Wednesday, September 25, 2019

This Is What Happens to Parents When the Village Looks Away

For parents of my age, the idea of the hypothetical village it takes to raise a child is quaint and vague, more of a pie-in-the-sky ideal than anything.

Yet, even without really knowing what the village looks or feels like, its absence still makes me sad.

This summer, my kids and I went on a boat tour. Our guide showed us how a canal lock works and taught us about the local history of the area, but what I really learned that day is why modern motherhood is so hard: it's because the village has vanished.

On the boat tour, sitting beside us was a little boy and his mother  let's call her Beth. 

Beth looked like she was about my age, her son about the same age as my son. On the other side of the boat were Grandma and Beth's sister, who also had a child in tow.

At one point during the boat ride my 3-year-old wanted to see the water better, so he stood up on the seat and leaned over the side. When I turned around to tell him to sit down, I caught the following exchange out of the corner of my eye:

Grandma, worried that my son would fall, was frantically gesturing to Beth and mouthing "Grab him!" Beth, meanwhile, was shaking her head and avoiding eye contact. Exasperated, Grandma threw up her hands and angrily whispered something to her other daughter, who sighed and said, "You can't just grab someone's kid, Mom."

This took place in only a few seconds, but it filled me with a deep sense of loss. What happened to the village? And have we really become so isolationist we'd rather let someone's preschooler fall in the river than interfere?

Clearly, something happened over the last 20 or 30 years to dissolve our villages. Why else would the divide have fallen so neatly across generational lines?

To Grandma and most other parents of her generation, it was a given that you just grabbed the kid who needed to be grabbed, no matter who he belonged to. She was furious at both Beth and her sister for their refusal to get involved when the village was called for.

Today we lament that we can't send our kids running from yard to yard until the sun goes down like our mothers could, but we're forgetting that our mothers had a village.

They knew no matter which backyard we were in, there was some other mother glancing through the kitchen window, keeping an eye on us to make sure we were okay, and if we were misbehaving she wouldn't hesitate to yell at any of us.

After all, our mothers would've done the same for her.

Unfortunately, modern parenthood doesn't come with an unspoken agreement that we're all in this together.

If I were to send my children to roam the neighborhood, there might be a parent watching out the window. Or there might not be.

There just as well could be a parent who looks away because "It's not my job to watch her kids," "It's not my place to discipline someone else's child," or even worse, "Someone's got to call Child Protective Services."

And do you know what happens when the village looks away?

We. Go. Crazy.

Parenting is simply too hard to do it alone. You cannot be everything to your children all the time. In fact, you shouldn't be.

It's not good for any child to learn that rules are only rules if mom and dad are around to enforce them, or that no one else really cares whether they become decent members of society.

Kids of all ages thrive when they have a network of grown-up mentors, not when they're kept in a bubble designed to protect them from other adults' correction or influence.

After witnessing the exchange between Beth and her family on the boat tour, I didn't want to just let it go without saying anything. So I turned to her and said, "Hey, if my kid is going to fall overboard, by all means, please grab him!"

She smiled and said, "Okay, you just never know. I did that once on a whale watching tour and got screamed at."

Now, I don't know all the details about the whale watching incident. Maybe Beth mistakenly thought the child was in danger and the other mom got defensive. That's what happens when society says that you alone are 100% responsible for every aspect of your child's physical and emotional well-being: someone jumping in to help feels like an affront to your parenting.

So today, let's all be a little less defensive. Let's take baby steps back toward the village.

Offer to carpool with another parent on your kid's soccer team. Let people know you're willing to help lighten their load, and even more importantly, ask them to help lighten yours  even if you theoretically could do it by yourself.

Don't just walk by a toddler having a meltdown in the cereal aisle like you can't see it. Tell mom she's doing a good job, and play peek-a-boo with the fussy baby in her cart while she's dealing with it. Maybe even say hello to the kid (when strangers talk to mine it always scares them into silence.)

If no one else is saying "no hitting" to the kid in the playground sandbox whacking other children with a plastic shovel, don't be afraid to say it yourself. Maybe the parent is across the park and doesn't see what's going on. Support that mom or dad.

Assume the best of other people, and resist the urge to be offended by someone who parents differently than you do. If a person offers you unsolicited advice, simply thank them for their suggestion and then either take it or leave it.

When a misguided stranger tries to help your child but isn't actually helpful, recognize their (probably) good intentions with a sincere "Thanks, but we're fine/that's not the way our family does it/my child doesn't need help right now."

And for goodness' sake, stop deliberating and just save the 3-year-old from falling out of the boat.

We need the village. This parenting thing is hard enough without having to do it all alone.

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The Lady Okie said...

I do think there's a definite worry of someone getting defensive or offended, but I agree it's nice to know that other people are watching out for all the kids around, not just theirs. We were at the science museum recently, and the slide was blocked off for maintenance, but both my kids slipped around the barrier and went up the steps. I had actually seen them do it and was about to go get them, but before I could move another mom looked at me and said, did you know your kids went up there? I told her that yes I'd just seen them but thanks for letting me know. I honestly did feel a little embarrassed that she maybe thought I wasn't watching them closely enough or paying attention, but I'm glad she said something even though I had actually seen them. Because what if I hadn't? Another time, R was climbing on something and fell down and started crying. Jordan ran over, but a dad who was closer to her helped her up and was looking around for her parent. It was nice to see someone helping out, and we all should do that for each other even if some people might not want it. I think more would want it than not.

Janice said...

Jenny, this is so true! I have felt and seen this so many times. Thank you for putting these ideas into writing. I hope I can do a better job of just loving and serving the parents, children and people I find myself among.

Ann-Marie Ulczynski said...

Yes! Please, if it’s my kid, just grab them, yell at them, and then bring them to me so I can yell at them too! I kid you not, here’s something that actually happened. We were at a family member’s house. A kid was running through the kitchen with a ton of people. I asked the kid not to run. I got taken aside and told, “please don’t discipline other people’s children. We leave that up to the parents.” I asked a clarifying question, “So if a kid comes running through the kitchen, grabs a knife and starts chasing another kid, I should just inform the kid’s parent?” And in all sincerity I was told yes. I just didn’t have anything to say after that. Are you serious?

Jenny Evans said...

Ann-Marie: That is the kind of thing that drives me crazy.The fact that we don't all parent exactly the same shouldn't be a reason to disband the village.

I think it's actually a good thing for kids to realize that all people have different rules and expectations, and sometimes you have to learn how to deal with that and compromise - especially in public spaces.

For example, I tell my kids they can climb up the slide at the park if nobody else is trying to go down, and sometimes they'll be told by a stranger not to do that. Depending on the situation I'll tell the stranger "thanks, but I told them it's alright to do that when no one else is using the slide" or tell my kids "hey guys, you climbing up the slide is making that lady nervous so why don't you go find something else to do right now?"

Either way, I don't think it's a big deal and certainly not something I should get bent out of shape over.

AnneMarie said...

Jenny, this is so well said! Once when we were at the playground, a random stranger got to my then-toddler who was escaping towards the playground out of my view, and I greatly appreciated it. Imagine what could have happened if that person had not spoken up or done anything? I think in this whole area, I've been learning that humility is key. Like you pointed out-let's start assuming the best of others and stop being so defensive.