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Outwitting the Woolly Mammoth

My mother was welcomed onto her bowling team with open arms. She won trophies, and wore her red satin bowling shirt with pride. On its back in gold stitching was the name of her team, the Philadelphia Armenians. My mother-in-law in the suburbs of New Jersey played bridge every month with the same seven friends for 25 years. They supported each other through births, marriages, careers and deaths. What do bowling and card playing have in common? In his landmark work, Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam calls them examples of “social capital,” the glue that holds us together as a community. Social capital is how the first hunters banded together to outwit the woolly mammoth. In the last half century we’ve had lots of examples of social glue. Watch It’s a Wonderful Life or Saving Private Ryan and you’ll be treated to large doses. But Putnam shows that many of the real ways we’ve bonded with one another are in decline. This is where you can make a difference in the lives of your kids, now and tomorrow.

When I took my kids bowling for the first time, the Big Lebowskis were gone, and by 2002 so were our lanes. Bowling isn’t the only social bond that has faltered. People are also losing interest in churches, scouting, fraternal organizations, and even playing cards with one other. Tom Kissell, membership director of the VFW, sadly noted, “Kids today just aren’t joiners.” Choirmaster Ian Watson bemoans, “People just don’t sing anymore.” Political life is suffering, too. In the recent US Senate race in Massachusetts only 27% of registered voters took the time to go to the polls. Putnam’s work bears out these observations. In one survey 77% of Americans surveyed said the nation was worse off because of “less involvement in community activities.” In 1992 three fourths of Americans felt that the “breakdown of community” was a serious problem. In Washington a paralyzed Congress is more than the result of one party trying to get advantage over another. It reflects a loss of our common vision as Americans.

In a number of ways this shift to a credo of “me, not we” is a byproduct of technology. Air conditioning and TV keep us cool and entertained, but off our front porches where we’d be at risk to talking with a neighbor. What about the Internet? The best of the Internet can energize our communities and spark political involvement. The ‘net can help build bonds between people who like the same stuff but are in distant parts of the world. It can create flash mobs and viral jokes. This is powerful stuff. But can the ‘net build real communities? Join a dating service, and you are connected to scores of potential partners. But if there is “like” at first click, there is no love at first sight, because the ‘net is removed from the world of faces and pheromones. And worse, the ‘net is easily hijacked, with voter manipulation, child abuse, hate mongering, and bomb building the result.

But for parents big changes are possible from many small acts. Every T-ball game you coach, every kids’ concert you attend, creates the long term dividend of human attachment. Churches, scouting, and volunteer fraternal organizations are not dead. If you connect with your community as adults, you create models for your kids to emulate. The Elks value “charity, justice, brotherly love & fidelity.” Got a problem with that? Take a look at the K of C. They’re into “churches, children of special need, and the community at large.” Not your cup of tea? Take a look at Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s brainchild building housing for the needy. Pound some nails on a Habitat project. No religion is required, and you can take your teen along to learn a skill or two.

OK, you work 50 hours a week just to pay the mortgage, and the last thing you want to do is give up a day doing volunteer carpentry. So consider this. When I rake leaves I’m like the Invisible Man to anyone walking down the street until I put a Red Sox hat on. Then my neighbors, the oil man, the letter carrier, and dog walking strangers stop to make some baseball small talk. The hat bonds me to “the Red Sox Nation.” Yes, we love the Sox. What’s not to love about Ellsbury stealing third, or Big Papi launching one onto Lansdowne Street? But for town with a team, the team is bigger than baseball. Take your kids to Fenway, and take a look around at the sea of Red Sox hats and jerseys. And in the 8th inning, when people stand and sing Sweet Caroline, sing with them. People are sharing feelings of loyalty we historically have reserved for ethnic groups and nation-states.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, Bruins fans made news at the TD Garden when they rose as one and sang The Star Spangled Banner before the game. Singing is not what hockey fans are known for. But sing they did. In the days that followed, the city blossomed in every corner with people wearing the simple message, “Boston Strong.” We don’t have to wait for another tragedy to teach our kids that we are strong, and that there is value in working, playing, praying and singing together.

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