When you think of kids and intentional community, do you envision a flock of happy children frolicking in a meadow? Although this picture may be accurate in some ways, according to experienced community residents, it can be misleading and idealistic.
We’ve noticed three aspects of the children-in-community issue. First, one of the reasons people join or form communities (now, as well as in the ’60s and ’70s) is for a safe and wholesome environment for families and their children. Second, many say that unless a community provides good facilities for children, it won’t attract as many new members. And third, perhaps no issue may be more personal, sensitive, or potentially explosive for community members than the issue of children and their place in the community.
Happy, Confident Children
In 1989-90 Daniel Greenberg surveyed 219 intentional communities and visited 25 communities around the United States for his doctoral dissertation in Child Psychology.1 He found a number of striking differences in children’s lives from their noncommunity counterparts. Most communities Daniel visited had an extended-family-like atmosphere, where people had ample opportunity to form close, nurturing relationships with members of all ages. He found community children had many more adult role models than simply their parents, relatives, and teachers, and tended to develop friendships with many nonrelated adults.
In addition, he found that the world of grown-ups was largely demystified for children because they had an excellent sense of what adults do. Daniel observed constant informal learning experiences — regarding, for example, leadership, negotiation, the use and abuse of power, conflict resolution, consensus building or voting, financial planning, budgeting, meditation, ceremonies and rituals, cooking, food storage, recycling, organic gardening, composting, building construction, solar energy devices, and auto repair! 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 noncommunity counterparts. It’s not uncommon for a community visitor to be startled by the articulate welcome and precocious comments of a four or five year old.
Community children do not usually play just with kids their own age, unlike public schools where they are segregated into same-age groups, or regular neighborhoods where there is strong peer pressure not to associate with younger kids. Community children, by contrast, hang out with all the other kids, regardless of age differences. Jan Gudmand-H¿yer, the architect who originated cohousing in Denmark, says kids of all ages in his community play together and show love and respect for each other, including those as young as a year and a half — “Like one big family,” he says. These multi-age friendships also seem to help make community children confident, outgoing, and socially comfortable.
In larger intentional communities, Daniel found that shared child care tended to free up parents for other activities, giving more adults more free time. But in small intentional communities, child care took up an inordinate amount of time relative to the number of adults available. He also found that children were generally physically safer in communities than if they lived elsewhere.
Lonely, Grieving, or Confused Children.
But Daniel also found disadvantages. For example, in small, rural communities there might be fewer children to play with than in a regular neighborhood, and those community children would be lonely. And if there is high turnover in a community, the children left behind can grieve for years over the loss of friends, who felt like brothers and sisters (and mothers and fathers). Grieving for lost friends was also mentioned by several members of the”Adult Children Raised in Community” panel at the August ’93 Celebration of Community conference.2 Other research has found that in communities where children didn’t have strong bonds withone or more adults, a high member turnover rate seemed to cause the children to exhibit apathy or hostility. However, in communities in which children did have nurturing and secure attachments with a few adults, a high turnover seemed to affect children positively.
Sharing child care among community adults, either occasionally or consistently, can create, among the care-givers, expectations of sharing important decisions about the children’s care andbehavioral norms — tough for parents who are unwilling to give up sole authority over their kids. Also, any inconsistency among the adults about behavioral expectations and discipline for children can be confusing for them — and frustrating for the adults, too! Daniel points out that these issues are more likely to arise in the early stages of forming community, when child care may get less attention than shorter-term projects such as building houses and starting gardens.
Community Education: Opportunity, Expense
Daniel found that of the 170 communities he surveyed that had children, 46 percent had some sort of schooling, including elementary-grade classes or homeschooling, and 17 percent (in larger communities, usually with over 50 kids) actually had formal schools. Because of the costly resources needed — classroom space, trained teachers (and legal barriers in some states) — creating community schools can be very difficult, especially for small communities. The commitment to extensive child care and/or formal schooling takes one or more adults away from the rest of the work force, and educational materials — from books to science kits to computers — can be prohibitively expensive!
However, there are many wonderful advantages to community schools. Children can be protected from undesirable aspects of mainstream culture, such as aggressive consumerism, media hype, or racial and cultural prejudice, as well as the social cliques, crowded classrooms, discipline problems, deadening pedagogy, or outright violence often present in public schools. Community schools can opt for creative curricula and innovative, experimental learning methods. The parents and the whole community are usually deeply involved in their school, and the children’s relationships with their teachers are usually based on years of mutual understanding and friendship.
There are also advantages to homeschooling in a community setting. “We make our schooling very brief,” a seven-year-old boy explains on the “Follow the Dirt Road” video.3 He adds that lessons are no longer than two hours at most, but, “We figure I learn a lot just helping out with people. And people make a point of explaining everything I want to know, in detail. And it doesn’t feel like schooling to me, but I am learning pretty much all I want to know.”
“Strangers in a Strange Land”
However, sending intentional community kids to public schools can also be a problem. Community children may be considered odd, or even feared, especially after one of the occasional, well-publicized reports accusing a community of cultlike behavior. Or the children may face genuine cultural and value differences with their classmates, which can be emotionally painful. One community child was considered strange by her classmates because she wanted to hug everyone. Another was avoided because she recycled her lunchsack!
Of course the confidence and social skills of community children can be very positive in public schools — although sometimes disconcerting. One child from a rural Colorado community, whom we met as a young man, had raised a stir in his grade school for easily and confidently approaching his teachers and principal as peers. “Hi there, Ralph. How’s it going?”
Questions Seekers Might Ask
Here are some of the issues community veterans suggest we ask about before joining or forming communities.
Are children welcome in the community? Are there safe places for them to play?
Jan Gudmand-H¿yer from Denmark told the October ’93 Rocky Mountain Cohousing Association conference that he originated cohousing primarily to create safe, friendly places for raising children. In Danish cities, most children have limited outdoor play areas and are forbidden to cross busy streets. But Jan and his friends wanted their children to grow up in the kind of carefree safety not usually possible in a city, with options and choices about where to play. So, beginning with the first cohousing community, Jan designed large kitchen windows facing out onto children’s play areas so parents could easily keep an eye on their children. He and other parents calculated the farthest acceptable distance they wanted their toddlers to wander from their front doors, doubled that distance, and placed the front doors of each unit that distance apart. Thus in the cohousing communities, buildings were literally designed around the needs of parents and children.
Does the community have organized child care?
Many older intentional communities, from spiritual retreat centers to secular communes and cooperatives, also provide child care. The Danish cohousing communities have a children’s room in the Common House, where teenagers and adults often take care of younger kids. At the Winslow cohousing community on Bainbridge Island, Washington, the first thing parents did was organize an after-school child care co-op in the children’s room of the Common House. Each adult in the community (if possible) takes care of the kids one afternoon a month. Whenever parents can’t get home from work on time they can call a neighbor or friend in the community to look after their children. That’s one of the best things about living there, says cofounder Chris Hanson.
Are children welcome in some or all community activities? Are community adults so busy with a service or activist agenda, spiritual practice, or survival-level issues, that the children are inadvertently neglected?
Several years ago two of our friends and their children joined a large, successful, spiritual community in California. The parents wanted to live and work in a setting that would encourage and enhance their spiritual practice through group meditations, frequent teachings, and the atmosphere of the group’s common spiritual heritage. They found, however, that time for family life at home was not valued or scheduled into the tight work schedule, and children were rarely included in the community activities. Children were considered a logistical problem to be handled with child care, and were not really members of the community. Our friends left after a few years, not willing to choose between their spiritual lives and the well-being of their children. (The community has subsequently become more family friendly.)
At the Celebration of Community conference, Kat Kinkade, cofounder of Twin Oaks, described what she termed a big mistake in child rearing during their early days. Influenced by Behaviorist developmental theories, Twin Oaks members believed their children would be better off away from their parents; so they created a separate children’s building and designated full-time child-care workers. But the turnover in members (and thus child-care workers) was high, the children didn’t have consistent norms and role models, and the parents and children missed each other terribly.4
In the “Adult Children Raised in Community” panel at the Celebration, a young mother described her experience growing up in a Christian international service community. She described how she and the other children experienced emotional abuse because of the community’s beliefs and rules. She said the parents forced the community’s values on their children. One white family sent their son to an inner-city school so he’d appreciate African Americans and get a multicultural education. Instead, he was beat up frequently, and felt abandoned and abused by the community norms, and especially by his parents.
Another woman, raised in a Quaker activist community, felt the adults were “so busy saving the world” that they hardly had any time for the kids. Each participant on the panel related that community parents generally seemed to think that just because their children were in community, their lives were fine and their emotional and physical needs were taken care of. Not true! While their parents were busy with activist work or building the houses and homesteading, the panelists said, they had often felt neglected. As children they did have many adult friends, and frolicked in happy flocks with friends of all ages — literally the golden days in fields and meadows. But they had also wished their own parents had taken more time to love and care for them especially.
A member of the audience related that, in her present-day community, the adults had also once believed that just by living in a community their kids were provided for. Although the kids related more to each other than to the parents, all seemed well for a time. Then a child-pack “began preying on the adults in various ways,”she said. Each parent protected his or her children from blame and accused the other children. It took them literally years, she said, to realize that all the children were involved, and it wasn’t a kids’ problem, but a symptom of something fundamentally wrong in the community. The parents came to the painful realization that they had neglected their children. When they all started talking together in the healing process, the kids said they wanted karate lessons. Though initially appalled, “We’re a nonviolent community,” the adults finally agreed. With the opportunity to channel their energies into ritualized karate, the children were delighted.
Do the parents and/or all adults in the community, agree on what are dangerous or undesirable behaviors for children on community premises? Do the parents and/or all adults supervise children at large in the community, or reprimand children when they get out of line? How do adults handle grievances with someone else’s child? Do limits or restrictions vary by children’s age groups, or by individual parents’ norms? If the entire community agrees on certain rules, who determines and administers the consequences if children break the rules?
What if eight-year-old Sarah becomes hyperactive and destructive when she eats sugar, and her parents are oblivious to healthy diet or the effects of sugar on children? In fact, what if they try to placate her with ice cream and candy? What if Sarah, revved up by her latest biochemical stimulation, hurts another child? What if other parents demand that Sarah stop being given sugar? And her parents, outraged and hurt, tell their friends to mind their own business? This kind of conflict, and many others you can imagine, could create serious conflict, heartbreak, and division in a community.
Children at Risk
What are the limits or restrictions for the adults in their behavior around children? What is considered appropriate or inappropriate, and who determines this?
A woman on the “Adult Children” panel said she felt alienated as a child by the denial and falseness she found growing up in her community. The community was proud that it was comprised of peace activists who all took care of each other. But the children knew some of their friends were regularly beaten severely by their (apparently) alcoholic parents. Their own parents knew of these beatings, but did nothing. “They didn’t protect our friends,” the woman said.
Another woman ventured that it wasn’t physically safer for children in communities than on the outside, even if some research findings indicate otherwise. She said the same kinds of dysfunctional and dangerous behaviors parents abhor in the wider culture can go on inside intentional communities. She told, for example, of sexual suggestiveness by an adult when she and a friend reached puberty. “Be very careful who you let into your community. Check them out,” the panelists advised us sternly, “and don’t fall into denial!”
Children and Rites of Passage
Do the adults acknowledge and honor transitions the children go through, such as puberty, or graduations? Are teenagers allowed more freedom or given responsibility regarding community matters?
Jan Gudmand-H¿yer said that, although a teen room was built in the Common House of the first Danish cohousing community 22 years ago, the teenagers who first moved in didn’t know each other, couldn’t agree on how to use the teen room, didn’t use it, and were bored. Years later, when another group of children had grown up to become teenagers, they were all great friends and took over the teen room with relish. Now Jan advises community founders to include their teenagers in the planning phase of any new community.
A woman on the “Adult Children” panel said that at puberty she and the other children were separated from their parents and sent to live at a youth school operated by her international service community, with only seven adults to supervise 150 teenagers. The result was chaos. Once again the youngsters felt abandoned and angry, she said.
Two women on the panel mentioned the sadness they felt when they reached puberty, and instead of being welcomed into maturity by the adults in their communities, the young people felt a subtle and sometimes overt discrimination, such as receiving snide remarks when they stopped swimming nude or began to wear makeup. “Oh, now you’re a teenager, you’ll start becoming obnoxious.” At the community where the formerly aggressive kids demanded karate lessons the adults belatedly realized they had to honor and acknowledge their children’s passages. So they instituted rituals where women welcomed teenage girls to womanhood and the men welcomed teenaged boys to manhood. The teenagers loved it, and were radiant in their new status as young men and women. Favorite Stories
Are there informal learning experiences for children? Homeschooling? Do the adults organize classes for children in various skills or subjects in which one or more adult has knowledge? Ten-year-old Tokeen, of Mettanokit Community in New Hampshire, created a wonderful situation for himself when he entered the fifth grade. This confident and curious child, who had been homeschooled from an early age, wanted to try public school so he could meet other children his age, but wasn’t sure he’d like it. After trying it out for a month, he found that he liked the teacher and other children; was disconcerted by the regimented subjects — math at ten o’clock, reading at eleven; was disappointed that most “learning” was really just reading comprehension and involved short-term memory, rather than the in-depth learning of math and science he got at home; was interested in continuing pottery making; and found the school’s arbitrary rules amusing and ridiculous.
Tokeen concluded he was getting something from public school that he couldn’t get in homeschooling, but there were things he didn’t like about public school either. So this young boy designed his own ideal school-and-home education program. With the help of his parents and community friends, and the cooperation of the local school board, Tokeen negotiated for and got less homework; shorter school days and optional time off; continued home-schooling of math, science, and history; and access three hours a week, with supervision, to the high school’s pottery studio. Best of all he made lots of new friends at school — the reason he started the project in the first place!5
The Gift of Learning
In the 1970s, several parents started a small community in Ojai, California, solely for the purpose of creating a multiparent homeschooling environment for their children. According to one cofounder, besides learning the basics, the children were taught courses in whatever subject was the passion of various adult members. So in addition to reading, writing, math, science, and history, the children learned woodworking, gymnastics, yoga, massage, astronomy, astrology, marble sculpture, gourmet cooking, and how to run a small “restaurant” business. The community kitchen was in fact the focus of an ongoing learning seminar in this community, as the adults taught the kids to cook and serve elegant meals for the whole community, organize and run the kitchen, and master principles of inventory and volume buying. So the adults served the children as teachers and mentors, and the children in turn served the adults — literally, as the kitchen team.
The cofounder said all of the children have remained the closest of friends, and since they have grown up each one of them has sought her out to thank her, saying that their community education was one of the most meaningful and empowering experiences of their lives.
1. Greenberg, Daniel, “Children in Community,” in Directory of Intentional Communities (Langley, WA: Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1990), 328 pp. (out of print). A more detailed overview of Daniel Greenberg’s research. Greenberg, Daniel, “People Start as Children” in One Earth: The Findhorn Foundation & Community Magazine (Summer 1993). An overview of his dissertation research. Send $4.50 to: One Earth, Ltd., The Park, Findhorn, Forres IV36 0TZ, Scotland. (0309) 691641. Greenberg, Daniel, “Children in Community and Their Education,” audiotaped lecture from Celebration of Community conference, August ’93, 120 minutes. Send $9.50 to: FIC Tapes, P.O.Box 814, Langley, WA 98260. (206) 221-3064.
2. “Adult Children Raised in Community,” audiotape panel discussion from Celebration of Community conference, August ’93, 120 minutes. Send $9.50 to: FIC Tapes, P.O. Box 814, Langley, WA 98260. (206) 221-3064.
3. Gauthier, Monique, Follow the Dirt Road: An Introduction to Intentional Community in the 1990’s, VHS videotape, 1992, 53 minutes. Send $28 to author at: FTDR, 207 Evergreen Court, Landenberg, PA 19350. (215) 274-2402.
4. Kinkade, Kat, “Founders Panel: Large Rural Communities,” in Communities 83 (Summer 1994), 62 pp. Send $4.00 to: Communities, Twin Oaks, Rt 4, Box 169, Louisa, VA 23093. (703) 894-5126.
5. Rainwalker, Emmy, “Tokeen’s Story: Our Homeschooler Goes to School,” FEC Systems & Structures Guide. Send $1 to: Community Bookshelf, East Wind Community, Tecumseh, MO 65760. (417) 679-4682.
About the Author
Diana Leafe Christian had a long history in alternative media before assuming editorship of Communities magazine. She was research editor for The Earth Changes Report; writer/editor for the Institute of Noetic Sciences; book review editor for Yoga Journal magazine, and Editor/publisher of Growing Community newsletter (now a part of Communities magazine). For four years she hosted and produced a radio interview show on community-related topics. Diana helped organize two cooperative households in Honolulu in the 1970s and has a passion for communities, permaculture, CSA farms, and low-cost, nontoxic, “natural” home building. She currently lives in Ft. Collins, Colorado and hopes to someday live in a child-oriented agricultural community. This article is reprinted from Growing Community newsletter, number 5, January 1994.