Most of us understand the importance of social support when it comes to raising children. Ah - to be one of those families that has a Grandma living a few blocks away who can watch your kids while you pop over to the store. We can fantasize about an idealized notion of Africa when it comes to communal identity and villages raising children collectively. But, when it comes right down to it, how many of us – especially Americans - would REALLY welcome the whole village raising our children? Even that Grandma a few blocks away, what happens when she ignores every rule you’ve set for your kids?
To let in social support means letting in other influences, letting go of control - even having relationships with people you may not otherwise let in. There’s no easy answer for how to let them in, how much or when.
Living in Kenya gave me the perfect opportunity to see for myself if they've indeed got it down when it comes to villages and children. As it happens, I discovered how sweet it can be when strangers go out of their way to be caring and kind with my children, but I also discovered where my boundaries lie, as an American. After two years, those boundaries shifted a bit, but some of them were never going to budge.
There was the time the Kenyan man who guided us to the top of a Nairobi building stopped, kneeled down and tied my son’s loose shoe laces. Or how waiters would not just bring us a high chair, but lift my daughter up and put her in it. There were even the baggers at the grocery store who would gently lift my daughter out of the shopping cart with a warm smile to make room for the bags.
At first, my daughter and I were understandably uncomfortable with such a breach of physical boundaries when it comes to touching. I wondered if by allowing these gestures I was somehow impairing her ability to understand appropriate touching from strangers – a vital skill for every day American culture and a healthy sense of bodily autonomy. That question never went totally away.
And yet, the obvious good intention and motivation was real and visceral. Over time, my daughter, like me, came to appreciate the caring behind those gestures. In my gut, I sensed that with some good conversations about it, children can discern the difference between what’s ok in various cultures and what’s inappropriate no matter which culture you’re in.
Many of the Kenyan women I met spent long stretches of time away from their children in order to work. I don’t mean 10 hour work days. I mean two months at a stretch, while their children stayed with relatives or in boarding school. Sure, they missed their children and looked forward to seeing them again, but there was a different quality about the separation than what I experience in the U.S. There was less worry that Mom’s absence would significantly deprive their children. There was more trust that others were more than capable of caring for their kids.
I’d marvel at the young children seeming to walk by themselves down the dusty Nairobi streets. My Kenyan colleague would say, “Yes, but that child ISN’T alone. There are eyes of adults watching – adults you don’t even see. If anything were to happen along the way, one of those adults will be there.”
It was hard to convince my Kenyan friends that not all Americans live in isolation and that community still exists in some neighborhoods. Now back home, I’m grateful to live in one of those old fashioned American neighborhoods where my kids can roam from yard to yard and the other parents have their backs – to kiss a boo boo or offer a snack. Still, our little block is not the norm in the U.S. these days, and compared to a culture where shared responsibility for children permeates every day interactions across the country, my little block is small potatoes.
In general, I’m a proponent of allowing kids more free range, but that’s only one side of the equation. We also need to be able to trust that other adults out there have their backs. And, it’s up to each of us to recognize that WE are the village. To tie a shoe lace instead of telling the parent to do so. To let the other adult do the tying. To offer a drink when a child is thirsty; and to understand that sometimes your child may drink more sugary fruit punch when another adult is offering the drink. To know that that’s the price you pay for having a village.
It’s not enough to raise your own children. We need to share in the raising of our children’s friends, too. Their community of friends is a part of them. Those friends will help raise them, and together they’ll form a subculture that will only become even more important to our children over time. As for the adults in the neighborhood, someday when my child is a teen-ager and pushes me away out of anger and frustration, I hope I’ll be able to take some comfort in the knowledge that another adult out there cares and is looking out for him when I can’t.
It’s not easy to let go and let the Village in, and maybe that’s ok and right some of the time. I’m too opinionated to let all those external influences have their way with my children, especially when so many aspects of American pop culture don’t have my children’s best interests at heart.
But maybe there’s a little more we can do to make a Village for our children. And, as we pay more attention to where we draw our boundaries, we might just discover there’s room to shift them at least a little bit.