“So, are these two extra kids mine now?” She gestured to a five year-old splashing water in the shallow end of the pool and his little sister toddling dangerously close to the edge without a swim vest. Meanwhile, her own three year-old played with pool toys on a towel nearby.
“I don’t know,” I told my friend Deb. I was gathering our gear and trying to herd my two boys toward the exit, but I understood her dilemma. It’s hard enough to keep an eye on your own child at the pool, let alone two extra kids who have wandered over to your area to play. I glanced over my shoulder to locate these two kids’ actual parents. Both their mom and dad were talking on their cell phones, looking distracted and stressed, facing away from their kids.
Deb’s son started screaming when the five year-old splashed him from the shallow end of the pool.
She sighed. “Do you think it’s okay to tell him to stop splashing?”
“Yes. Absolutely.” I told her on my way out.
I’m not sure if she enjoyed the rest of her time at the pool, if the other parents put down their phones and retrieved their boys or if Deb had to be lifeguard and mom to two extra kids. But her question about telling the other child to stop splashing echoed in my head long after the day was done. We like to say that “it takes a village” to raise a child but most of us have trouble asking for help and nearly all of us hesitate to step in with someone else’s child.
We like to say that “it takes a village” to raise a child but most of us have trouble asking for help and nearly all of us hesitate to step in with someone else’s child.Tweet
Inviting others to be our village
In our individualistic society, we take pride in handling everything by ourselves. It’s one thing to rely on family for help, but it takes real courage to reach out to friends and neighbors when we are in need. We don’t want to impose. We want to be viewed as capable, independent, super-moms who have life (and our children) under control. Then, we look at other parents who are juggling more kids than we are, and so we minimize our own need for help and tell ourselves we should be able to manage it all.
One day a few years ago, in a particularly stressful time for my husband at work, I got a call from my son’s school. The nurse asked me to come pick him up because he had thrown up in his kindergarten classroom. While I was tending to him at home and trying to entertain my toddler as well, I got a call from a friend. She had cooked some extra lentil soup and wanted to drop some off for our dinner. I started to protest. “You don’t have to do that!” I said. “I’m sure there are other families that could use this more,” I argued.
My friend insisted. When she came by an hour later to drop off the meal, I just about wept with gratitude. I clearly needed the help, but I never would have called someone asking for dinner. Taking care of a sick kid and knowing my husband wouldn’t get home till late didn’t seem like a good enough reason to reach out for help.
Unless someone is a relative, we don’t let others be our village. We wait until something catastrophic happens, until our hand is forced and we have no other choice than to ask friends and neighbors for help.
Being the village for others
Even more daunting than inviting others to be a part of our village is stepping in to be the village for someone else. In our culture of individual rights and freedom, we wonder if it’s okay to give directions to a child unrelated to us. We hesitate to break up a squabble, to check in with a child who appears to be alone. We don’t want to offend or to overstep.
This kind of attitude can have disastrous results when concerned adults turn to authorities instead of following up with the actual parents. Like in the case of Debra Harrell, a mom from South Carolina who was jailed for letting her nine year-old daughter play alone at the park for a few hours while she worked her shift at a neighboring McDonalds. Although the girl had a cell phone, a shocked adult called the police and Debra spent weeks in jail for “unlawful neglect” while the nine year-old was sent to foster care (source). Thanks to her lawyer, Debra was back at work a month later and had regained custody of her child (source).
I can’t help but wonder how much trauma could have been spared for this family if that shocked adult had contacted the girl’s mother. After all, the cell phone was right there; surely she could have used it to ascertain if there was any real danger. But rather than reaching out as part of the broader village responsible for today’s youth, rather than coming alongside that mother with an offer to help, this adult caused far more damage by turning to the authorities.
This is an extreme example, but it illustrates our reticence to involve ourselves in parenting others, even when it comes to telling another child to stop splashing people in the pool.
Although no one can deny that parenting has its beautiful and rewarding moments, raising children is a demanding and draining job. And the future of parenting will continue to be isolating and difficult unless we are willing to ask for a village and be the village the village in return.
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