Wednesday, June 23, 2021

It Takes A Child To Raise A Village

When our daughter Josephine was young, not even two-years-old, she began to pester me, her stay-at-home parent, to "Go somewhere!" I took that to mean that she was ready for preschool, but one after another my wife, mother, and mother-in-law kiboshed the idea with the argument that Josephine was one of the lucky ones, "She has a stay-at-home parent." Why in the world, they asked, would I want to turn her care over to a "stranger."

I knew nothing about preschool at the time. I didn't attend one as a boy and even my "kindergarten" was a loosy-goosy optional few hours a week where we mostly just built with blocks, colored, and chased one another around the playground. Mom barely had time to shop at the Piggly Wiggly before having to pick me up again. And that's the only thing I knew for sure about preschool: you dropped your child off for a period of time, then picked them up.

It was while trying to accommodate Josephine's natural born urge to get out there and interact with other people, that I met a mother who, along with her son, was enrolled in a cooperative school, the attractive feature being that parents attended along with their children. That concept was approved by my triumvirate of important women, and so I found myself in a world of families, a community centered around caring for our children together. It was this experience that led me to pursue a career, a calling really, as an early childhood teacher and since cooperatives were the only model I knew, that's where I ended up. I genuinely don't really understand how people do it without the community.

"It takes a village to raise a child," is a well-known African proverb, one that I've lived for my entire professional life. At any given moment, my classroom has always been populated by children, mothers, fathers, nannies and other caregivers, grandparents, younger and older siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends, all together building with blocks, coloring, and chasing one another around.

Education activist, President and Co-founder of the Rybakov Foundation, and presenter at Teacher Tom's Play Summit Ekaterina Rybakova is working to transform Russian schools in ways that make my heart sing. She is working to make schools "more open." Says Ekaterina, "Most of us who are not involved in the education system are highly critical of school. We criticize very easily, we raise grievances very easily, but we support school very little." Schools, in turn, "feel constant pressure, constant reproaches, and accusations" which causes them to become defensive and "fenced off" from the rest of society. This, says Ekaterina means that schools are "not connected to society" in a meaningful way.

We see this phenomenon here in the US as well, with teachers, administrators, and school boards too often feeling they must circle the wagons against the onslaught from the rest of the world.

From where Ekaterina sits, and I'm right there with her, the main focus for schools should be providing the opportunity for our children explore what it means to "enter into human relations" with the world beyond their own family. She talks of schools as communities that include not only children, teachers, and parents, but alumni, local businesses, entrepreneurs, and other community members. In other words, a real community, a real village, rather than the artificial ones too often found in school in which we've grouped our children, as Sir Ken Robinson used to say, "according to their manufacture date."

"I think the main problem is that most of us who are not professionally engaged in education consider it not their business. They believe that it should be provided by the government; it should be provided by teachers. But no matter how hard they try and how many resources they allocate, it will always be insufficient . . . Education should become our common goal, and every adult should consider themself as a teacher."

I'm reminded of author, psychology professor, and world leader in cognitive science, Alison Gopnik's assertion that "caring for children has never, in all of human history, just been the role of biological mothers and fathers. From the very beginning it's been a central project for any community of human beings. This is still true. Education . . . is simply caring for children broadly conceived." Our modern world has wandered away from that central project. My triumvirate of women were not wrong in their objection to the prospect of dropping Josephine off at a preschool because more often than not these schools are walled off places that have little to do with life itself. Indeed, as we've seen during the pandemic, much of society regards our preschools and childcares simply as places to warehouse the kids so their parents can get back to work, leaving them to professional caretakers like myself, who do our best, but we alone will always be, as Ekaterina says, "insufficient."

It's been more than 20 years since Josephine and I first set foot in our cooperative preschool. Prior to that it had been 20 years since I'd had young children in my life in any sort of meaningful way. As I began to once more have children in my life, I felt all those empty parts of me filling up again. Yes, we adults have much to offer children, but what we forget in our modern world is how much children have to offer us. Young children possess genius we have lost, curiosity that is not jaded, and a perspective that hasn't been skewed by "the way things have always been done." Yes, we adults help make them better people, but they do the same for us. I have no doubt that most of our world's problems could be solved simply by moving children back to the center of our lives where they belong.

It's undeniably true that it takes a village to raise a child, but it's equally true that it takes a child to raise a village. When we finally understand this, we will be ready to build a truly healthy society.


To watch my entire interview with Ekaterina, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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