It Takes a Village – An Old-Fashioned One

Village Scene With Dance Around the Maypole, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Courtesy of pieter-bruegel-the-elder.org

I agree with Hillary Clinton that It Takes a Village to raise a child. I just don’t agree with her on what kind of village it takes.

In her bestselling book of that name, Clinton finds the original notion of a village to be quaint and outdated. She writes, “The village can no longer be defined as a place on the map.” Instead, “it is the network of values and relationships that support and affect our lives.” Many other writers agree with her that a village isn’t physically delimited. Even fifty years ago, communications theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” to argue that mass communications technology had created a single, global culture.

The problem with this modern definition of a village for children is that they can’t use most of the technologies that adults routinely use to extend a village beyond a small local area. They can’t drive cars on their own until they reach the age of 16, and they can’t interact with others using interactive communications technologies like mobile phone texting until sometime in the elementary or middle school years. So, for children, this modern village concept would force them to depend on the the intervention of parents.

As I’ve argued repeatedly here on Playborhood.com, children have a deep need to experience things on their own. The more rich is the physical (not virtual) domain that children can access on their own, on foot, the better.

So, I strongly believe that it takes a village – i.e. an old-fashioned, tight-knit neighborhood – to raise a child. Not some “network of values and relationships.” Not a “global village.” This village is a place where children can wander safely on their own, where they have many meaningful relationships with people – children and adults – outside of their families.
Because children need parenting help when they’re outside our homes, our kids need other kids’ parents to step up and be surrogate parents to our kids when we’re not there. And, we need to do it for those parents’ kids.

We need to feed each other’s kids, soothe them when they get hurt, protect them from danger, and be a resource when they need something. If we parents in a neighborhood (or our surrogates – i.e. babysitters or nannies) join together and do these things for each other’s kids, our kids will feel comfortable wandering up and down the block on their own. We’ll be comfortable letting them do it, too.

Sociologist William Julius Wilson coined the term “reciprocal guardian behavior” back in the 1980s to describe the phenomenon of adults caring for children who aren’t their own in urban poor neighborhoods. Lyman Place in the South Bronx is an excellent example of such a neighborhood. Wilson thought this behavior was a key to making these neighborhoods safe, so that kids could feel comfortable going outside to play.

It’s clear to me that the benefits of reciprocal guardian behavior extend to all social classes. It’s about more than just safety – fundamentally, it’s about creating the conditions for a life of independent play in the neighborhood.

We parents can help make our neighborhoods into villages by spending time in our neighborhoods, socializing with other parents and encouraging our kids to play with neighbor kids. Playborhood.com is full of suggestions on how to make this happen.

Have you invested significant time in making your neighborhood into a village? Or, do you fill up all your kids’ free time driving them to activities outside your neighborhood?

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2 Responses to It Takes a Village – An Old-Fashioned One

  1. alice says:

    Absolutely! This is very well put — the tangible, streets-and-houses/flats neighborhood is the place that children live. They don’t, thank goodness, live in the data cloud. And can I just say — living on a block where kids do run in and out of each others’ houses, playing and being looked after by the “surrogate parents” our neighbors are glad to be for our children and we are glad to be for theirs, well, I tell ya, it’s one of the best things about our lives right now!

    And it wasn’t like this from the start — I knew just a few of the neighbors at first, but wanted to know more. We put notes in everyone’s mailboxes one week and got together a small street party about 4 years ago, hoping to get the ball rolling. About 10 of us showed up. This set up a kind of virtuous cycle and now just about everyone on the street knows each other by name, and the children play out front and in each others’ houses more than they do anything else. It has been so liberating and so worthwhile. I can’t encourage people enough to at least give it a try.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Excellent article Mike tweeted it and put it on my FB page So true and great to hear it said. How did we get to the point where it’s necessary for a “how to” on what used to come to us naturally. I knew we were in trouble back about 15 years ago when I enthusiastically taught my son how to flip baseball cards in anticipation for his first week of 4th grade. He came home upset telling me that none of the kids played “those games”. That was a sad day.
    Best regards, Bob T.