It takes a tribe to raise a child, so why are we so isolated?
There’s a well-known African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ This sentiment is widespread throughout a number of African cultures. In Lunyoro a similar saying goes, ‘A child does not grow up only in a single home’, and in Kihaya, ‘A child belongs not to one parent or home.’ These cultures recognise that child rearing is no easy feat, and having many parental figures allows one to thrive.
Let’s be honest, no matter where you are in the world, parenting is a tough gig. I would know – I’m a very hands-on Aunty. But, our family isn’t typical in our society. Not because we’re super woke or because we made an informed, progressive decision to raise the children as a village/tribe, but because any other way would have been impossible.
Three and a half years ago, I was living with my pregnant, newly single sister. And after the birth of the new love of our lives I wasn’t going anywhere. For over a year, we engaged in something that awkwardly resembled co-parenting – two young women fumbling their way through motherhood. Most days we had the help of the extended family too – Mum, Step-dad and Dad all did their bit to make sure we all ate, stayed alive, and sometimes even thrived. My nephew became as attached to me as he was to my sister, and as time went on, I modified my life more to accommodate his presence in my world.
Now my nephew is three, and while the landscape has changed a little (we no longer live together, and my sister has a partner and a new baby), the philosophy remains the same: it takes a tribe to raise a child, and so every day we all band together and do what needs to be done both practically and emotionally. And, although it’s still really hard (and not always in the same ways as a more common family set-up), I honestly don’t know how anyone does it alone.
Parenting in a disconnected world
What perplexes me most though is how we have found ourselves so isolated. Parenting is isolating enough. Confronting the highs and lows, and managing your own emotions in relation to the rollercoaster of parenthood can leave you feeling misunderstood and alone, even with endless support around you.
The additional isolation is a relatively new phenomenon. Long geographical stretches between family members, conflict, the overwhelming responsibilities and demands of modern life and our nine-to-five-grinds have all contributed to the common disconnect between extended families and communities. Not so long ago there were no fences between neighbours, and kids were raised as much by the extended-family as the parents. Today we so often go it alone – without family or close friends nearby (or available to help).
How other cultures do it
Many cultures around the world approach child rearing in a more community-focussed fashion. These cultures’ values are expressed from the very beginning of the parenting journey. In Bali, babies can’t touch the ground until they are three months old – they are held constantly to prevent contact with the unclean ground that is believed to taint their purity. In Kenya, mothers carry their babies everywhere, and in traditional Chinese culture, the nurturing of the mother post-partum is seen as essential to the future health of both mother and child. Ingrained in Chinese culture, strict ‘rules’ are imposed for a month following childbirth, including an abundance of family assistance, nourishing meals and more.
As children grow, in many traditional African communities the whole extended family is seen as being responsible for the child, not just the parents. In fact, the child is seen as not just belonging to the family, but to the whole society. Everyone is an aunt, uncle or grandparent of some kind.
The benefit of a tribe mentality when it comes to parenting? Healthier children.
Infants in these traditional societies have been observed to spend less time crying than western children, and grow up to be more self-confident, emotionally secure and creative. They spend less time in front of screens and more time connecting with one another.
Finding your tribe
We can’t just transport ourselves to another time or culture, and there’s no point in chastising ourselves for our lack of family resources (we have enough parental guilt to deal with, right?). The truth is, parenting will pose challenges no matter what, and it’s not so easy to integrate the values of another culture into western society. Imagine the disagreements you have with your partner over parenting decisions being shared amongst an entire family, being a mother who feels she needs everyone to be on board with each decision she makes, or a father who is outnumbered by the maternal family. It’s not all beer and skittles, let me tell you. But, there are some gems of wisdom that we can access from this tribe philosophy.
You may not have a village to raise your child, but you can always seek your own tribe. They may be wandering around the park with their own wildlings, at the local library’s story time, at the farmer’s market or even next-door. Wherever they are, they’re probably on the lookout for you too.