Be the Village You Want Your Children to Grow Up In
Everyone with a child has worried about raising their kid right. And, if you’re a parent, you’ve probably had someone try to allay your fears with the ageless proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” reminding you that you’re not alone in this adventure.
But, like many clichés, this supposed seed of wisdom too often is left unplanted and unwatered, drying out in the sun where it bears no fruit. That could be because it raises a central question that usually goes unanswered:
Who is the village?
In a modern society, with dense urban landscapes and vast online social networks, we have to reinterpret our place as individuals within a connected community. This especially is true of how we teach our children to navigate an increasingly complex world.
To accomplish this, parents need to determine who their village is. And we villagers need to embrace our roles in nurturing the children entrusted to us.
If we look at recent research, perhaps we can find clues for how to grow our villages into environments that empower families, nurture children, and fulfill our common dreams.
PAST PAIN, FUTURE FEARS
First, we have to address our own childhood villages. This may be very painful, as those villages sadly were not sanctuaries for everyone.
The hard truth is that many adults have strong negative associations with childhood. Their formative years may have been marred by abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, marginalization, discrimination, and other profoundly distressing experiences that were traumatic and toxic. We call these adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs. (Click on the infographic at right for more information.)
The remembrance of these harmful environments can cast a shadow over the otherwise meaningful and joy-filled anticipation of a new baby. The last thing any parent wants to see is their child suffering any of the terror they might have endured themselves as children.
Because of this, expecting parents’ worries, depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns may be exacerbated by their pasts. The pregnancy period, then, is ripe for intervention. It’s an important window of opportunity for soon-to-be parents to “build insight and foster resilience” that can be passed on to the next generation, as noted by a recent University of Denver study.
In the study, the research team looked at how intervening at this crucial life stage may negate some of the effects of ACEs.
ACEs may be accompanied by traumatic stress and are known to impact physical and mental health outcomes for the adults who suffered them. Parents who had ACEs may fear their own children encountering the same feelings of helplessness, psychological pain, and toxic stress.
To counteract the potential harm to the mental health and interpersonal relationships of new parents, the researchers at the University of Denver attempted to leverage BCEs, or benevolent childhood experiences, among a low-income, ethnically diverse group of pregnant women and fathers-to-be.
They wanted to see if they could help prevent and counteract some of the negative mental health effects on parents, especially among people whose place in society puts them at higher risk of those psychological symptoms. As many people are aware, post-partum depression is very common in new mothers. What may surprise some, however, is how common it is for dads, too.
‘SECRET INGREDIENTS’ TO SERVE FAMILIES
Paternal depression is more likely to occur among fathers from marginalized backgrounds, aggravated by poverty, racism, and other societal ills that attack vulnerable families like viruses. It’s also correlated to maternal depression, meaning both moms and dads may be suffering depressive symptoms simultaneously.
But alongside the potential for adverse effects on families comes the opportunity to make positive changes by implementing whole-family care.
- Early childhood services;
- Support programs like Help Me Grow, Bright Beginnings, Parents as Teachers, and MomsFirst;
- Our Family Life child care centers;
- Our Joyful Together© model designed to enhance parent-child relationships through play and joy;
- School-based and family services, including parenting classes;
- Programs for maternal depression and foster care;
- Recovery programs for substance-use disorders;
- And workforce development for young adults.
We also recently launched a study examining the feelings and experiences of new fathers in our communities.
The role agencies and services like ours play as part of the village is vital, but it’s important to remember that we exist to serve our families and communities. As modern versions of the safety net that tightly knit villages once offered our ancestors, we must be professionals of compassion and empowerment. In an article published earlier this year in the ZERO to THREE journal, child and family program experts Deborah Roderick Stark, Deborah Brown, and Judith Jerald laid out the basic “secret ingredients” for social service agencies to best serve children and families.
The recipe for success highlighted by the authors includes:
- Sharing power with parents and families in forming goals and working to attain them;
- Communicating consistently and inclusively with families based on their individual needs;
- Being creative and adaptable in overcoming the obstacles families may face between them and their goals;
- And continually recommitting to family and community needs by assessing potential changes and shifts that occur over time.
By implementing programs that belong to the families and communities we serve, we can create a shared village in which ownership is given to the community itself to build a long-lasting foundation for children to thrive and grow.
BUILD A BETTER VILLAGE
One of our goals here at IFCI is to communicate important information through transparency and translation. We want all families (and professionals) to be empowered and equipped with the best tools and knowledge for their needs, so that lives are enhanced and communities are strengthened.
And we want to start empowering and equipping as early as possible.
The expecting parents participating in the University of Denver study were given tools and skills that could incubate along with their highly anticipated babies. By helping the parents-to-be understand the value of their personal stories, connect their pasts to their present functioning, focus on their romantic relationships, and consider what in their lives they find most fulfilling and joyful, researchers found that these underserved families – quite literally ripe for growth – reported positive impacts and takeaways from their experience.
Families, however they are composed, cannot be isolated from communities and expected to thrive, any more than any individual can thrive isolated from caring, supportive relationships. Our job isn’t to replace those relationships and communities but to grow with them. As we say in our vision statement, health, educational, and policy professionals and community members must adopt a “WE” attitude to produce collaborative and safe environments that lead to advantageous outcomes for children, adults, and families.
All children have bright futures if the whole village comes together to hold them up to the light. So let’s build this village together – for the children, for the families, for all of us.
Research articles and scientific issues we should be following? Email IFCI@OhioGuidestone.org.
Visit www.ohioguidestone.org to learn more about services and programs we offer throughout Ohio.