Monday, February 10, 2020

Children And Grandparents Belong At The Center Of Every Community



These grandparents had apparently not received a proper preparation for visiting our cooperative classroom. They stood timidly against the wall as if trying to simultaneously blend in and stay out of the way. This was an odd thing in our classroom, adults standing aloof from the action, rather than dropping to their knees and getting busy. I gave them time to get a feel for the place, the way I would children who prefer to enter new situations as observers, then finally sidled over to introduce myself. They were enthusiastic in their praise of what they had seen so far, echoing compliments I've heard from grandparents for decades:

"This is how we played when I was a kid!"

"I remember those dolls from when (insert adult child's name) was little."

"This looks so fun!"

"Look how happy they are!"

"I've heard a lot about you from both my daughter and granddaughter." 

I'm always excited when grandparents visit. Sometimes I've been forewarned: "I just want you to know that my mom is very judgmental," or "My dad might try to convince you that you need to be teaching them how to read," but I take those cautions with a large grain of salt. I have never experienced a visiting grandparent who didn't fall in love with our cooperative school. Indeed, most grandparents, after their brief observation, behave as if they've always been here.

And indeed, from an historical perspective they have. For most of human history, grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, were integral to raising the young. Of course, the birth mother took on a share of the child care responsibilities at first, nursing and what not, but she was a prime of life woman with other important things to do along the hunting and gathering lines, so the lion's share of child raising was taken up by other members of the community: aunts, cousins, friends, older children, and in particular, grandmothers. During my recent visit to New Zealand, a Maori early childhood professional told me that not only was she raised primarily by her grandmother, she was looking forward to raising her own grandchild. She said it was one of the few old Maori traditions that has survived colonialism.

The evolution of grandparents is almost unique to humans, with elephants and whales being the only other species of which I'm aware that the females regularly enjoy a significant post-menopausal period of life. Compared to other animals, the time during which human young need adult care and attention stretches out for an extraordinarily long time, years in fact. The modern idea that this responsibility should be undertaken by birth parents alone, with most of the burden falling on the mother, is, frankly, a crazy one. It takes a village to raise a child, and grandparents (mostly grandmothers in all honesty) have stood at the center of those villages because caring for children is one of the central projects of every society that has ever existed whether we admit it or not.

I today's world, sadly, most American children are being raised thousands of miles away from their grandparents, which has given rise to the child care industry. Parents who want or need to earn incomes are left with little choice but to send their children off to these surrogate villages populated by low paid, low status, even if well-intended and highly-qualified, professional child minders. As one of these child minders myself, I freely confess to being a poor replacement for grandparents. For most, the only alternative is for at least one of these prime of life parents (usually the mother) to drop out of the work force for a time, which means both a sacrifice of income as well as the interruption, if not complete de-railment, of a meaningful and rewarding career. Meanwhile, our grandmas are counting the days until they get to see their precious grandchildren. Few of us are satisfied with this situation.

I chatted with those timid grandparents for several minutes, sharing some of the "it takes a village" theory behind the cooperative model, boasting about our robust parent community, and soaking up their excitement for what was going on around their knees. Then the grandfather shyly asked, "May I play with the children?" The question broke my heart. Of course he could play with the children, but that he had to ask, that he didn't already know that it was in fact his responsibility to be playing with them, struck me as a sad, sad thing. It was a struggle for him to descend to the floor, but he knelt, then sat, joking, "Now that I'm down here, I'll be here for awhile!" then happily set about joining the children who were building with blocks.

This is how childhood should look, everywhere, everyday. Just as we've ghettoized the early years, we've done pretty much the same with our senior citizens, with far too many of them housed together in homes, cared for by low paid, low status, even if well-intended and highly-qualified professionals.

We live in a time of disconnection, where the machines are taking over, where families are increasingly isolated not only from each other, but within families as well, with all of us living our separate lives, in the surrogate villages of work and school that are poor replacements for the kinds of interconnected, interdependent villages from which we've evolved. Nasty "mommy wars" have sprung up pitting stay-at-home moms against working moms. We have a broken child care model that is too expensive, while paying starvation wages. Too many children are growing up in artificial "villages" of children, where they rarely interact with adults other than their teachers and parents. And our grandparents are living apart from the wider community, the gifts they have being wasted as they count the days until they get to see their grandchildren.

Children and grandparents belong in the center of every community. It's encouraging to read about preschools being placed in nursing homes. The cooperative model is thriving in some places as a more natural village, but they are few and far between. There are groups of homeschoolers and unschoolers coming together to create community centers, but not everyone can make that work. There are solutions, but so far it's been ad hoc, piecemeal, and insufficient. Last week, I sketched out one idea for how we could perhaps go about addressing this situation on a wider scale, one that might make this sort of village more accessible, but there's a great distance between here and there. Perhaps we'll never get there, but we definitely won't if we don't take the first step. Or maybe "the journey" is a poor metaphor. A better one might be that of getting down on the floor, kneeling, sitting, and happily joining the people we find there to build something new, together. That way, even if we don't quite finish it ourselves, we'll have left something behind for others to continue building.


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