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DOES IT TAKE A VILLAGE?

Does it take a family? Does it take a village? The answer is a no-brainer: it takes BOTH to raise a child.

Parenting was always a community — or tribal — effort. Important as the family is, no society has ever relied entirely on the biological parents alone to provide everything that children need for a quarter of a century, without some form of backup help. Too many things can happen, parents can become ill or die. The extended family or community has always had to care for orphans.

Parenting is a community effort among certain mammals. In Africa last year I saw how carefully a herd of female elephants cares for the young. Whenever a car approached the adult females circled the baby elephants to protect them. No baby elephant was left to the care of its own mother; the entire herd acted together. Sadly, it occurred to me that baby elephants are treated better than many of America’s neglected children. (Incidentally, baby elephants use their mouths to nurse as the trunk is useless until the baby learns how to use it by watching the grown-ups.)

I am convinced that never in history has it been so difficult to be a parent.

There have been profound changes in the FAMILY where parenting takes place. We are all familiar with the words: divorce, single parenting, step-parenting, gay parenting, grand-parenting because there is no one else to parent. But we have to remind ourselves what impact these words have on family life and especially on children.

Just since the 60s there have been profound demographic changes impacting on the family. MATERNAL EMPLOYMENT is likely to be the biggest societal change any of us will witness. The stats? 23 million mothers employed outside the home, 56% of mothers with children under 6 in the workforce, and the most revealing statistic, over 50% of mothers are back in the workplace within 12 months of giving birth. A decade ago? only 31%.

In one short generation, our BELIEFS have changed. We used to think that a family consisted of Mommy, Daddy and the children, that Daddy provided the last name of the children as well as the dollars needed to run the household. We used to believe that Mommy stayed at home to raise the kids and run the house and that marriage is forever. And we used to think the world was a safe place to raise our kids. NOT!

The world in which we live and raise our children is a very COMPLEX world with much technology to master and many more CHOICES for us and our children. It’s a CROWDED world with not only less room at the top but also less room in the ranks and at the entry levels. And we could run out of clean water and air. It’s a COMPETITIVE world; we compete for jobs and resources. It’s a CONFUSING world, fast-paced and noisy and jarring to the senses. It’s a rapidly CHANGING world; things change so quickly we don’t have time to catch our breath, let alone figure out how we should parent in the context of these changes — or what we should tell our kids. An example? AIDS wasn’t even in our vocabulary a decade ago.

And to add to the problem, most of us live far from our family of origin and our extended family. We are very mobile — 36 million of us move every year. And even if we stay put, families are isolated from each other. They don’t build houses with front porches anymore and nobody has time to sit.

Support and resources for parents today are sorely lacking. We are so far behind other industrialized nations in terms of child care and family leave policies that it’s embarrassing.

Children are not valued or protected as they once were. School millage elections are often defeated, not all schools provide quality education, not all kids can afford to go to college in the richest nation on earth.

It’s not too difficult to figure out what has to be done to ensure that our nation’s children are cared for as well as are baby elephants.

When my daughter was born, the county sent a public health nurse to our home to ensure she was properly cared for. Maybe as a pediatrician I didn’t need the government’s help but thousands of new mothers do, especially in light of early discharge after delivery. We need to re-start this practice.

It goes without saying that we need longer and more widely available family leave for new babies, adoptions, family illness etc. It goes without saying that we need quality child care available to all families who need it.

School should be reconfigured so that quality preschool starting no later than age 3 is available in every community. School should be year-round, with interspersed short vacations, because we no longer need children to help with the harvest and our kids have lots to learn in order that they and our country can be competitive in the world.

If I were in charge of US education I would serve EVERY school child in America BOTH BREAKFAST AND LUNCH (remember those 23 million busy moms!). I would arrange for volunteers to provide mini-concerts and poetry readings and biographical tales while the children were eating. I might bill affluent parents, but no child would be made to feel poor.

We need to change some of our attitudes. Right now most of us feel that it is wrong to interfere when we see bad parenting because we revere individuality and respect the rights of the family. But we have to find ways to help each other. Helping neighbors used to be the American way. We need to invent the equivalent of a barn-raising when a neighboring family is in trouble.

I know what is needed costs money — I’m not stupid. But I also know that any family that thinks it can do it alone is delusional. Anyone who thinks we can take care of America’s kids without spending money is delusional. Anyone who thinks children don’t matter is selfishly throwing away the future. And no civilization can afford to ignore the future.

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