Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Our Neighborhood, Our Small Town, Our Extended Family



When we bemoan the loss of childhood freedom, we tend to calculate the price in terms of today's children spending little time outdoors, under constant adult supervision, and with far too many toys and other gadgets that serve as poor substitutes for other children.

I recently read Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury's nostalgic novel of a childhood summer in small town America during the 1920's. It features children roaming their village, barefoot and free, learning about life first hand by following their curiosity, getting into trouble, making mistakes, and engaging in the kinds of philosophical conversations that you can only have when adults aren't always listening. Although I grew up many decades later, the story sparked memories from my own childhood growing up on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac. It struck me that one of the most "dated" aspects of the novel was how many actual adult friends the young Douglas and Tom had. Sure, they spent much of their time with other children, but they might just as often be hanging out with adults of all ages. 

Our fear of adult "strangers" and the loss of the extended family is really a great tragedy for childhood. As I read Dandelion Wine, I found myself recalling the many adult friends I had as a boy, people my parents might not have even known, or certainly not known as well as I did. As John Holt writes in is book Escape from Childhood:


Children need many more adult friends, people with whom they may have more easy relationships that they can easily move out of or away from whenever they need to or feel like it. Perhaps they found many of those in extended families among various grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and so on. Perhaps they found them living in smaller communities, villages, or towns, or neighborhoods in larger cities. But these communities, in which people have a sense of place and mutual concern, are more rare all the time, disappearing from country as well as city. The extended family has been scattered by the automobile and the airplane. There is no way to bring it together so that children may live close to numbers of older people who will in some degree have an interest in them and care about them . . . What we need is to recreate the extended family.

I was thinking about this last night as our cooperative parent community came together for our fall orientation meeting. The thing that first drew me to cooperative schools when our own daughter was young was that I was going to be in the classroom as an assistant teacher. As I looked around at all of those adults last night, I realized that these people were going to become the extended family for the children of Woodland Park. Children typically form bonds with their teachers, but the cooperative model provides children with dozen of adults who have an interest in them and care about them. It's not uncommon for children in our school to form strong attachments to adults other than their parent, finding in them those sorts of easy relationships that Bradbury remembers and the loss of which Holt bemoans.

This, more than anything else, is what makes our cooperative model special: it’s much more than a school. It is our neighborhood, our small town, and our extended family.

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