Children in Community: Fairyland or Fairy Tale?
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than
You can understand
—William Butler Yeats
Several years ago, i set off on a journey to learn what has been tried, what works, and what does not work with respect to raising children in alternative communities. Though “community” takes many forms, I focused my attention on communal environments in which members live and work together. Along with an arsenal of notepads, audio tapes, survey instruments, and psychological assessments, I also brought with me my idealism, hope, and perhaps some naivetŽ. Looking back on it now, I realize I was really searching for utopia. What I actually found was quite a bit more complex, yet still very inspiring. In this article, I will focus on some of the benefits and challenges of child-adult friendships, shared parenting/childcare, and integration of children into community life. I hope that my observations will be relevant in a wide range of community settings and will encourage thought and discussion about this very personal and, at the same time, very public topic.
Intentional communities are highly social places. Consequently, children living in these environments often form unusually independent friendships with adults who are neither their parents nor teachers. As one adult community member commented:
“When I was growing up, my parents’ friends were never my friends…. There isn’t that distinction, I would say, in our community…. I mean, we all know each other very well and the kids know everybody just as well as I know everybody.”
In community, such friendships do not exist solely because a child belongs to a family or attends school, but simply because two individuals enjoy spending time together. When children are able to experience adults as friends rather than caretakers, teachers, or other authority figures, the adult world becomes more demystified and real. Furthermore, children in community have access to a wide variety of role models and resource persons. They know whom to confide in, whom to ask for advice, and who will let them into the kitchen after hours:
“You know how little kids like to have books read to them. The way they learn is to have the same book read to them 15 or 20 times in a day. Usually a parent, or even two parents, can’t deal with that, but here a kid can have it read to him 10 or 15 times a day—the same book over and over.”
Adults, of course, also benefit from these relationships. In the larger culture, it is often difficult for childless adults to create meaningful relationships with children—unless they are teachers, or close to a relative or friend that has children. Adult friendships with children in communities tend to develop informally during mealtimes, planned events, and chance meetings around the community. The wide range of involvement available to childless adults lets them participate in the joy and the work involved in caring for children without having to assume the awesome responsibilities and obligations of becoming a parent. One nonparent went so far as to say:
“Living in community helped me make the decision not to have my own kids…. I enjoy knowing so many children so well. Today’s teenagers, I knew as babies and they’ve always known me. It feels like I’ve had a small share in the raising of a big family.”
There are drawbacks with communities being such social environments. For children, the omnipresence of social interactions may occasionally make it difficult for them to find time or space to be alone. Also, children are more often caught in the double bind of being told to do something by one adult, only to discover it has been forbidden by another. At other times, more than one adult may reprimand a child for the same violation of a rule or norm.
There also exists the potential for adults assuming a great deal of responsibility for, and emotional attachment to, other people’s children. (One communal child calls such (male) adults “false daddies.”) For the children, having an adult friend leave the community can be especially painful and confusing. This confusion was aptly described by an adult member of a group house:
“Some of the people I’m very fond of, love dearly, and depend on for my support are mobile-type people. These people have the free choice to do what they need and wish. I may sort of see what sends them away or brings them back, but for the children its very much beyond their control, and I’m sure feels mystifying and, thus, very undependable…. I find that whenever the house becomes less stable in this way, the children relate and cling to me more and I necessarily feel more responsible for them.”
The adult perspective is not dissimilar and carries its own emotional hardship. As one nonparent commented:
“Even though we pay a lot of lip service to shared child rearing, the fact is that all the parents here have legal custody over their children and it always boils down to that. Those are the people ultimately responsible for their kids; if they leave the community, the kids are going to leave with them.”
While on the topic of child-adult relationships, it seems important to address, at least briefly, the issue of child abuse — physical, emotional, and sexual. While intentional communities by and large attract and screen for nonviolent members who tend to watch out for each other’s welfare and safety, there is also the fact that — while this may be hard for some to accept — the same kinds of dysfunctional and dangerous behaviors we despise in the wider culture can and sometimes do happen within intentional communities. The power of denial works equally well in community, and members may be reluctant to pursue a suspicion of abuse, fearing that such a disclosure would rock the foundations of the community. It is easy to falsely believe that bad things just don’t happen in community. That said, I want to iterate that the vast majority of communities, particularly those in rural environments, are exceptionally safe and may actually act as buffers between children and the violence within our broader society:
“This is a very safe place to raise children just as it is a very safe place to live…. When I lived in town, I was always having to be aware of where it was okay to walk after dark and where it wasn’t. Or being in a laundromat late at night and having a man come in and feeling myself go all tense, you know. There’s none of that here. On the property, there’s a feeling of total safety and all that tension is gone. It’s gone both for me personally and around my kids. If [my daughter] doesn’t show up ’til half an hour after dinner starts, I’ll figure she’s off on a rock somewhere and forgot her watch. My first thought isn’t, ‘Who has accosted her on the street?’ That’s really nice.”
A wealth of wisdom is available to parents in most communities. Parents or childcare workers can receive helpful advice on everything from diapers to dating. As one mother stated:
“I started having them fairly young and I felt extremely isolated and like I didn’t know what I was doing or how to take care of them. I didn’t have a lot of people I could talk to about it. I really like sharing responsibility and decisions about the children in community.”
As in extended families, those in community also benefit from sharing hand-me-downs and other resources:
“I needed new pants for my child and some Calamine lotion. I put a note up and within 10 minutes, I had six pairs of pants, a bottle of cough syrup, and a brand new bottle of Calamine.”
When communities share childcare and related tasks such as cooking, laundry, shopping, and cleaning, parents (most notably mothers) have greater freedom to pursue activities other than parenting and to be more fully engaged in work and social activities both in and out of the community. Perhaps most significantly, parents can choose to interact with children more often when they want to rather than when they have to, thus reducing burnout and enhancing the overall quality of parent-child relationships.
Similarly, the combined parental experience of multiple caregivers often facilitates more relaxed attitudes toward childhood conflicts. Consequently, overly intense parent/child relationships are often diffused that may otherwise lead to overdependency on one hand or to rebellion or even child abuse on the other. For example, one woman was really fixated on watching her child eat and telling her what to eat. The result was that the child was nervous at meals and hardly ate at all. From watching other adults and children, the mother realized that other people were not doing this to their children and they were eating more sensibly than her own child. Although she still was anxious about what her child ate, she was able to stop hounding her daughter about it and let her eat (or not eat) in peace.
The multitude of theories and practices about just about everything relating to children can occasionally turn parenting in community into a real circus. It is very important for adults in communities that share responsibilities for their children to discuss questions such as, how much authority are parents really willing to give up?; what are considered appropriate and inappropriate behaviors for children?; who disciplines children when they get out of line?; how does an adult handle a grievance with another person’s child?; how much responsibility are community members really willing to share?
Integration Into Community
While few intentional communities have the resources to be able to offer formal schooling to their children, diverse informal learning experiences for children are ubiquitous. Children in community see adults building houses, building relationships, and building political structures. Children in community also see adult arguments, “process,” and real tears. An acculturated parental “front” of omniscience and strength is difficult to maintain in such situations. Parents and other adults consequently become more human in the eyes of children. As one community member noted:
“Kids on the farm got to hear so many heavy life and death sort outs between adults, so many real-life situations, that it made them really good at understanding human nature and how to deal with it.”
Practically, the range of experiences available to children through casual participation in adult activities is astounding. Examples from a questionnaire about materials or areas used in the education of children included the following: woodworking shops, weaving studios, bike shops, indoor grolabs, organic gardens, dairy cattle, barns, house construction, kitchens, woods, streams, miles of trails for walking, and rocks for climbing.
Other respondents mentioned adult members, and also visitors, as invaluable resources for the education of children. Examples of adult activities available to children include gardening, seasonal ceremonies and rituals, recycling, spiritual practices and meditation, sweats, political activities such as rallies, tree planting, craft activities, cooking, and multitudes of formal and informal meetings and gatherings.
Furthermore, as most contemporary communities are concerned with developing a certain degree of self-sufficiency, other practical skills such as composting, food storage, incorporating solar energy into building designs, and other skills are commonly available learning experiences for these children. They have many opportunities to be included in community work projects and learn by doing.
So, with all of this social interaction, are children in community more socially and verbally mature than children living in mainstream society? I believe so. There are stories in almost every community about two and three year olds surprising adults with their social finesse and their accurate mirroring of adult behaviors.
“They, all of them, are very verbal. Boy, can they talk! They can think in the social sense. They have picked up social mores that just tickle me. I heard one of them the other day say, ‘Oh you’re not supposed to do that,’ and an adult asked, ‘Well, what should we do about it if he keeps doing that?’ [He] thought about it and said, ‘Well … well, we should put up a note!’ That’s exactly what we do. We put up a note. Anyway, by and large the children are encouraged to develop their intelligence in a verbal way to a much greater degree than a child in [our surrounding] county would.”
Despite the many and varied benefits of integrating children into the daily life of their community, few communities take full advantage of their situation. For many community members, the benefits of including children are simply not obvious or considered to be worth the trouble. Children get in the way, they slow things down, they’re noisy, and they might get hurt. It takes patience, understanding, and commitment to involve children in adult-oriented activities and not all adults are interested in putting forth the required effort. One mother lamented:
“I guess the idea of children participating in the social and work activities of the community is just not as acceptable here as it could be. There are so many people who feel like they don’t want to be around children. Or they want to be around them as long as they’re being cute…. I think it’s pretty normal in our society. We’re not used to living with children any way except in families. As a society, we don’t integrate children. Most of the work areas — even most living areas — aren’t even safe for children. It’s just not a child-friendly society out there — or here.”
Without adequate social and physical support, families are likely to become dissatisfied and leave. This is especially true among communities that have a high turnover rate and/or few children. Adults who are uninterested in having children in their community, or communities struggling to survive, may well ask, “Why put all this effort into children when they end up leaving anyway?” Such “cost-benefit” analyses often lead to difficult decisions:
“Close friends of mine have come here and gotten pregnant and had to leave because they hadn’t been here long enough. The community [didn’t] want to support them because they [didn’t] know if they [were] planning to stay or, … if they know them well enough, … to give that much support to them.”
So, support of children and families within communities is not a simple matter. And yet, in many ways, the difference between a community that does not adequately support its children and one that does can be simply a matter of attitude. Much of what children seem to desire most from others in their community is a sense of being included, a sense of being acknowledged, a sense that their community is their home. It is perhaps at this basic level of acceptance that real change can happen.
Communities should, of course, realistically assess what resources (in terms of person power, money, training, and patience) they are willing to commit to children. But some of the most profound ways that they can support their children and families actually require little more than a conscious commitment and some creativity. Mutually discussed and agreed upon guidelines for children’s and adults’ behaviors, and a process to work with grievances and suspicions of abuse, can provide immense support to parents and increase the general awareness of children within communities. Another way to support children that requires few physical resources is to create rituals and celebrations that acknowledge and honor significant transitions within the community. A child is born, a toddler enters school, an adolescent becomes an active member, a teenager goes off to college—these are all events that have lasting meaning within a community. To honor them as such provides children and adults a sense of shared meaning and connection. And really, isn’t that what community is all about?
Resources — Books
- Faber, Adele, Elaine Mazlish, and Kimberly Ann Coe (Illustrator). How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. New York: Avon Books, 1991.
- Lamb, Michael E. (Editor). Nontraditional and Traditionally Understudied Families: Parenting and Child Development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1998.
- Mintz, Jerry (Editor). National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools: The Almanac of Education Choices. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
- Author Biography
Daniel Greenberg collected material for his Ph.D. dissertation on children and education in communities by visiting and corresponding with over 200 intentional communities in the United States. He later spent a year working with children and families at the Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland. Daniel currently lives at Sirius Ecovillage and directs college-level programs on sustainable community in the United States and abroad.