While I was being homeschooled, I encountered a number of phrases that seemed universally derided by the homeschooling parents and teachers around me. One of these phrases was the question, “What about socialization?” But I think the most intensely derided phrase was the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The most famous usage of the proverb is from Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village, which called for, among other things, “comprehensive early education programs for disadvantaged children and their families.”
While Clinton politicized the phrase, the original and lesser known usages of the proverb are focused more on how a village or community provides protective factors in favor of children and against their abuse and neglect. For example, Jane Cowen-Fletcher’s It Takes a Village, a 1994 children’s book, tells the story of a young girl in Benin, West Africa. The girl is entrusted by her mother with her younger brother to babysit. When the girl loses track of her brother, her fellow villagers help out, thereby preventing any harm from happening to the child. The book provides “a heartening portrait of a caring community.” Another book from 1994, Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed novel Things Fall Apart, uses the proverb to highlight “the care of children in the Igbo community” in Nigeria.
Both of these stories reveal that a village or community has a truly important role in protecting children. That role is described by the phrase protective factors. Protective factors are those elements in a child’s world that provide a buffer between the child and potential abuse and neglect. The Western Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities explains that, “Protective factors refer to positive action strategies that build resiliency in youth.” Resiliency in youth is defined by the Child Welfare Information Gateway as “the ability to cope and adapt to change. Being resilient allows children and youth to overcome difficulties in their lives.” In other words, protective factors not only reduce the possibility for abuse and neglect, they also equip a child to cope with abuse and neglect if and when they happen.
Protective factors are the opposite of risk factors, that is, those elements in a child’s world that increase the potential of abuse and neglect (and thereby decrease the development of resiliency in children). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified a number of risk factors for child abuse and neglect. Some of these factors involve individuals, others involve communities, and still others are specific to families. I want to focus on the family risk factors for a moment. The CDC lists the following:
- Social isolation
- Family disorganization, dissolution, and violence, including intimate partner violence
- Parenting stress, poor parent-child relationships, and negative interactions
I want to focus on these specific risk factors because they are often the result of a certain attitude within homeschooling which is unhelpful. This attitude is best expressed by HSLDA Director of Federal Relations Will Estrada in an interview with the Daily Caller: “Children are given by God to parents and to families to be loved, to be raised and to be prepared to go on to become leaders in their community. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It takes parents—loving parents in a home—to raise a child” (emphasis added).
Let me be clear that what is unhelpful about this attitude is not the idea that a parent or caretaker should take seriously their responsibility to care for and raise their children. I am also not objecting to the idea that a caretaker or parent’s involvement is key to the health and well-being of children. The unhelpful attitude here is the juxtaposition between “the village” and “the parents” when it comes to raising a child. These two elements do not have to be in tension. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to realize that both a child’s caretaker(s) and a child’s community are crucial to the child’s health and well-being.
Just as a community cannot replace the role of a caretaker, a caretaker cannot replace the role of a community.
As we saw earlier, the CDC notes that social isolation, family disorganization, and parental stress are risk factors for child abuse and neglect. These are the exact factors that result from when a family isolates itself from a broader community or support system. In contrast, the CDC also notes that “communities that support parents and take responsibility for preventing abuse” are themselves protective factors against abuse and neglect. When homeschooling families or organizations deride the importance of communities, therefore, they are deriding a key protection against abuse and neglect, and a key instrument in helping children deal with potential abuse and neglect in their lives.
Community serves as a protective factor for at least two reasons. First, it creates a support system around families to help them in areas where they are weak or susceptible to abuse and neglect. An engaged and supportive community can help “parents who might otherwise be at risk of abusing their children to find resources, supports, or coping strategies that allow them to parent effectively, even under stress.” It is important to realize that not all caretakers or parents who abuse or neglect their children are intentionally doing so, let alone intentionally doing so simply to be cruel or evil. For example, a caretaker or parent overwhelmed with stress and worry may thoughtlessly hit their child, even when that adult is categorically opposed to physical violence. A caretaker or parent living in poverty may be unable to feed their child, even when that adult would never want their child to go hungry.
Having an engaged and supportive community can help such caretakers or parents by recognizing when they are overwhelmed and thus incapable of providing needed care to their children. An engaged and supportive community can get involved with a caretaker or parent is unable to provide needed care due to medical, economic, physical, or mental problems. In such situation, community members can step in and pick up the slack.
Earlier I mentioned that community can instill resiliency in children. In a similar manner, community can also instill resiliency in caretakers and parents, by helping them cope with stressful or painful moments in life. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says, “Community-level protective factors— such as a positive community environment and economic opportunities—enhance parental resilience.”
Second, community serves as a protective factor because it creates a support system around children to help them when their families do not or cannot. Often times children exposed to the same traumatic event will respond in dramatically different ways depending on how strong their extra-familial support system is. Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) observes that, “Research has consistently shown that perceived social support buffers against poor mental health outcomes… Individuals with good relationship experiences across different domains and across childhood, adolescence and adulthood are prone to demonstrate resilience. Social support, both inside and outside the nuclear family can facilitate recovery from trauma… The ability to find supportive relationships outside of the family helps overcome the [impacts] of abuse.”
Both of these reasons highlight just how important community is — and that it should be seen as partner with, not enemy to, caretakers and parents and their hope to raise healthy, beloved children. Homeschooling your children, especially in a family where one adult works full-time and the other teaches full-time, can be extraordinarily stressful at times. While many families are able to cope with that stress adequately, some families are not. Additionally, some homeschooling families are led by a single caretaker; other homeschooling families might be economically disadvantaged and thus need both caretakers to work. It is important, therefore, that families are connected with one another in an engaged, supportive network where they can look out for one another’s needs.
By embracing, rather than rejecting, the village, homeschooling caretakers and parents can create a better future not only for themselves, but also for their children.
For additional information:
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Making Meaning Connections: 2015 Prevention Resource Guide, link.
- Western Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, “Fostering Resiliency in Kids: Protective Factors in the Family, School, and Community,” link.
Author: R.L. Stollar
R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.