Building Your Village - The Importance of Community
by Janine Fernandes-Hayden
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Original Article: Click Here
Originally Published: September 2011
When my husband and I first got married, we had a big decision to make. My husband’s work was here on Salt Spring Island and mine was in Victoria. We needed to decide on which side of the ferry route we would be living and who would end up doing the commute to work.
Having never lived in a small community before, I asked my friend Tessa, who had been raised on Galiano Island, what it had been like to grow up in a small island community. She likened her childhood to that of a big fish in a small pond—an experience that helped her develop self-esteem and enabled her to subsequently chart out confidently into larger waters. This was all I needed to hear to decide that Salt Spring Island would be a wonderful place for me to raise young children.
There is so much research that attests to the importance of community to a child’s development. My friend Tessa’s account resonates with the work of Abraham Maslow. In the world of educational psychology, Maslow developed what is known as the hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy of needs is like a pyramid with a number of levels. As the name suggests, this hierarchy or pyramid defines different types of human need. As a foundation, people need the basics of food, shelter and a sense of safety. Once these basic needs have been met, they can then move up to the second level of need and so on up the pyramid until they reach the top. Maslow called the tip of the pyramid “self-actualization,” or in other words, realizing one’s full potential.
After a person’s most basic needs of food, shelter and safety have been met, the next level up on the pyramid, as a person works their way towards being self-actualized, is a sense of belonging. In other words, the ability for us to establish a healthy sense of self-esteem and realize our full potential first requires us to feel like we belong. Belonging equals community. If we want our children to be all that they can be, we need to be mindful of their need to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Some interesting research that supports Maslow’s theory is the work of the U.S.-based Search Institute on what they describe as developmental assets. Developmental assets are those factors that help children grow up to be healthy, caring and responsible. Developmental assets help them to thrive and make it so that they are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviours. The Search Institute has done studies on more than 2.2 million young people and identified 40 assets or building blocks of healthy development. What is interesting is that 10 out of the 40 developmental assets deal directly with a child’s interaction with their community. Here are some examples of these assets as they relate to kids and community:
• Children experience consistent, caring relationships with adults outside the family.
• The child’s network of relationships includes neighbours who provide emotional support and a sense of belonging.
• Children are welcomed and included throughout community life.
This research substantiates the fact that kids need community in order to thrive.
What is a Village?
We’ve all heard the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It has almost become a cliché and is commonly preached in political and educational contexts. The words are captivating and charismatic, but what do they really mean and what are their implications?
My maternal great grandmother lived with her daughter in a village called Cortalim in Goa, one of the smallest states of India. My great grandmother’s youngest sister lived 100 yards away with her bachelor son, her married daughter and her daughter’s children. My great grandmother’s eldest sister lived alone about 200 yards away. The widow of my great grandmother’s only brother lived at the other end of the village. In 1946, my grandmother, along with three of her children, moved back to Goa from Nairobi, into the home with my great grandmother and great aunt.
Clearly, there was no shortage of family support in this village, much like many other villages of the time. The doors of the houses both front and back, were open from morning to evening—relatives and neighbours roamed freely in and out. Families gathered together in prayer, in celebration, in sorrow. Relatives and neighbours all fussed over the children of the village and even played a disciplinary role in their lives.
Shared memories, shared experiences, shared celebrations, shared support—this is what it means to live in a village—and it is this type of village which, when it takes shared responsibility for raising its children, helps those children to build meaning and a sense of who they are and who they can become. A village is not just a group of people who live in the same town. It is not simply neighbours who live on the same street. It is an engaged community that is emotionally, socially and mindfully connected.
Building Your Village
You can create community anywhere—you don’t have to live on a small island. In many ways, community building seems easier in a place like Salt Spring Island as compared to a larger city. People know one another and it is easier to look out for each other. Having said this, when you look at our community, there are also some challenges to building a sense of belonging. There are very few neighbourhoods on the island and people are often separated by acres of land. There is no local government and no common community direction. Our population varies with the season. There are opportunities and challenges to community building no matter where you live, but it is possible anywhere. As you build your village, take the time to reflect upon these questions:
• What does our family’s village look like?
• Do my children experience consistent, caring relationships with adults outside of the family?
• Do I have neighbours or friends who provide my children with emotional support and a sense of belonging?
• What do I need to do in order to establish connections for my children outside of the family?
• As a parent, do I allow others to be of help to me?
• As a parent, do I offer my support to other families and children?
• What type of role model am I for the children in my village?
There are many ways to build your village:
• Find out who your neighbours are. If possible, create a community map that you can put up on your fridge for easy reference.
• If you don’t live in a neighbourhood, create a community with people that you know. Engage adults, young people, families and seniors from all walks of life.
• Organize “kid-centered family events”—picnics, potlucks, parades, pumpkin carving parties, scavenger hunts, sports events like soccer games or Olympic events—these are not adult-only events where a babysitter takes care of the kids, or events where kids get dropped off and parents rush off to do errands, they are events where kids and adults interact together. If you don’t live on a street where this is possible, find a public space that is suitable.
• Get to know people you meet frequently—in the grocery store, at church, at the playground, on the street. If you see the same cashier every week at the grocery store, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be using his/her name and saying hello. Include your kids in these interactions—don’t have them sit in the background. And if you are that cashier or store owner, get down to that child’s eye level and introduce yourself.
• Be aware of your neighbours’ challenges and successes—celebrate them or support them—work with your kids to make get well cards, pictures, and as my son would say “helpful soup and helpful muffins.”
The word “community” is derived from the Old French communité, which in turn is derived from the Latin communitas: cum meaning “with/together” and munus meaning “gift.” In your village, how do you share your gifts with the kids around you and how do you help them to uncover the gifts that they have to offer?
Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator and Salt Spring Island mum of three children, aged 18 months, 4 and 5 (with a fourth on the way!). She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” at CFSI 107.9FM or online at web link.
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Island Parent Magazine
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