It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

by annie on August 6, 2009

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A lot of parents that practice attachment parenting or natural parenting point to the fact that this is the way children are often raised in traditional societies. This is true, to a great extent, but there is one big exception. In our society we seem to feel that practicing attachment parenting means that the parents alone are raising the child or sometimes even one parent alone (usually the mother) while the other one works long hours, goes off to war, or just runs away.

We parent alone. We raise our children alone. That is exhausting.

In traditional societies, it is true that people co-sleep, breastfeed much longer, and wear their babies all the time. But the village raises the child. There are grandparents, aunts, neighbours, and older children to share the parenting. In our society, if the mother cannot do it all, all of the time, we look down on her. Or, alternately, if she isn’t willing to just leave her baby with some stranger in order to get a break, we look down on her.

I have never been comfortable just dropping my children with strangers. We have never called up a 13 year old babysitter from a flyer left at the mailboxes and then happily waved goodbye for the evening as we left her with our children. We were not able to just drop our son at a day care with a bunch of strange adults and strange children when he turned one because it was time. And we have turned down invitations to parties and weddings if it wasn’t possible to get a trusted babysitter, someone that our child knows and trusts, to babysit. I don’t think I should have to be comfortable dropping my children with strangers.

Share the responsibility

That said, I also don’t think the entire burden of raising my children needs to fall on my shoulders or my husband’s shoulders. In our case, we have been very lucky to be able to have my mother as a regular and trusted presence in our children’s lives since the time they were born. We live out in the country and until recently didn’t realize that we had other people nearby with children. I think if we had lived in the city, closer to friends, we would have tried to forge a closer and more consistent relationship between our children and our friends, to create opportunities for trade-offs (I’ll watch your kids today if you watch mine tomorrow). I think it is important for parents to have help and to have breaks. Just as it is important to create a strong attachment with your child, I think it is important to your own mental health as a parent to encourage a strong attachment between your child and at least a handful of other trusted adults.

A lot of parents worry that their caregiver needs to use the same parenting approach that they do. I have seen people on attachment parenting boards worried about what will happen if their baby is not worn all day at daycare. Or what the impact will be if their child is put in time-outs at preschool if they don’t agree with using punishment as a discipline tool.  As I’ve said before, for me, practicing attachment parenting is about the relationship I want to have with my child. I don’t think it will hurt my children if another caregiver uses other approaches that I have decided are not right for me. Obviously, you want to agree with a caregiver on any points that are incredibly important to you (like corporal punishment, cry it out, and scheduled feedings perhaps…well that is my list, yours might be different). But I think it helps children to learn how to interact with different people in different ways.

Child-led independence

I think one of the other things that weighs us down as parents is the burden we place on our shoulders in terms of both teaching our children things and taking care of them. In traditional societies the adults often do not seek to actively teach anything to their children. They let the child approach them to learn something when they are ready. I think that we make things difficult for ourselves in two ways:

  • First, a lot of parents continue doing things for their children even after they have expressed interest and willingness to do it themselves. I admit that I am guilty of this a lot of the time because in the short term it seems easier to just do it than to teach your child.
  • Second, a lot of parents push their children to do certain things too early. Time to wean, time to toilet train, time to learn to count, time to start piano lessons, and so on.  If the child hasn’t expressed an interest, it will only be more difficult for both the parent and the child.

Allowing our children to lead in developing their independence can take some of the burden off of us, but it requires a good dose of patience and a focus on teaching, not training our children. It requires confidence in our children.

Create a village and listen to your child

I hear a lot of people say, I couldn’t possibly do attachment parenting because I’m a working mom or I couldn’t possibly do attachment parenting because I have to use day care. I don’t think that is true at all. For me personally, the fact that I am a working mom makes me feel it is even more important to practice attachment parenting because it makes it easier to create the strong bond I want to have with my children despite the fact that I have less time with them than a stay at home mom does.

But, I couldn’t be an attached mom if it was all on my shoulders. I think when people practicing attachment parenting get burned out, it is because they are trying to do too much alone. It takes some work to create a village, especially in our very nuclear family based society. But I think it is worth it in the end. If you don’t have family nearby, seek out friends that can be part of your village.

Finally, listen to your child. Take cues from your child about when she is ready to learn something new and follow through on it. It will be harder that day, but easier in the end.

Take some of the burden off yourself and put it onto the village and onto your child. Now put up your feet and enjoy a margarita.

Image credit: rogiro on flickr

Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at PhD in Parenting and is always trying to expand her village.

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