“I don’t think one parent can raise a child. I don’t think two parents can raise a child. You really need the whole village.” – Toni Morrison
I grew up in the same town in Massachusetts where my mom and my grandma had also been born and raised. My maternal grandparents lived minutes away, on the other side of town (to this day, my grandma lives in the house she moved to as a young wife, two doors down from where she was raised), and my paternal grandfather was about a fifteen-minute drive away, living in the house my dad had grown up in. I had an aunt (my mom’s younger sister) and uncle who did not yet have children of their own and would host weekend sleepovers for my older brother and myself. Later on, I had a baby brother and a girl cousin added to the mix. Our neighborhood was packed with kids, most of them near to us in age. We would head out the door in the morning to meet up with one neighbor child or another and have adventures in the woods. When we’d be hungry, hot, or tired, we’d retreat to someone’s house (not necessarily our own), where other moms like mine would be home to fix a snack or to shoo us back out the door. Times were beginning to change, so there were less stay-at-home parents than there had been at one time, but still enough to make us feel secure as we rode bikes up and down the streets for block after block. There was one police officer assigned to patrol our downtown square during the day and he used to buy me peanut candy bars each time I would be running errands with my mom. Another local officer was my second-cousin’s husband. Some of the teachers my brothers and I had in school had been teachers when my mom was in school. Most of our classmates had parents, grandparents, or relatives known to my parents, grandparents, and relatives. In many ways, my childhood was idyllic, as I always felt safe and secure as part of a community.
I moved 3,000 miles away from home in my twenties and unconsciously worked to recreate a sense of community in a new place. Today, my nieces and nephew live just a few minutes away from my husband and I and we have sleepover weekends with them just as my aunt and uncle had with us. I work for the local school district and have made friends and connections through there that have made my city seem smaller and friendlier to me. When I first moved here, we lived in an apartment complex where our neighbors were very close in proximity but refused to make eye contact and avoided my friendly smiles. You can imagine my delight when we moved to our current home and our new neighbors baked cookies, left welcoming notes on our front door, and waved to us with smiles when we drove past.
We all need to feel we belong somewhere, to tether ourselves with friendship, love, and community. Teachers and caregivers devote much of their time and energy to creating an environment that welcomes and embraces children and families. In my classroom, we have photos of each child’s face placed low on the wall where both crawling and walking babies can view them. We have another display of family pets. Each child has a photo book featuring their family: moms, dads, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, even great-grandparents. We make it a point to learn the names of the family members so that when we read these books with the children we can say, “Look, there’s your cousin Joey!” When our infants and toddlers, their parents, and siblings arrive in the room, we greet them by name and with smiles. When older students and other teachers pass by our room, we wave and greet them by name; before long, the infants are doing the same. These are just a few of the ways we foster a sense of community for the infants and toddlers in our care.
All children need to feel the security of the safety net their community places beneath them. Here is a short list of the adults I believe every child needs to have in their lives, and why (I have not included parents as I believe that goes without saying!).
Aunties and Uncles: For fun, games, and freedom. Both biological and surrogate aunties and uncles have an important and unique role in the lives of children — they’re there to delight in these children without the weight of responsibility that parents have. They’re people that children can trust. They know the child’s parents in a special way and can share that perspective with children. Like all relatives, born and chosen, they provide a child with a sense of place and connection. If they’re anything like my husband and I, they’re also there for trips to the zoo and as many “shmarshmallows” as a kid can eat.
Grandmas and Grandpas: What a fantastic perspective grandmas and grandpas can offer children on their parents, themselves, the world around them, and life. Grandmas and grandpas can provide treasures and traditions. They’re a wealth of stories, once you tap in. They may play a number of different roles in children’s lives and perhaps none of those roles look exactly like a storybook, but they’re a source of grounding and history regardless of circumstance. Grandmas and grandpas can offer the unconditional love and pride of moms and dads without the weight of worry, being one step further removed from the raising of children.
Neighbors: Good neighbors provide a sense of safety and community. They see your comings and goings and have a sense for who you are even if you’re not close enough to be borrowing cups of sugar. My next-door neighbor recently had an intensive surgery on her foot and was laid up for months. Children in the neighborhood helped to bring in her mail and newspapers and play with her dogs. Our interactions with neighbors can provide children great examples of cooperation and respect.
Older children: Older children demonstrate things younger children may not have thought to do yet. This is not always a dangerous thing! I remember older children in my own life teaching me to cross the street safely, to take a shortcut home from school, and to avoid sources of danger and trouble in the neighborhood. It can be a wonderful learning opportunity for both. As a middle child I can say that it’s fantastic to be led in play sometimes and it’s fantastic to lead sometimes.
Younger children: Older children benefit greatly from scaffolding the learning of younger ones (teaching is the best way to learn something). Through their interactions with children who require more patience and nurturance of them, children can greatly expand their empathy. For older children who may be less mature than their peers, younger children can provide a safe space for play.
Librarians: All children should visit libraries often and all children should know at least one librarian by name. My favorite librarian growing up had a moose puppet named Chocolate Moose and she always knew a book I would love. School librarians are a great resource for teachers and they’re yet another adult that children can trust. Libraries should be a place in the community where children feel both safe and excited.
Teachers: It goes without saying that children need teachers in their lives (“parents are a child’s first teachers,” the saying goes), but perhaps it needs to be said that “teachers” can take many forms. A teacher may be a caregiver or a coach or counselor. A teacher may be a mentor from Big Brothers/Big Sisters or a family friend. Sometimes children need guidance to find a teacher, but we can trust them to know when a match is made.
Community Helpers: We help children learn about firefighters, police officers, postal delivery workers, doctors, dentists, and nurses in preschool. Children often enjoy wearing costumes and engaging in dramatic play where they try out these vital community helper roles. When I worked with lower-income preschoolers, several children had encountered police officers during traumatic times surrounding family violence. One boy frequently told me, “They are good guys but they are scary guys.” It’s important that we make these community helpers accessible to children, as they are such a crucial part of their safety net.
There are going to be times in your child’s life when they will want and need the help, support, guidance, or kindness of people apart from their parents. I urge you to consider who is a part of your child’s village and help your child to recognize and connect with them, to celebrate them! Who is a part of your village? (Do me a favor and go say thanks to your librarian today!)