Kids -- And Parents! -- Need A Rich Environment Of Relatives, Neighbors And Friends To Grow Up Healthy And Strong
A village that was
You may have heard the African saying: "It takes a village to raise a child." Kids -- and parents! -- need a rich environment of relatives, neighbors and friends to grow up healthy and strong.
For most of human history, a mother or father or child could step outside the home (whether hut, tent or cave) and walk into a community that supported families. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins lived nearby (sometimes under the same roof). Families were larger, and children often learned as much from older siblings as from grownups. Lots of other children were close at hand. Kids roamed freely, with usually an adult who knew them by name in sight or earshot.
"Work" and childrearing were more integrated in space and time. Parents usually worked close to home. Work activities were more accessible to children, who could help with gathering food, tending animals and making tools or handicrafts.
Recreation and religion were both more joined with family. There was a clear sense of personal identity and purpose as a man or woman, mother or father. Sacred rituals celebrated the movement of children into the phase of life when they too could form a family.
To be sure there were plagues and disasters which modern technology can avert. The treatment of women and children was sometimes brutal. But it is still fundamentally true that the social structure of tribes, villages, and even small towns was richly and deeply supportive of family-making.
This is the environment in which humans evolved and which is optimally suited to families.
An empty village today
Now, when a child or parent steps outside the front door in the middle of the day, what does he or she find? It's an empty village. A ghost town with well-kept houses, a few cars driving by, the occasional adult (often with a Walkman in their own private world), and no sound of children laughing. Most parents are miles away, working for pay. Most children are miles away, in child care or school. Getting kids together with friends is typically a complicated affair of matching schedules and making appointments for play.
Hired professionals care for our children. It's ironic that the more expensive the care, the more it usually approximates the village environment in which our parents or grandparents grew up for free. The world seems scary out there, so we pull in to our well-upholstered cave, spending less time in the world, which makes it seem ever more frightening. Do you know the names of the neighbors on all sides of your home? Two or three doors down? I don't.
When parents and children arrive home, there is a brief window of time in which a flurry of activities occurs: meal, bath, homework, some play, bedtime, quick catch-up on the day, chores, paperwork. Even if your children are ready to play with friends across the street, those kids are probably still busy doing something.
The objective forces of modern society -- economics, schedules, role expectations, politics, etc. -- are largely indifferent to families or actively opposed. Throughout most human history, the "river of life" in which families floated usually carried them forward. Now most families are either stuck in side pools or forced to swim against the stream.
We cannot turn back the clock. If we cannot generally find community, well, then we must create it.
Commitment to community
Our family's painful experience is that if we do not actively take initiative to make community, it usually does not happen. The first key to living in community is commitment. We have to schedule particular events deliberately; if they are not on the calendar, they usually do not happen. We must also intentionally structure ongoing relationships and activities into our lives. We must address our own shyness, reserve, or whatever it may be within us that makes us less than open to relationship.
Relatives are our first circle of community. We can try to live closer to our extended family. We can include relatives in our activities. And we can regularly communicate with them through the phone and mail.
We must take opportunities for community in our neighborhood where we find them. Often it is little things that add up, such as when we chase a ball into a neighbor's yard, we spend an extra few minutes getting to know them better. This year we organized an informal "neighborhood Thanksgiving" with a half dozen families who lived nearby (pot luck and paper plates!).
Friendships usually need to be cultivated, especially in today's world. My wife and I have set a goal for ourselves to try to have dinner with one other family each week. It can be great to involve children in adult activities with friends; maybe it's your son and his playing at the park while you get a game of tennis, or going fishing or shopping or hiking or building a fence together.
School, athletics, youth organizations, the arts, and religion are the hubs of natural communities. It is so simple to get involved. I had a wise adviser back in college who once said that community is not formed through parties but through actively working for something together.
Some organizations are specifically associated with family-making, such as childcare co-ops. Another wonderful recent development is the emergence of "Mom's Clubs" (dads are usually invited too); these are super groups to get involved with.
Co-workers often have children. One of the problems of our society is that work and family are generally too separated. There are many ways to build a community supportive of family at work. These include children occasionally visiting the workplace, mutual help with schedules and childcare, or advocacy for the needs of families around work (such as parental leave after a baby is born or when a child is ill).
Service is good for its own sake, but it also helps create community. There is no shortage of good causes to which you and your family might contribute. It is also good for children to see and help those less fortunate.
The global village
The widest circle of community is the world. Simple things can give us and our children a sense of community that extends to our state, nation, and entire globe. These include taking part in political activities at the state or national level, writing to relatives or penpals in other countries, contributing to charitable activities such as UNICEF, or supporting victims of oppression in other lands.
Completing the circle
It is a pitfall to get so involved in communities that we get too stressed to appreciate community! We must be as kind to ourselves as we seek to be with others. There is a community inside our own self -- of multiple feelings, thoughts, moods, desires and sub-personalities -- and that village also needs its own tending.