To Be a Village

An old African proverb observes that it takes a village to raise a child; but in our fragmented, pressured society the traditional village that would support a growing child or teenager is a rarity. Families have often had to move long distances from relatives, and communities have become so mobile that the support system of extended family and old friends just isn’t what it used to be. 

Recent years have increased the pressures young people face to an extent that past generations could never have imagined. Growing up has always been a time of learning to cope with new and difficult situations, but the 21st century contributes a few novel twists to the theme that other generations have not had to face. Teenagers bear many of the same stresses that adults do, and because of the lack of a traditional village structure they may find themselves coping alone with additional problems that even adults would find challenging. 

Further complicating the issue is the fact that families are breaking up more often than ever. It is no longer unusual for a child to be living with a single parent who must work long hours to support the family. In addition, with increasingly higher levels of education needed to prepare them for the job market, teens have escalating demands from school, and they may have part-time jobs as well. Then there are peer pressures of all kinds. School communities have all the challenges of adult communities—sexual pressures, drug problems, violence, terrorism. Even seemingly minor difficulties loom larger thanks to modern technology. For instance, there has always been a degree of bullying on school grounds, but in modern times the distress caused by bullying follows a child home via the Internet and mobile phones, so that there is no haven from it. 

The list of youth society’s ills is as endless as those of the rest of society—and it is a heavy load for a young person to carry. Schools often make heroic attempts to provide counselling and other help for such teens, but institutions are limited by political and budgetary concerns. As a result, there is always a place for the encouragement and comfort offered by a family friend. 

In fact, according to the Gurian Institute, this is one of the best places where teens can find the adult support they need when their own families aren’t able to provide it alone. Though a positive peer friendship can be helpful even on its own, when the rest of the friend’s family is supportive it provides a more protective haven for a bruised young person to recover from the blows that life has dealt. 

Sometimes a young person will gradually become part of a friend’s family as a natural result of shared interests and a growing affection, but occasionally a family crisis leaves a child suddenly without his or her normal support system of adults. Illness in a family that is fairly isolated can result in a child being taken into care and fostered out, often some distance from home. At such times, an existing peer friendship is even more precious, especially when it comes with a ready-made family. The encouragement and help offered in these cases can make all the difference as to how a young person copes. 

Many teenagers find themselves going home to an empty house because parents’ work hours extend past school hours. The hospitality of a family who are fortunate enough to be home to welcome their children, and are happy to open their doors to other “village children,” frequently bridges the lonely gap between school and the time other parents get home. 

Sometimes a child may need to stay overnight regularly because of the parents’ work situation. Host families can help provide a feeling of stability and belonging by providing them with their own cupboard or drawer to hold the things they will need routinely; for younger children, their own box of toys. If time on the family computer is rationed, they may be glad of their own time slot on the computer. Even having their own toothbrush in the bathroom can go a long way toward making a child’s friend feel connected. 

Children or teenagers who must be dependent on the hospitality of a family other than their own are likely to be emotionally very fragile, because of the nature of the crisis that created the necessity. For this reason, any problems that arise from being suddenly tied so closely to another family need to be handled very gently, with great consideration and kindness. 

The supporting family must also make sure their own needs are being met so they can provide a strong base. The greater the crisis that brings about the situation, the more steady and reliable the supporting family must be. It’s a sharp learning curve and a good lesson in selflessness and patience for all concerned, but many a young person’s darkest hours have been made bearable by caring “villagers” who have opened their home and included them in a second family. As the crisis recedes and everything returns to normal, everyone involved reaps the reward of a special bond of affection that will endure long past the effects of the adversity.