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The Village

The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” does not seem to fit into today’s attitude of self-reliance and individualism. Perhaps parents and children could become wiser and benefit from the experiences of their elders by embracing the village again.

A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine and somehow we got on the subject of child-rearing. I guess that really shouldn't come as a surprise, after all we are both fathers. I suppose it ain’t exactly front-page news that fathers should be discovered discussing children, eh? Our conversation shifted in the organic way that conversations often do, one thing leading to another, and I was reminded of an incident that I witnessed early in the spring of this year. Cai and I were getting in some of our last chops off the ski season at our local ski area. We’d had a pretty good day and it was getting late, so after our last run in flat light and somewhat squirrelly early spring conditions, we headed into the lodge to pack up. We wandered back through the main cafeteria to our usual haunt, an open room with small circular tables that usually serves as weekend home to the lunchbox crowd. Little did we know what we were in for... One corner of the room is devoted to a photo service that takes pictures of skiers on the hill and makes them available for purchase at the end of the day. Another section of the room was transformed a year or so ago into a shop selling all manner of goods that skiers seem either forget to pack or, rushing out early in the morning, place on top of their cars only to lose them to curves, acceleration or cross-winds. Gloves, goggles, poles, hats and that sort of thing. The rest of the space, which is usually more relaxed and quieter than the main room, is open seating for all comers. Cai and I went about the business of unbuckling our boots and packing things away. We traded in wet clothing for dry and got ourselves ready to hit the road and go home. In a far corner of the room a woman was shepherding a group of several children, also getting ready to leave. At one point, she got up and headed out of the room, leaving the children, who seemed to range from about three to thirteen years old, to their own devices. I didn't think too much of it and carried on with my own business for another minute or two after the woman left, when out of nowhere a piercing scream split the room! It wasn't a scream of the "help me I'm in dire pain" variety. Rather it was a scream of the "I am three years old and my lungs can do amazing things... over and over again" variety. It was loud. It was painful. It went on for what felt like hours (it was, of course, probably less than 15 seconds…) as the kids began doing laps around the tables, working themselves into a mad froth. Just as I was about to stand up and say something to the children, one of the women manning the photo booth leaned out from behind her counter and yelled, "Be quiet!" The room went dead. After the three-year-old audio assault, silence was pretty refreshing. Cai looked over at me and said, "that was loud..." "And really annoying," I added. "Yeah. Really annoying!" We went back to our packing and were pretty much ready to go when the missing woman, who had evidently left the older kids in charge of the younger, returned to the room. After a couple of moments of hushed murmurings off in the corner with the children and the woman, who was mother to some of the children, the second wave hit. Only this time it wasn't the kids who were screaming... The mother approached the photo counter and, with both barrels locked, loaded, and pointed squarely at the woman behind the photo counter, fired off a loud salvo of, "How dare you yell at my child!" "I'm sorry ma'am, I'm not feeling very well, they were left by themselves and she was out of control and screaming very loudly... I'm very sorry." "Well, you're a service person, and I have a season pass! I pay good money to come here with my children! I don't pay to have you yell at them!" "Ma'am, I am sorry." "She's only three years old! You must be 10 times her age! What gives you the right..?" And on it went from there. The more the woman behind the counter apologized, the louder the woman shouted until, within a moment or two, her volume had risen to a pitch and volume that her three-year-old daughter could only hope in her dreams to match. Somehow, without skipping a beat in her violent tirade against the woman in the photo booth, the mother had managed to get her children packed up and marched angrily out of the room tossing choice phrases and icy glances over her shoulder or she went. For a few long seconds the room was silent as the remaining skiers and employees took a breath. I learned over to Cai and asked him, "so what did you just learn?" He didn't have time to answer. The mother stormed back into the doorway and, glaring at her target, unleashed a chain of expletives that would have had the transcribers of Richard Nixon's secret tapes squirming in their headphones. Cai looked over at me with a quizzical look on his face. "Those were some bad words, Daddy." "Yup. They sure were…” An older man, a long time ski instructor who had witnessed the event from start to finish, placed one hand on the photo booth counter, pursed his lips and said wistfully, "Gosh… is it any mystery where her kid learned to scream like that?" Maybe it’s the coach in me, but every time I thought about that incident over the next few days, I kept hearing the phrase “it takes a village” over and over in my head… Sitting in a local café with Ronnie a couple of weeks ago, I was able to make some small sense of what I had witnessed. We’re a nation of individualists. In our rush to prove our autonomy – over and over again – we’ve tossed out many of the better parts of village life, including the collective wisdom and experience that can be brought to raising and re-directing children. I don’t know that the woman in the photo booth did the most graceful job of re-directing the screaming three year-old. I do believe that she was speaking the collective voice of the “village.” After all, in the absence of a parent, grandparent or other garden-variety guardian, whether the voice had come from me, from her, or from any other source in the room, it would have been a voice of our collective village. While it might be acceptable, perhaps even fashionable, for a parent to be outraged by a disciplinary intervention from a non-relative, my own sense is that the outrage is misplaced. It certainly seemed so in this case. The mother was nowhere to be found and the village, longing for peace and quiet, asked for it. In “Of Water and the Spirit,” author and Men’s teacher Malidoma Patrice-Somé speaks eloquently of his early life in a Dagara village. He describes a world in which Grandparents and Elders have a greater role in educating children than parents. The Elders, after all, have far more to offer a child, by way of wisdom and experience, than the child’s parents. Even while the parents are required to provide the basics needs of life, the Elders are the true teachers. Thus the authority to direct the young comes far more from the collective wisdom of the village and far less from parents. What most strikes me about the way in which we raise our children is the expectation – from within and without – that we are somehow “supposed” to know. If we actually don’t know whatever it is we’re supposed to know, then we are somehow diminished, broken or otherwise unfit for the task. In that case, there are few options left open outside of “how dare you redirect my child!” What are we afraid will happen if our children learn from others? What part of our children have we actually convinced ourselves that we own or can control? What have we lost by hiding in our silos, afraid not to know? Finally, what do we teach our children by turning our backs on the Village..? I won’t pretend to have the answers. I believe, though, that with a little curiosity and a willingness to not know, I might find them on a walk through the Village… You’re welcome to come along if you like.

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Ken Mossman PCC, CPCC, is a business and personal coach who specializes working with fathers and “creative cliff-jumpers,” men and women with creative dreams that just won’t quit.

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