to eat something when they're really hungry. When their tummies are rumbling, kids will usually put up less of a fight even when they're uncertain about a new ingredient.

Try this: Serve up vegetables or other new foods as an "appetizer" course. That way, you won't have to stress if they don't fill up because you can follow up with food you know they'll eat.

6. Make it a game.

The fastest way to get a toddler on board with a new idea is to make it more fun. Turn your kitchen into an episode of Top Chef and let your little one play judge.

Try this: Use each compartment of the Stick & Stay Divided Plate for a new ingredient. With each item, ask your child to tell you how the food tastes, smells, and feels, ranking each bite in order of preference. Over time, you just might be surprised to see veggies climb the leaderboard!

7. Get them involved in cooking.

You've probably noticed that toddlers love anything that is theirs―having them help with preparing their own meals gives them a sense of ownership and makes them more likely to try new ingredients.

Try this: Look for ways to get those little hands involved in the kitchen, even if it means meal prep takes a bit longer or gets a bit messier. (We also love letting them help set the table―and OXO's unbreakable plates are a great place to start!) You could even let your toddler pick the veggie course for the meal. And if your child asks to taste a raw fruit or vegetable you planned to cook, go with it! Every bite counts as training that will ultimately broaden their palate.

8. Cut out unstructured snacking.

Not surprisingly, a hungry kid is more likely to try new foods. But if your toddler had a banana and a glass of milk (or a granola bar, or a handful of popcorn, or a glass of juice) an hour before dinner, odds are they aren't feeling truly hungry and will be more likely to resist what you serve at mealtime.

Try this: Stick to a consistent eating schedule. If your child leaves the table without eating as much as you think they should, remind them once that they won't be able to eat again until X time―and make good on that promise even if they start begging for a snack before the scheduled meal.

9. Model good eating habits.

Kids may not always do what you say, but they are much more likely to follow a good example. So if you want a child who eats vegetables regularly, you should do your best to fill your own plate with produce.

Try this: Pick a new food the whole family will try in multiple ways each week. For example, if you're introducing butternut squash, serve it roasted, blended in soup, cut up in pasta, as a mash, etc.―and be sure a healthy serving ends up on your plate too.

10. Don't worry about "fixing" picky eating.

OXO Tot's Stick & Stay Suction Bowl

In most cases, children go through relatively consistent eating phases. At age two (when parents tend to notice selectiveness ramping up), growth rates have slowed and most children don't need as much food as parents might think.

Try this: Focus on keeping mealtime positive by providing children with a variety of foods in a no-pressure environment. And remember: This too shall pass. The less stress you put on eating now, the more likely they are to naturally broaden their palates as they get older.


This article was sponsored by OXO Tot. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Learn + Play

Every time Amy Schumer posts something to Instagram we're expecting a birth announcement, but in her latest Instagram post, Schumer let the world know she's still pregnant, and unfortunately, still throwing up.

Schumer made her "still pregnant" announcement in a funny Instagram caption, noting, "Amy is still pregnant and puking because money rarely goes to medical studies for women," suggesting that hyperemesis gravidarum, the extreme form of morning sickness that's seen her hospitalized multiple times during her pregnancy doesn't get as much attention as conditions that impact men.

She's made a joke out of it, but she's not wrong. Gender bias in medical research is very real, and something that the medical community has just recently begun to address.

And while more people suffer from erectile dysfunction than hyperemesis gravidarum, let's consider that five times as many studies are done on erectile dysfunction than premenstrual syndrome (PMS) when about 19% of men are impacted by erectile dysfunction but 90% of women experience symptoms related to PMS.

Schumer's point is important not just for women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, but for women and vulnerable pregnant people with all sorts of under-studied and under-diagnosed conditions. The United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, and bias in medicine is part of the problem.

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News

“Brrrr… I guess winter's back!" I awkwardly joked with a mom at preschool pick up today. We'd had a few warm days this week, but March in Wisconsin means that's short-lived, and it was only a matter of time before our 19 degree mornings returned.

She and I were the first ones to arrive, so I saw it as a golden friend-making opportunity for me. Before the other moms came and distracted her with chatter about grabbing coffee and going to yoga and getting their boys together to play. I thought this was my chance to make a bridge.

As the new mom whose family just moved to town, I am not in that circle. My preschool son has no boys to play with, nor do I have a coffee dates lined up, or invites to yoga or to go for a run on warm days.

And that circle—as all women know—can feel like it's impenetrable. Like once it's formed, no one else is allowed in. Being the new mom has me feeling like I'm back in 6th grade. But instead, I'm a grown woman in my 30s.

I don't necessarily think it's intentional, either. Having just left a circle of mom friends back home whom I stood and chatted with and did this very thing with every day for years, I ask myself—did I isolate any new moms? Did I brush off someone who tried to make small talk with me, hoping to make a friend? And I honestly don't know.

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So I don't begrudge the mom circle that stands tightly knit, content with their foursome.

But they hadn't arrived yet today, and I saw my chance. The weather—an easy topic, right? I wasn't coming at her with politics or organic vs. processed foods or vaccines. I chose something easy and non-controversial. Something that wouldn't get me judged. Or get my kids judged as having “that mom."

But, unfortunately, she didn't bite. The one other mom standing with me at preschool pickup at my son's new school just smiled meekly at my generic weather comment, and then turned away.

Okay. I guess that's that, I said to myself.

So, I'm 38 years old. I've done the clique-y girl thing before. I know the game. I know the difference between “Yeah! I know! Brrrr! So you're new, right? Where are you from?" and a fake smile followed by the back of your head. Not interested. I get it.

Up until recently, I didn't really care that I didn't have friends yet. We've been in our new town, new state, new school, and new house for a few months. But honestly, it's only been the past week or two that the feeling of loneliness has hit me a bit. I've been too busy being Mommy.

All of my energy—every waking moment—went to helping my kids adjust. Helping them learn their new school routines. Ensuring they were happy and making new friends. Enrolling them in activities. Learning the bus schedule and memorizing the lunch menu. Figuring out which folder is the reading folder and which is the math folder. Where are the Boy Scouts meetings? Where should my daughter take gymnastics? What baseball team is best for my boys? We needed a pediatrician. And dentist. And eye doctor. And allergist.

On top of focusing on my kids, the last few months were spent researching electricians and plumbers and painters. When does the garbage get picked up and how do we dispose of our Christmas tree? Where can we get good Chinese takeout and get my car washed? Which grocery store has the best deals and where is Costco?

But now, all of a sudden, I feel like my children are all doing okay. The house is organized and we know how things work around here.

And now I've remembered that there is one more person who needs to learn her new world—me. I haven't had a hair cut in months. I don't have a doctor yet. Or a dentist. But most of all, I desperately need some girlfriends.

Maybe not the one who brushed me off at preschool pickup. And that's okay. I've met some friendly moms who've mentioned getting together in passing. I am now navigating that awkward “when is too soon to text and/or friend you on social media so you know I want to be friends but I don't seem stalker-ish" territory.

I guess it never gets easier, this making new friends gig. The one good part, however, of this experience—is that it's given me a glimpse into my children's world. I have gotten a taste of what their first few days were like back in December when we first arrived.

I was so busy unpacking and learning their school schedules and setting up their bedrooms that I didn't take the time to sit in that experience with them. To see it from their perspective.

Now I wonder, was my daughter brushed off by a girl she tried to befriend? Was my son kept out of the circle? I now know, what that must have felt like. And I'm so proud of them for standing tall, walking into their new world, and facing that challenge head on.

We are all going to be okay, though. This is our family adventure—the good and the bad—and we will come out stronger on the other side. We will be better at facing new challenges. We will be experienced at making new friends. And next time there is a new family in town, and the mom asks me how I feel about the weather, I will be ready to give her the response I was hoping for—not the one I got.

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Love + Village

I remember being in a conversation about working moms with a few people I know—comprised of both men and women—shortly after I had had my first child. I remember it so clearly because one of the men said, "If she's working so much, what's the point of even having children?" I was so taken aback. To me his comment screamed: Why would a busy working woman even bother procreating if she's not going to dedicate herself wholly and completely to motherhood in every way, shape and form?

Like, if you're going to be a mother, then just BE a mother. Be one with motherhood. Be all in. Forget about the other things. Right?

Wrong.

You know what I've realized in my five years of motherhood? When you throw yourself mind, body and soul into every. single. thing. motherhood, you're likely going to lose sight of the uniqueness that makes you you.

Your "pre-mom" self is in the past along with sleeping in on Saturdays and spontaneous date nights. And the woman you thought you were now—this mom version of yourself—is buried so deep under diapers and goldfish and stuffed animals and to-dos and errands and responsibilities that she is struggling to stay afloat. Struggling to really see herself.

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Being fully immersed in the deep, sometimes treacherous waters of raising tiny humans is wondrous, yes. But it can also be overwhelming and all-consuming. It can be exhausting and challenging.

Then, one day, your head will pop up above the surface and you'll breathe fresh air and you'll say, "Wow, it's really beautiful up here, too."And you'll remember: Something will remind you that you're a person, not just someone's mother. It could be anything—maybe it'll be the way your partner looks at you in that dress or maybe it'll be what the yoga teacher said that struck a chord with you. Maybe it'll be the writing class you sign up for or a new job or a new community or a new lease on life. Whatever it is for you—you'll notice it.

And it'll wake you up in a way that nothing else has since becoming a mother.

I find myself on a mission now. My mission is to discover who I am exactly. I'm not my pre-mom self anymore and I'm not just this exhausted, harried, overwhelmed mom-of-three. I don't have to only be that. I can be a mother and… other things.

That being said, because I am a mother and… doesn't mean you have to label me that way.

I have a job, but you don't have to call me a "working mom." I'm simply a human who works who also happens to be a mother.

I like to workout, but saying I'm a #fitmom seems unnecessary to me. I am a human striving to be healthier.

I have dreams and goals for myself that both relate to motherhood and have nothing to do with motherhood at all, but you don't have to label me a "mom boss." I'm just a human who wants to achieve certain things in life.

I am a Beyoncé devotee, but we can all agree it would be silly to label me a "mom-Beyoncé fan," right?

Bottom line: I am more than the caregiver of my tiny humans. My worth is greater than the number of pickups and drop-offs I do in a week. I am deeper than the mountain of dirty laundry in the hamper. I am better than my meltdowns when I lose my patience and I'm worthy of cultivating hobbies, interests and passions outside of my role of "mom." We all are. Attaching the word "mom" to everything we do contradicts all of this.

What I think I am finally starting to understand is that becoming a mother is a complete transformation that happens over and over throughout the course of our motherhood journeys.

We'll figure out the mom we need to be at each stage of our children's lives and we'll figure out who we are exactly, eventually. Spoiler alert: It's going to take time. And it's going to keep changing. And we'll be growing and learning and unearthing the truest versions of ourselves over the course of our lives—right alongside our babies.

The role of mother is of utmost importance to me. I am so proud to be raising my three children. I do get an immeasurable amount of fulfillment and joy from this hat I wear. But the other hats I wear? They're so much a part of me, too, and a lot of them don't have much to do with motherhood at all. It's time our society starts valuing the other roles mothers have independent from motherhood because that's where validation happens, and that's how society proves motherhood is worthy. That's how we feel seen. That's how we get a seat at the table.

So, what was the point of having kids for that woman who works a lot?

To create another human being who she could help mold into an upstanding citizen of our future. To expand her family and lineage. To open her heart to the love that is caring for another person. To give her life meaning in a way nothing else had yet. Because, I suspect, she felt called to.

And what's the point of her working so much?

To make money for her family. To feel validated outside of her home. To continue to learn and grow in her profession. To set goals, reach them and start all over again. To interact with other adults on a regular basis. To continue this part of her life that is so ingrained in her identity. To show her children that just like men, women can have successful careers, too. To give her life meaning in a way nothing else does. Because, I suspect, she feels called to.

But the even bigger point that stayed with me from that conversation about working mothers is this: Women, just like men and non-binary individuals—just like any other human on this planet—can make their own decisions. They can decide to be a mother or not be a mother. They can decide to be the primary caregiver for their children or they could decide to work a full-time job outside their home. They can decide to sign up for yoga teacher training, join a gym, learn how to paint, go back to school or whatever.

From looking around me at all the amazing moms in my life, I believe this to be true: Mothers can, and will, decide what is best for them and their families by themselves or with their partner. What we won't do is wait around for a man, or anyone else for that matter, to tell us how we should be living our lives or to pass judgment on our choices.

We are mothers, yes. But we are also so much more.

And it's time for society to start seeing us that way.

Originally posted on Medium.

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Life

The bestseller Born To Run changed the way we think about traditional running shoes and how they interfere with the body's natural wisdom. Nearly ten years later, despite the popularity of barefoot running and minimalist running shoes, we still haven't heard much about the negative effects of shoes on children, despite the fact that research supported barefoot-style shoes for children as early as 1991.

According to that landmark study, optimum foot development occurs in the absence of shoes. Additionally, stiff and compressive shoes may cause deformities, weakness and restricted mobility. That study went so far as to say that the term “corrective shoe" is a misnomer and that such a shoe is “harmful to the child, expensive for the family and a discredit to the medical profession."

Subsequent research reinforced those findings.

  • A 1992 Bone and Joint Journal study found shoe-wearing in early childhood to be detrimental to the development of a normal arch. Specifically, the authors found a positive relationship between wearing shoes in early childhood and the subsequent development of flat-footedness.
  • A 2008 Gait and Posture study found that slimmer and more flexible shoes interfered with children's natural foot motion far less than conventional shoes did. Based on detailed analyses of children's movement patterns in barefoot-style shoes versus traditional shoes, the authors recommended all children wear barefoot-style shoes.
  • In 2008, Foot and Ankle Surgery published a review recommending small children wear a sports shoe, which is as flexible as their own foot. It stated that the impact forces affecting a child's foot during sports are small enough that extra cushioning is unnecessary. The authors argue that although the hard indoor surfaces on which children play increase the need for cushioning, as the child's foot grows there is an increasing need for sufficient mechanical stimuli to facilitate healthy development of the bones and muscles. Because cushioned shoes interfere with the foot's natural movement, they can cause poor positioning in the flex zone, thereby causing harmful stress on the foot.
  • A 2011, Journal of Foot and Ankle Research found shoes alter children's gait patterns. One notable finding was that wearing shoes decreased the movement of the intrinsic muscles of the foot, possibly contributing to weakness in those muscles. In fact, eight of the nine range of motion variables measuring foot motion were decreased in subjects who wore shoes versus the control group.

There's no doubt about it, the foot is complex and amazing. Each foot has 200,000 nerve endings in the sole alone. Additionally, the foot and ankle are home to 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. It's not hard to imagine that altering the movement of this complex web of structures would create a ripple of changes.

Jessi Stensland, founder of FeetFreex and a self-proclaimed “natural mover." She puts it in no uncertain terms, “From the moment kids are putting on shoes, they're walking wrong." Stensland explains that the foot is designed to process an immense amount of sensory input and that it's designed to move in varied, complex ways. When you put a child as young as 18 months in a supportive shoe, you're depriving them of the chance to use their feet properly, potentially for life.

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“We are meant to have a raging river of information coming to [our brains and spinal cords] through our feet to help us move our bodies through space and we have slowed it to a trickle… the moment we put [on] shoes." In contrast, when we walk barefoot on a variety of surfaces, our feet adapt by developing musculature and fatty padding to protect our feet and to fully support healthy movement in all planes. It is a classic case of “use it or lose it," Stensland says.

There is no shortage of research to indicate the many specific ways in which shoes interfere with the foot's ability to do its job, potentially triggering a variety of negative long-term effects. For example, a shoe with even a slight heel lift (e.g., almost any athletic shoe) shortens the Achilles tendon and the plantar fascia, limiting ankle range of motion. This affects the angle of pelvic tilt, which can then lead to low back pain and posture issues.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. A 2002 paper published in Podiatry Management details the many ways in which typical shoes interfere with children's gait and development.

  • Despite their flexible soles, the natural flex point of a sneaker (toward the middle) is not aligned with the natural flex point of the foot (the ball). This problem is exaggerated further if, like most parents, you buy them with a little room to grow. Therefore, any flexibility the sole allows a child's foot is rendered moot. (To understand what I mean, just bend one of your kid's shoes in half.)
  • Lace-up shoes commonly worn by children are constrictive. When kids lace their shoes tightly, the excessive pressure limits the dorsalis pedis artery's ability to allow normal blood flow through the foot.
  • Sneakers have a high traction plastic or rubber outsole that causes the foot to forcefully “brake" with every step. Note that an active child takes 20,000 steps per day. This unnatural braking forces the foot to slide forward, jamming the toes against the shoe's front edge with every step. This is the equivalent of wearing shoes one has long outgrown.

Even if you're not ready to home school or move to a tropical, casual, shoe-optional locale, there are plenty of opportunities to foster your kids' healthy foot development.

Nutritious movement

Stensland likens healthy movement to a healthy diet – a variety of all kinds of foods, including fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, protein, and some Cheetos or Pop Tarts every now and then. Just as with our diets, the effects of any junk food are mitigated by nutrient dense foods. Similarly, while there will inevitably be times when your kid needs to wear shoes, including structured shoes with a heel (e.g. tap shoes or soccer cleats), you can offset the ill-effects of such shoes by adding in a healthy dose of “nutritious movement," a term coined by movement educator/author Katy Bowman. She recommends offering kids a chance to walk on natural surfaces like sand, gravel, rocks, or wood for at least 20 minutes a day. Even if you can't do this every single day, you can at least have them play barefoot inside.

Conscious shoe selection

Dr. Gangemi, chiropractor, elite triathlete, dad and barefoot enthusiast, recommends looking for these qualities in kids' shoes:

  • Low heel height
  • Minimal cushioning
  • Flexible throughout
  • Very lightweight

Stensland has compiled a list of approved shoes for nutritious movement here, including guidelines for DIY'ers wishing to make their own.

Lead by example

For better or for worse, our kids learn more from what we do than from what we say. We can encourage them to kick their shoes off when we do the same. While it might not make sense to walk into your office barefoot, you can set an example by taking your shoes off when you enter the house, while relaxing in your backyard, at the park, or on neighborhood walks in nice weather.

Check your fear

After researching the foot and how shoes impact its structure and functioning, I realized I was scared of all the wrong things when I insisted my kids leave their shoes on at the park. I was afraid they'd step on something sharp or that they'd contract a disease, both of which are, in fact, highly unlikely scenarios. (However, I do think I'm justified in my fear of letting them take their shoes off because it would make it even harder to get them to leave the park.)

On the other hand, the prospect of depriving my kids of healthy movement, potentially for life, is far scarier than anything a barefoot adventure could throw at me, including a tearful, forcible departure from the playground.

We all want to give our children a solid foundation. It turns out, we don't necessarily need to do anything fancy or complicated to do it—at least in the literal sense. While you might need a lot of therapy and soul searching to give your kids the best emotional foundation, creating a solid physical foundation is as simple as letting them be barefoot.

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