It Really Does Take A Village

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You’ve heard the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” You’ve probably also noticed slap backs like, “I’ve seen the village and it’s not raising my kids.”

If we actually consider the proverb we see the wisdom it contains. Throughout nearly all eras of human history, parents weren’t isolated from a supportive network of other people. Grandparents, siblings, cousins, and friends not only nurtured children, they made good parenting much easier. When a baby cried there were other arms to carry it or carry on the mother’s tasks as she nursed. When a toddler played there were other eyes keeping watch. When a child was ready to learn there were people available to show him how to fashion reeds into a basket, to fish in the river, to tan hides, to choose the right plants to make medicines. When a teen sought role models there were many to emulate, people who had been guiding forces her whole life. Children grew up with an invaluable sense of connection to kinfolk and community.

Today we don’t benefit from the educational richness of traditional village life where children can see and take part in the real work necessary to sustain life. Few of us live near extended family members. But we can foster the development of our own “villages” in at least three ways. Here’s how it worked for me.

1. Establish a supportive network.

When my first child arrived I didn’t know another soul mothering a newborn. Although my parenting and life choices were far different than my mother’s, I found myself calling her nearly every day. It was comforting to talk to someone who cared that I’d been up all night, even if I had to filter out suggestions like feeding rice cereal to a newborn. I also started attending a nearby Le Leche League group to be around other mothers with small babies. There I found women who shared ideas, laughter, and lightly used baby clothes.

When we began homeschooling, once again I felt isolated. All my friends’ children were school bound. So I linked up with several homeschooling groups. Online is great but in-person is better in dozens of ways. My new homeschooling buddies and I had approaches to learning that spanned the spectrum from unschooling to school-at-home, but our lively conversations veered away from judgment. We cared about each other, looking forward to field trips and park days as much as our kids. We particularly enjoyed the way our kids’ unique curiosities blended, creating the kind of quirky fun so typical of homeschooled kids.

2. Create a “chosen” extended family.

Sure, I felt closer to my parents once I became a mother, but I also needed to expand my tribe. The first woman I met with a newborn became like a sister to me. We didn’t always agree on politics or religion but it didn’t matter. As more children came into both our families we watched each other’s kids, exchanged household items, went on day trips, and supported each other through crises.

My group of parent-friends expanded. This made it easy to take turns carpooling and babysitting. It also made for wonderfully boisterous get-togethers. My extended family also included a group of women who called themselves “crones,” new farming friends, and an elderly Scottish bagpipe instructor. These people cast all sorts of light in our lives.

3. Develop rich connections in the community.

When I moved it took a year to meet the people across the street. It was not an overtly friendly place. I was determined to make it into a real neighborhood. I invited people over for potlucks, Halloween parties, and all sorts of kid-centric fun. When new families moved in, I greeted them with homemade goods and an invite to my next event. It became a place where my kids felt known and accepted. One son learned small engine repair from a retired man who liked to tinker, another son liked to visit the guy a few doors down who sculpted in stone, my daughter sang impromptu operas in the front yard without a moment’s self-consciousness.

We stretched to make community connections as well. We struck up conversations that turned into remarkable learning experiences, giving us access to experts in all sorts of fields. My kids have spent years volunteering in Red Cross, recreation programs, wildlife rescue, and more. We make our home part of a larger village, for example hosting people from overseas, running a food co-op, and holding social action meetings. Like our home, the community became a place where my children’s interests were nourished. We have a village now. Whatever direction we extend a hand, we find a friendly hand waiting

Village building resources.

*Get in touch with family members, near or far. Reach out for support even if it doesn’t come in the exact flavor you’d prefer.

*Connect with other parents at the park, playgroups, and nature preserve. Build mutually supportive networks by exchanging your time and talents.

*Join groups that sustain your interests in a positive way. Ask for information about homeschooling groups and programs at your public library. If you are nursing a child, try your local Le Leche League chapter.  Consider joining the Holistic Moms Network. Find or start any sort of group on Meetup.com, from a stroller-pushing-dog-walking get-together to a kids’ chess club. 

*Enjoy the sense of belonging found in active membership in a church, charity, outdoor group, or any organization where families are welcome.

*Establish connections by becoming “regulars.” You may choose to go out for breakfast each Saturday at the same locally owned place where the staff knows your kids. You may help out at a CSA farm as a family. You’ll also feel more at home in your community through regular visits to your library, recreation center, and park.

*Be the neighbor you’d like to have. Extend kindness and warmth as you get to know people. Perform acts of service along with your kids, whether shoveling the driveway of an elderly neighbor or volunteering with Meals on Wheels. Even the smallest children can perform acts of kindness.

*Develop a tradition of community service. There are plenty of ways for kids, toddler to teen, can volunteer.  And help them get involved in civic affairs, clubs, and community organizations. They’re creating their own place in the village too.

it takes a village, community building for families,  isolated parents, parent friendships,

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About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer and editor, perhaps due to an English professor's scathing denunciation of her writing as "curious verbiage." She's the author of "Free Range Learning," a handbook of natural learning and "Tending," a poetry collection. (lauragraceweldon.com) She's working on her next book, "Subversive Cooking" (subversivecooking.com). She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she is a barely useful farm wench. Although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, talk to chickens and cows, discuss life’s deeper meaning with her surprisingly tolerant offspring, sing to bees, hide in books, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films, and make messy art.
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12 Responses to It Really Does Take A Village

  1. Judy Berna says:

    Lovely post, Laura! This is a topic I care about a lot as we’ve moved so much as the kids were growing up. It does take a lot of effort to create a village but everyone wins when you do. It’s always hard the first year we live somewhere, as we settle into new doctors, new jobs, find our new regular spots to hang out. My kids have learned, through all the moves, that with each new start they get to start over and pick people the really enjoy and really fit with them. They have quality relationships because their friends aren’t just kids ‘they’ve always known’. Great post!
    Judy
    Justonefoot.com

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    • I’m awed by you and others who move frequently, yet manage to make true connections in each new place. So hard! When we moved less than an hour away, to a rural township, it took a loooong time to make close friends.

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  2. Lovely post with wonderful, practical advice. Like Judy our family has moved around- 5 times in 10 years and I find that homeschoolers are the most welcoming mamas around- it reinforces my belief that this is the perfect lifestyle choice for our family.

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  3. Great post!
    So many people don’t realize that need a village until they HAVE kids. And all of a sudden, it’s like, where are my people?
    Many of the suggestions you make above are true for people who aren’t immersed in parenting (by choice, or not yet, or past the kids-at-home-stage). My husband and I had both lived in and sunk roots into our chosen adult home for a number of years before having children, and our “village” has blossomed in great ways since, too. Many of your suggestions take TIME– not weeks or months but years, to truly develop. Why not start now, kids or no kids?

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  4. As homeschoolers who also move a lot and have just made another one, I found this post full of useful advice and thank you to Judy for her heartwarming comment about quality relationships which certainly can be true and is a great way to look at new friendships. Thank you!

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  5. Reblogged this on Homeschooling Middle East and commented:
    As homeschoolers who move a lot and have recently made an international move, this was a great article to read; full of useful, positive advice. I also liked Judy’s comment at the end, “My kids have learned, through all the moves, that with each new start they get to start over and pick people they really enjoy and really fit with them. They have quality relationships because their friends aren’t just kids ‘they’ve always known’” This is a great attitude for us to have as we proceed with the trials and tribulations of living in a new place but of course, it’s useful advice for anyone, living anywhere, who feels a bit disconnected from their community.

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  6. Sarah says:

    This is all wonderful, and I really enjoyed reading it. And yet, it also felt a little disheartening or difficult, for two reasons which are entirely personal and shouldn’t take away from your generally good advice.

    What do you do if you are an introvert, shy, and don’t like making connections with other parents at the park? I know the answer of course, is to simply suck it up. But I’d like to acknowledge the painful struggle it can be for some mothers to create a village or extended family for their child when it goes against all their own needs.

    Also, what do you do when you’re a homeschooler in a town where most of the other homeschoolers are very different from you? For example, they have a different religion, or different family values, or they are very strictly school-at-home versus your radical unschooling approach? How do you protect your own family’s values while still finding friends for your child? It may really be a case of *not* wanting this village raising your child – after all, one of the reasons so many of us homeschool is to ensure our family values are the primary influence on our child. I’m not advocating sheltering children or only being friends with like-minded souls, but I have seen the problems that can be caused when a child is surrounded by other homeschoolers who all have a different religion than him.

    I’ve never felt isolated as an adult – I could happily live in the middle of the countryside, never see anyone, and be content. But my child needs friends. So I’ve forced myself to do the socialising thing. It’s much easier when your child is in school and can make their own friends. As a homeschooling mother, you have to be friends with the other mothers so your child can access their children. It is not easy at all if you are introverted, shy, or retiring. My apologies for such a long and negative comment. As I said, your post was generally speaking wonderful (as always).

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    • I smiled in recognition while reading your entire comment Sarah! I’m truly a hermit a heart. So hermit-y, in fact, that even field trips (especially any distance) have made me feel like Bilbo reluctantly leaving the hobbit hole. And I live in a rural area where the political leanings tend to be pretty much the opposite of mine. Our friendships haven’t always been easy. At one point several kids shunned one of my sons for being a “bad influence” because he didn’t listen to the one Christian station their parents approved, but instead, at 11 years old, had discovered old rock and roll. And our parental values have often clashed, most notably when some mothers were fine with hours of violent video game play for young kids but appalled by a child who used the word “crap” or read Harry Potter.

      But here’s how I look at it. Our homeschool gatherings have been an important lesson in tolerance and acceptance, for myself, my kids, and for the homeschooling families who see us as a threat too! I’ve watched with fascination over the years as my position on certain educational things has softened, but so have the positions of people who used to be completely opposed to me. I’ve watched radical unschoolers and stauch sit-at-the-table-till-your-six-hours-of-curriculum-is-done moms establish marvelous friendships, learn from each other, seek out advice, and come to see that parenting wisdom comes in lots of different packages. I’ve watched our kids grow up and choose values that don’t always match their parents, that’s true again from all “sides” of the homeschooling/unschooling, liberal/conservative spectrum.

      That doesn’t solve the introvert issue. Thankfully my kids have always been pretty introverted too, which cuts down the pressure on me. We’ve been able to count on certain activities that were comfort zones for us while spending most of the time doing our own thing both at home and away. A long-time favorite has been the science club http://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/05/08/benefits-of-special-interest-groups/

      And of course, this community doesn’t have to be limited to kids or homeschoolers. Many of our most enriching connections have been with people well beyond those age limitations.

      I don’t mean to say you should be who you aren’t. Enjoy the friends you choose, your village should be the one that nourishes YOUR life!

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  7. Rachel says:

    I feel encouraged. Thank you. I spent 7yrs in Manchester, England building an urban village. I was known. The box of toys in our front yard was held in great respect and if it went missing (which it did often) we always knew which back yard it had ended up in and graciously asked for it back, even if it was a little depleted after the kid with nothing had borrowed it! Then this summer we moved to be closer to family links. The estate we live on (house owned by the church we work for but don’t get a salary from!) is an odd estate. No one has spoken to us. Its lonely here. Not many kids around – the big houses seem to have couples in their 50’s in them and the masionettes house older people/ house bound even. But i see that if i want to build community again i will have to be proactive about it. We’re homeschooling and thats a new thing for us. My 6yr old son desperatly needs friends with whom he can play and relate, i see his sadness of not being in the street where we’d built community. my heart aches for him. I’ll act upon it. again. and again. and when we move in 3 yrs times i’ll do it all over again. thanks

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    • I’m sorry to hear of your lonely new home. Yet loneliness is quite a motivator. I suspect you’ll find friends in this new place soon. Wishing you every joy.

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    • Jennifer says:

      I have just separated from my husband and uprooted my own and my children’s lives to move away from where we had lived for over 7 years. I know the feeling of tearing up roots and how hard it can be to replant. I have been feeling a little sorry for all of us to have to go through this. But, reading your post has inspired me because 7 years ago, I also didn’t know anyone and it was, for the most part, an exciting development getting to know new people and places. Thank you for reminding me that reinvention can be a positive thing and what an inspiring lesson for my kids too, to learn that making a life, a community, a village, it’s something they can do. They don’t have to wait for it to happen and that the tools they use to build that new life, community and village are tools that they will use over and over again in many situations.

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  8. mamamzungu says:

    Here Here!! Could not agree more. I live in Kenya so the village has come to be so to speak, but I do worry about recreating that sense of community and support when we move back to the US, so I love the suggestions in this post. THANK YOU!

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