Kids in Community
By Wendy Priesnitz
You’ve probably heard the
quote that it takes a village to raise a child. And you may also have
heard the extension of it that says, “I’ve seen the village and I don’t
want it raising my child.” Well, there’s another extension, which I much
prefer, that says, “…and a community to keep the parents sane.” So what
if you could have a hand in creating that village? And what if that
community in that village was great for both children and parents?
There is evidence that living
in intentional community – be it co-housing, an eco-village, a communal
house, or just a neighborhood of like-minded families similar to the
ones in which some of us grew up – is a great way to raise kids.
Some of the advantages for
your children can include physical safety in a familiar environment
surrounded by caring adults, broadly-based interactions with people of
all ages and exposure to different ways of doing things, readily
available playmates, having positive conflict resolution modeled for
them, and opportunities for creating a small independent school or doing
unschooling in a stimulating environment. In multi-generational
communities, there can be the chance for children to relate to
grandparent substitutes, when the real ones are dead or living far away.
For parents, it means readily available shared
child care and the other kinds of mutual support suggested by the quote
I mentioned earlier, as well as a solution to the seclusion often felt
by stay-at-home parents. Community living also provides the opportunity
for sharing some of the equipment that accompanies life with children,
from toys and play equipment to things that are only used for short
periods of time like birthing tubs, breast pumps, car seats, and high
chairs. Shared meals and property maintenance can also free parents up
to spend more time with their kids. Even non-parent adults who enjoy
kids can benefit by spending time with them in a variety of roles.
In fact, Diana Christian,
editor of Communities Magazine, says that creating a safe and wholesome
environment for families and children is one of the reasons people join
or form communities. Further, she notes that unless a community provides
good facilities for children, it won’t attract as many new members.
In the late 1980s, Daniel
Greenberg surveyed over two hundred intentional communities and visited
twenty-five communities around the U.S. for his doctoral dissertation in
Child Psychology. Most communities Daniel visited had an
extended-family-like atmosphere, where people had ample opportunity to
form close relationships with people of all ages. That meant children
living in community had plenty of role models and tended to develop
friendships with many non-related adults.
In addition, he found that the world of grown-ups was largely
demystified for children, perhaps similarly to the way unschooled kids
learn about their parents’ lives by being around them on a regular
basis. Greenberg wrote about the ongoing informal learning experiences
encountered by these kids, from problem-solving through household
management and a variety of more vocation-related things.
In an article on the Intentional Communities website, Diana Christian
notes that, as a result of these friendships with adults and exposure to
their daily tasks, “Community children are often more socially mature,
confident, outgoing, competent, and verbal (and at far younger ages),
than their non-community counterparts.”
In spite of the benefits, few issues arouse more intense debate in
intentional community settings than questions involving children.
Writing in a 1995 article in Natural Life Magazine, Helen Forsey put it
“For both the best and the worst of reasons, our deepest feelings often
come up around our own or other people’s kids. These little human beings
can inspire our love, respect, and nurturing, and teach us new things
every day, but their presence can also evoke our prejudices or expose
our lack of consideration or responsibility. Just as they may represent
our most meaningful commitments and our most treasured joys, children
can also be symbolic extensions of our egos or reminders of realities we
would rather ignore. All these aspects tend to be magnified and shared
Different parenting styles can definitely spark conflict: What are
appropriate toys, chores, diet, entertainment, bedtimes – and who should
ultimately decide? Should certain areas and events be adults-only? How
to balance independence and attention? And then there’s adolescence with
its occasional problems and differing opinions on how to deal with them.
These issues can be worked out using the communication tools that are
available, and can be opportunities for everyone involved. Nevertheless,
it’s important to do some self-examination and planning prior to making
the decision to move to a more communal living environment.
Parenting coach Kassandra Brown, who moved to an ecovillage with her two
young daughters a few years ago, says, “Intentional community and
ecovillage living are not for everyone, but if your heart is longing for
more connection with other humans, more sustainable ways of living on
the planet, and challenges to your idea of reality then it might be
right for you.” She stresses the importance of preparation – to know who
you are and what your goals are, and to clarify your vision. She
provides information about doing that in an article in Natural Life
Magazine’s November/December 2013 issue.
Many people who aren’t ready to pull up stakes like Brown did find a
solution by actively cultivating community on their own city blocks or
in their local neighborhoods. Shared weekly potlucks, community
kitchens, removing fences separating backyards, planting vegetables in
your front yard or on the boulevard between sidewalk and road, forming a
childcare co-op, and researching a neighborhood preschool or school are
all tactics that can build community and lessen the isolation of urban
living for nuclear families.
Whatever form it takes, when it works well and with the right people
involved, living in community can be a great experience. Despite the
potential difficulties and challenges, being a child or a parent in
community has many rewards.
“Raising and Educating Children in Community” –
“Children in Community” by Daniel Greenberg, in Directory of Intentional
Communities (Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1990)
“Kids in Community” by Helen Forsey, in Natural Life Magazine,
“What Do Children Learn in Community?” edited by Ron Miller and Joshua
Russert, in Communities Magazine #114, Spring 2002
Best of Communities: VIII. Children in Community (Fellowship for
Intentional Community, 2014)
Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Child Magazine's Editor and the mother of
two grown daughters. She has been a journalist for forty years
and is the author of twelve books.