It takes a village

Until recently, children were born and raised in extended kin networks and communities, not nuclear families.

A Bukusu youth is smeared with mud as part of a circumcision ritual in Kenya.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The origin of the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” is a mystery.

Some people believe it originated in an ancient African proverb; others believe it came from a Native American tribe.

In 1996, Hillary Clinton made the phrase popular by using it as the title of her book, which looks at the importance of the extended family in children’s lives. Clinton refers to studies which conclude that “... positive changes in behavior and attitudes are possible even after early childhood, if the older child or adolescent encounters new experiences and people who give meaning to one’s life and a reason for commitment and caring.”

Regardless of its origin, the phrase is a truism with many facets and implications.

Throughout most of human history, families around the world have remained in the same location, living in the same village or city, for generations. Children were born and raised in extended kin networks and communities, not nuclear families. This was even true throughout much of the modern era.

Neither was there such a thing as a “latchkey kid” until relatively recently. If mom or dad were unavailable, there were always aunts, uncles, grandparents and close friends nearby. Parents were never expected to be the only adults in kids’ lives. The early kibbutz experiment of children’s houses is a case in point.

Thus, traditionally, in every corner of the globe, children could always turn to any number of adults in close proximity for practical needs, advice and support. This is also reflected in specific kinship customs throughout the pre-modern world. For example, in many traditional cultures there is the prescribed custom of easygoing, joking relationships between alternate generations, children and grandparents. Similarly, in some African societies, it is official protocol that aunts and uncles take responsibility for the sexual education of their siblings’ children at puberty.

In contemporary society – especially in Israel, which comprised immigrants who have often left behind their families – these options are not always available. In practical terms, this means that additional pressure is placed on the isolated nuclear family. Add to this the spiraling divorce rate, and we can see how far we have come from providing children with a “village.”

In fact, this is part of the premise of the worldwide Big Brother/Big Sister program, considered the oldest, largest and most effective youth mentoring organization in the world. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Israel is modeled on the veteran American organization. Little Brothers and Sisters are matched with dedicated adult volunteers who meet with them weekly. Single parents are most likely to search out mentors, but even adolescents in two-parent families can benefit from mentor relationships.

One day we are on the same page with our kids, communicating in the same language; the next day we feel we are speaking in foreign tongues. But sometimes other parents or adults are able to decode teen needs and feelings better than we can.

We may feel sad or disappointed when our teens stop turning to us for help or in sharing their concerns, but realistically speaking this is a natural enough event. Add social media to the mix, and we should not be surprised to see teens increasingly turning to peers, sometimes even to total strangers online.

The truth of the matter is that many teens need, and even crave, older or adult mentors, grown-ups who know them but are not necessarily related or invested in the nuclear family’s psychological baggage. Informal relationships between adolescents and parents’ friends or teachers can also serve as an important support system. In the article “Effective mentoring” Susan V. Bosak, chairwoman of the Legacy Project, reports: “Research shows children need four to six involved, caring adults in their life to fully develop emotionally and socially. One of the challenges today is that children receive too much peer socialization and not enough contact with mature adults.

“Young people need someone with whom they can feel emotionally safe, and a mentor is often just that person.”

Bosak also reports on research by anthropologists William Kornblum and Terry Williams, which followed 900 children in urban and rural poverty across the US, concluding that “the most significant factor” determining whether teenagers would end up loitering on the corner or working at a stable job was “the presence or absence of adult mentors.”

Practical issues aside, on a socio-emotional level, why are extra- parental mentors so beneficial to kids? We can see the answer in how many times we have jumped on our kids’ behavior without realizing why they push our buttons.

This can happen for two reasons. First, because we have an intimate history with our kids, we have a tendency to see them in a particular repetitive light – “You always....” Mentors can view our kids from a less jaded perspective.

Second, as parents, we may identify too closely with our children and may inappropriately project our own issues onto them. In Jungian terms, the “shadow” refers to the parts of ourselves we prefer not to acknowledge.

Debra Ford’s book "The Dark Side of the Light Chasers" speaks about the process of shadow projection in which we assign our own unconscious fears and anxieties onto our intimate others, such as close friends and family members... even our children. For example, if a mother has anxiety about her own body image, she might become overly critical of a daughter’s eating habits.

Because we can easily become over-identified with our developing adults, it may be useful for them to cultivate a relationship with an adult confidant who sees them from a more neutral perspective.

Neither should parents feel threatened by the importance of a mentor in our teen’s life; it is not a competition. Our kids will appreciate us putting our parental egos at bay for their benefit. Likewise, parents need to respect teens’ right to privacy, and unless it is life-threatening, we must allow them to keep their mentor relationship confidential.

Try an experiment. Make a list of five to 10 issues you have with your adolescent, anything from emotional outbursts and overeating to punctuality. Then go through the list and see which issues also apply to you. See any similarities? If we are not fully aware of our own demons, we will be at risk of projecting them onto our kids. This is not to say we should not call them out on their challenging behaviors. However, we should do so only after we have done our own emotional homework, and can separate our “stuff” from our kids’ “stuff.”

When we have children, we really have no idea what we are getting ourselves into. And while every age has its own challenges, the teen years are clearly the most challenging. If we can find a way to use our experiences with our adolescents to familiarize ourselves with our own issues, it will be a win-win for everyone.

We will be better parents for our own kids, and help build a healthier village for everyone.


Tracey Shipley CAAP, is a teen counselor and addiction specialist. She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com; http://jerusalemteenteencounseling.net.

Judith Posner, PhD, is a social scientist, writer and researcher.