It takes a village to raise a child. A well known saying that sounds reasonable, a child learns what's right and wrong not only from his parents, but from a whole bunch of people. A whole village full of people. He learns from friends, neighbors, passers-by and what he picks up from the media. And he gets his clues from you too. Who, me? Yes, you. Or weren't you including yourself in that metaphorical village? Instead living a carefree life in the nearby city, doing whatever you want? I know I did. I kinda pictured myself erm.. out of the picture there. Having no children of my own, I thought I had no place in the domain of parenting whatsoever. Feeling quite comfortable with that too.
What do I have to do with parenting?
So what made me change my mind about my role in the domain of parenting? Was it a hormonal thing, being a young woman hitting thirty, seeing friends getting these cute babies? Hmm. Might be. But I think the most important reason for me to include myself into the picture of the village raising a kid has been noticing my own effect on them.
That happened when I was sitting on the floor of my good friend's apartment, toys and books and balls scattered around me. Her one year old son was moving about on the carpet as his mum and I were trying to keep a serious conversation going, without much success, as the little one was quite energetic and kept shouting and throwing balls around.
I was a bit tense as I was trying to have a serious conversation with my friend, so her child was a bit of a distraction. I realized he might be getting stressed out too, his mum getting agitated as she was trying to keep the conversation going but at the same time telling him to leave the balls where they were. So I toned down my energy, talking more slowly, allowing the kid relax. And it worked. He chilled out and seemed to tune in to the atmosphere instead of being in his own busy world. Wow. I am part of the village. My inner world has an effect on the outer world. My mood, thoughts, beliefs and actions have a real effect on another human being.
Getting into village life
Writing this down I realize how postmodern I am; I still have to remind myself of the fact that there are other people in this world and that I have an effect on them. An effect that I am getting more interested in though, because it can be very powerful. To use the example of the small child, when I would start to yell at him to quiet him down, the unwritten message I'd give him is that it's OK to shout at one another when you are slightly irritated. Do this often enough and a child will probably copy this behaviour and internalise as a value: 'it's ok to shout at someone else when you're irritated'. Values like these are the bricks that build up 'culture'. The whole package of our actions and reactions creates something as large as a whole culture.
From the perspective of creating culture it suddenly means so much more what I do, what values and beliefs I bring into action in my life. I learned this while putting myself on quite a harsh diet, trying to recover from an infection. It meant leaving out coffee, bread and dairy, and a lot of other staple foods, which made salads, grains and combinations of beans, rice and fish my new lunch and dinner. In Holland the typical lunch is bread and cheese, and without coffee most of the people don't even get going in the morning. It's the fuel of office life! So to see me work down salads in the winter and drink only tea was quite unusual for my colleagues. But after speaking about the diet and the positive effects it had, I was surprised to find people joining me. They started experimenting with food and we shared experiences. They were inspired because they saw that it was actually possible to stick with a demanding diet. Just as I had been inspired by a good friend of mine, who followed the diet before me.
And this 'cultural effect' runs deeper than I thought. After 5 months working elsewhere I recently started a project on my former workplace and met my old coworkers. I was surprised to find one of them (the one with a big jar of candy) buying a salad and putting a bowl of strawberries on his desk because he said he couldn't eat unhealthy now that I was back again. How cool is that!? I was so happy. Just because I had been sticking to my diet, people got inspired to change their eating habits too and they got stimulated to do what we all know is good for us, but we really don't believe is possible.
We do effect one another. With children the effects are usually stronger as they pretty much learn by copying the behaviour of the people around them. It makes me think more seriously about what I actually have to offer them, what kind of behaviour I would like kids to duplicate.
What can I offer kids?
This question makes me step outside myself and consider what use my experience could be to children. Looking at the teenage daughter of a good friend of mine, I realized I have a function in bridging the gap between her generation and her parent's. We have conversations she wouldn't easily have with her parents because we share generational characteristics that her parents don't recognize. Her mom and dad are of Generation X, the kid's of baby-boomers. I am from the following generation, Gen Y. I am the first generation growing up digital, but with a remembrance of what life was before the iPad and wifi everywhere. I remember my first Walkman and playing California Games with my brother. As a teenager I was glued to my dad's PC, discovering the joys of endless chatter with friends on MSN and ICQ. I am from a generation that is said to be more individualized and narcissistic than Gen X. One that can handle more information, but finds it harder to concentrate deeply. One that has a lot to choose in a time of unlimited freedom and luxury, but isn't always sure what to do because we struggle to connect to a larger context that gives our lives direction.
I can actually be a positive example for the children growing up now, showing that there is actually a larger picture for life. The larger picture being the fact that what you do means something to other people; the development of a whole culture is the ultimate context of your life. The actions you take can create new cultural possibilities. For example sticking to a diet, or a work-out schedule, quit smoking. You bust a cultural cynicism built up by yourself and others who made plans to change their habits but gave up because it was too much.
You make people doubt an old value; they see you do something they believe wasn't possible. Something you maybe didn't really believe in yourself until you did it. You create a way out, for yourself and for others, working against the gravity of culture, of 'how things are'. We all recognize we can live audacious, big, meaningful lives that inspire others. But until someone proves that this is possible, someone like yourself, everyone will keep living the same old life thinking there is no other way. Thinking that things don't change. Heck it ain't easy to live a big life but I know that when I learn how to do this, I can make this journey on earth more beautiful and meaningful for the generations to come. And this is giving life more relevance. From this point of view it's actually not bad at all to live a life in the village...