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It Takes a Village

It takes a village to raise a child.

This proverb came to mind yesterday as I watched a teacher gently redirect two children talking during morning prayer.  The expression is often understood to mean that in the challenging task of child raising, parents need support from others: teachers, relatives, babysitters, etc. 

I think the actual meaning of this expression is deeper.  You need not only a large number of people, but a diverse community of people who are committed and interdependent: an ecosystem where children can flourish.

In the United States, the word village is most often found in the name of housing developments or retail establishments: Bunker Hill Village, Village School, Village Market.  Village suggests a quaint picturesque hamlet where everyone knows your name.  The term is used to give an impression of local community, whether or not it actually exists, just as streets and neighborhoods are often named for elements of nature (“Willow Creek”) that are not actually found there.

To see a real village, you may have to travel to the Old World, in person or through art, such as the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Historically, your village was the place where your people came from – and stayed.

My husband is from the country of Georgia in the former Soviet Union, and his grandfather was born in a village of 700 souls where the majority of residents share his last name.  Not from intermarriage: they choose spouses from outside the village due to ancient Georgian taboos against marrying within seven generations.  Instead the shared surname reflects the fact that the family moved there 400 years ago and grew roots. 

This rootedness gives new meaning to the concept of a family tree, which is not simply a way to document ever growing numbers of blood-related individuals.  A family is an organism of different branches all connected to each other and the ground they came from.  Then, the village is the natural outgrowth of the family—a place where everyone has my last name, although we may not remember exactly how we are related because the ties go back so many centuries.

Spending time in his ancestral village, my husband was given freedom to roam with friends and cousins.  There was little concern for his safety because everywhere he went, he was within sight of an aunt or uncle.  It was understood that any adult who saw a child misbehaving or in danger would speak out to correct and protect the child. 

In a village, everyone is to some degree a relative; so every adult is empowered and responsible to look out for every child, and every child must show respect towards every adult.  For this reason, in many cultures, the polite form of address to one older than yourself is “aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather,” even if the person is a stranger. 

Today’s usage of the word differs from traditional villages in the same way that modern subdivisions lined with oak trees differ from natural environments like forests.  In American schools with the name Village, children spend all day with peers their own age, and a building complex with the name can be inhabited entirely by senior citizens. 

A real village, by contrast, is diverse: all ages and professions and character types living in interdependence.  It is self-sustaining, with centuries of history of one people in one place.  My husband’s ancestry includes descendants of both the feudal barons of the area and the farmers on their lands.  Walking around the village, you meet bakers, builders, doctors and farmers, all related and open to helping each other and trading favors. Different ages mix socially, in a country where most homes have three generations under one roof, and may also be hosting a cousin or two.

Some have suggested that for Christian immigrants to the New World, the role of the traditional village was replaced by the local parish church.  (Frankie Schaeffer, Letters to Father Aristotle; Angela Carlson, Nearly Orthodox)  My own experience in various Orthodox parishes confirms this: whole families know and help each other, providing a village-like environment even for American converts who have never experienced the original.

When my children were growing up, coffee hour on Sunday was the time in the week when they felt most free to roam.  Our usual Mama and Papa Bear vigilance was relaxed because we knew that Godparents, Sunday School teachers and other parishioners would take an interest in their well-being and watch out for them.  Our kids looked around the church and felt connected: “That’s my parents’ godchild.  There’s my Sunday School classmate’s brother.” 

Despite moving jobs and houses, we kept connected to our church.  Fellow parishioners have watched our children grow from infancy to college age, the only people outside immediate family to have the long view of their history.  Just as in a village, in church everyone knows not only your name, but also each accomplishment and misstep you have made over the years, and loves you anyway.

The church works as village (or extended family) also on a theological level, as we are all part of the family tree of Jesus.  John 15:5: “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Luke 8:21: “My mother and brother are whoever hears the word of God and keeps it.” 

The Saint Constantine School also feels to me like a village: multiple generations abiding together and interdependent.  Preschool, K-12 and college students, and even a few babies, interact with teachers, priests and volunteers.  We come together for morning prayers, house meetings, mixed age classes or a shared recess.

Any teacher can help any child with an encouraging word, a reminder to behave, or a helping hand.  As Provost Stacey said one morning, schools are not intrinsically “real” like families (or villages) – unless we make them so, by forging bonds of caring for each other.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it feels like our school is on the way to becoming real.

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