It Takes a Village

by Dana Smith Bader
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When I was three years old, my parents moved from New Orleans, Louisiana, my birthplace, to Bahrain.  We lived in a compound community with other expat families, and we knew everyone in our community – the other parents and children, the compound shop keeper, the security guards at the gate, the cleaners, the workers at the cinema, and the nurse at the small clinic near the front entrance – literally, everyone.  We grew up knowing we belonged to our community, and the members of our community knew they were partly responsible for the care of all of the children in the compound because we moved freely from house to house and from our houses to the compound facilities.  One day, when all of the children were playing hide-and-seek, one of my sister’s friends got lost.  Within five to ten minutes, all of the adults available in the compound were searching for the girl, and she was found within another twenty minutes.  It turns out, she had snuck into the air conditioned compound cinema to watch part of a film that was playing because she got bored and hot playing outdoors.  The attendant alerted her parents, and she was quickly ‘rescued’ from the cinema.

My life wasn’t much different when we went home to Louisiana in the summers to stay with my grandparents.  My grandparents lived on a cul de sac, and everyone on the street knew one another.  All of the kids played together, mothers gossiped on front porches, and kids from the neighborhood came and went from house to house as though all of the houses were fitted with revolving doors.  Even when we watched TV, which was only in the evening after the sun went down or at the crack of dawn early Saturday mornings, we watched Sesame Street, a show that portrayed yet another community full of children, happy family members, and community helpers who interacted freely and easily with one another.  The only difference between the Sesame Street community and our own was that theirs contained Big Bird, Ernie and Bert, and Oscar the Grouch.  We had a few grouchy people in our community, but they weren’t green, and they did not live in trash cans.

As a result of my childhood, I can easily understand the meaning of the Igbo and Yoruba Proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child,” which refers to both the collective responsibility of the whole community in supporting children to grow and develop into active citizens, as well as the need for children to be involved in and aware of their supportive community.  The results of such an upbringing that includes community involvement at its core are many.  With community involvement, children develop emotionally and intellectually.  They also develop socially, with a sense of belonging crucial to the building of a cultural identity, as well as with critical relationships that nurture their self-esteem, making them happier and more confident children.

Unfortunately, nowadays, finding the kind of communities that I grew up in is not as easy as it used to be.  Today, the only ever-present community seems to be a virtual social media community, which certainly cannot compare to communities of the past, where everyone knew one another and had each other’s back.  As a result, parents, children, and even community helpers feel adrift in many of today’s anchorless communities, where people interact only when necessary and stay indoors in their own homes or work minding their own business.  As such, our children are growing up with an essential component missing from their care and education. If children do not attend preschool, which for many families may be the first contact with the wider community that their children have, the children may not grow up with a sense of community, to promote their sense of belonging and to shape their responsibility to their community.

To experience the benefits of community involvement, parents must work hard to create a community for their children and involve their children in that community on a day-to-day basis.  Involving children wherever possible in such connections with their community makes the experience more meaningful.  Such day-to-day involvement can be as simple as going to the local shop or post office, engaging with the delivery man, playing in a local playground or park, bringing water to a maintenance worker or gardener, bringing plastic bottles to the recycling bin, or even picking up trash on the beach.  You can also foster a stronger sense of community by teaching your children to support those in need within their communities.  For instance, you can involve them in visits to an elderly care home, have them participate in a toy drive for needy children, or have them volunteer at an animal shelter to pet animals. 

The possibilities for community involvement in the early years and beyond are endless and will send a powerful message to your children, a message that says they are important, they are loved, and they belong, a message that has the strength to empower every child.  It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes caring, motivated parents to create that village and work to involve their children in feeling a sense of belonging and in caring for the other members of their community.

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