Every day, Michael Carley sees the evidence that it takes more than a family to raise a child.
A few years ago, when our son was maybe three years old, we standing around at a shopping center when walking toward us came a man with one leg. His other leg was cut off around the knee and he was using crutches.
My son, ever watchful, but with all the tact of his age, said “Look daddy, he has only one leg”, or something to that effect.
Embarrassed of course, I started to say something to my child, but before the words could form in my brain, the one-legged man stepped in. “I stepped off a curb too fast and a car ran over my leg” he told my son. “Learn from me and be careful.”
The shocked look on the child’s face was enough to tell me that the impact had been made, far better than the “look both ways” warnings my wife and I were always giving him.
I was reminded of this not too long later when my son and I were raking leaves in the front yard. We were chatting with a neighbor as we worked and as my son was putting a pile of leaves into the green waste can, our neighbor got my attention. “Careful, there’s a black widow there.”
Sure enough, there was a black widow spider right next to where my son’s hand was on the can. That spider quickly became goo, the victim of parental protectiveness.
The topic came to mind again recently with another neighbor. Our kids had been playing outside for a while and my wife and I had let ourselves become distracted. As darkness approached and the other kids had gone inside, our son had decided it was time for an adventure. The neighbor rang the doorbell and warned us that our son was on his way down the street on his scooter and had ignored his instructions to go back inside.
Needless to say, we quickly intervened and informed our son in no uncertain terms that the neighbor’s word was the law, just like ours.
Almost twenty years ago now, Hilary Clinton, then first lady, more recently Secretary of State, wrote a book called It Takes a Village which outlined the many influences on children, from neighborhoods to teachers.
The outrage from the right was quick and forceful. No, they chided, it doesn’t take a village, it takes a mother and father, to raise a child.
I have to assume this was just partisan nonsense. It’s unlikely that many of these critics had read the book itself and it’s hard to believe that they’d really argue with the idea that there are forces beyond parents, both positive and negative, that affect our children and that we ought to use those forces for the better.
There are times when I’d love to be the only influence on my son. I fear as much as any the negative ones in the world, from social media, to the crass, materialistic, and superficial culture in which we are raising him. But, try as I might, those influences will exist and he’s probably better for it.
So, thank you one-legged man, who provided a lesson that may well have kept my son alive. Thank you also kind neighbors for looking out for his safety, because his parents cannot be everywhere.
Thank you grandparents, aunts and uncles for providing backup when we have emergencies and for additional love when his parents are exhausted.
Thank you adult friends who provide role models for how life should be lived so that he knows that his parents’ way isn’t the only one (scary though that might be to us).
Thank you teachers and other professionals who provide lessons, educational and otherwise that his parents couldn’t possibly provide.
Thank you child friends who are, more often than not so far, positive support and even positive peer pressure. Without the social skills he develops spending time with you, he’d not survive to the adult world.
Thank you taxpayers who provide things like schools, police and fire protection, parks and recreational opportunities that make the community a better place to live.
Thank you farmers who provide food for his growing body. Thank you spiritual leaders who provide guidance. Thank you health care providers who keep him alive and kicking.
Thank you natural world for providing a source of endless wonder. May he ever keep it.
And may we continue to value, expand, and improve our village.
— An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Porterville Recorder on December 24th, 2014.
Photo: Andy Pedraza/Flickr