Won’t You Be My Village?

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30 May 2018

More and more as my kids get older, I have come to appreciate the saying “It takes a village to raise a child.”

I used to think it was about basic care, things like checking on a neighborhood kid who fell off a bike, bringing food when there’s a new baby, maybe tattling on kids who are off doing things their parents wouldn’t approve of…

Or maybe it would include sharing advice. I always loved the books about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and was intrigued by the way the mothers in those stories, when faced with difficult or confusing behavior from their kids, would call others in the neighborhood to ask whether they had ever faced the same challenge and how they handled it. Invariably, those calls would prove fruitless and the mother would turn to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, with her creative (and, in some books, magical) solutions.

Today, many of us turn to social media as our village for all of the above. We crowdsource ideas about getting babies to sleep through the night, where to buy clothes or go on family outings, and more – and, of course, coordinate help with basic care, using meal trains and chesed funds and the like. Facebook certainly takes the notion of a village to whole new levels!

According to Wikipedia, the original proverb might indeed be limited to those areas. But increasingly, I realize that really, there’s still more to it than that. Every interaction our children have forms part of their upbringing; everyone they encounter is, effectively, part of the “village” helping raise them – not just caring for their basic needs, but actually imparting messages and values.

Sometimes this annoys me.

Since my oldest was a baby, I’ve had to fight off strangers – innocent ones, like storekeepers and nice adults in shul – who want to give my kids candy. Sometimes they ask me first, and sometimes I say yes; sometimes I say no, and then have to listen to their views on how I’m depriving my child – with the child right there, listening! Sometimes they don’t even ask me first at all. Regardless of my personal ideas about how often a kid needs a lollipop, and whether a Dum-Dum is a choking hazard, my kids are introduced to all sorts of other ideas because there is a village raising them with me whether I like it or not.

Another issue in which my village sometimes gets more involved than I would like also happens in shul. I have particularly vivid memories of one of my children yelling “Abba!” gleefully every time I would try to take him into shul as a toddler; I would quickly close the door, remind him about being quite in shul, practice whispering, and try again. It was a grueling training experience for at least one of us, but it was important to me: I wanted to get a few minutes in shul, I knew he was capable of being quiet for a few minutes, and I wanted to introduce him to appropriate shul behavior. Imagine my frustration when, after all that, I see adults not only setting a different example through their own conversations, but actually talking to my kids in the middle of davening! I certainly don’t expect anyone to live their lives based on the standards I might set for my kids – but in interactions with my kids, maybe it’s fair to ask others to take my views into account?

Then there was the more insidious case of the doctor – a pediatric specialist in a particular field – who once made an off-hand joke in my ten-year-old’s presence about how “everyone hates their mothers.” I was furious. I have been blessedly spared, so far, the screams of “I hate you” that are fairly common sounds of childhood, and while I don’t assume for a moment that it will never happen, neither did I invite this adult to suggest to my pre-teen that she’s expected to hate me.

It’s incidents like these – the big and the small – that help me understand the appeal of raising one’s family in a bubble of like-minded individuals, a village where every interaction would support my views.

Except that I could never do it. First, because it would be impossible to find a village of individuals who are exactly like-minded on every issue. But more importantly, because I actually need the village – including our school, our shul, doctors, cashiers, and beyond – to offer different perspectives to my children. It might sometimes be annoying, but it really does take a village.

What if I accidentally overdo the anti-candy message, and my kids might be inclined to rebel with a cavity festival – but the shul candy man helps provide a balance? Maybe they feel stilted in shul and I don’t realize it; maybe a few words with a friendly adult can help them feel more positive about the whole shul experience… And maybe the experience of learning how to respond, or not, to those friendly adults will help strengthen their own foundations and relationship to communal prayer. Maybe, even, my child will indeed one day develop strong negative feelings about me (chas v’shalom, lo aleinu), and would be afraid it was something wrong in her if she didn’t have a context for realizing those feelings can be (though don’t have to be!) a normal, healthy part of growing up.

Maybe our children’s entire development requires that they learn from a variety of teachers – not just their parents – both in school and out.

I was privileged to learn in Israel at a post-high-school institution of Torah learning with a faculty that represented a wide spectrum of philosophies and personalities. Aside from the obvious benefits of simply seeing such different individuals work together with respect, my classmates and I had an incredible opportunity to learn a variety of perspectives – all rooted deeply in Torah – and find what spoke to us. There were the teachers who told inspiring stories, the teachers who fired up our brains with Talmudic analysis, the teachers who taught us how to delve into midrashic interpretation or compare a Rashi to a Ramban, the teachers who constructed the most beautiful charts to help us follow details of practical halacha… Together, they built us a beautiful village in which to grow.

As an adult, I still need a village for my own growth – a rich, varied village. I need the friends I can learn with, the friends I can laugh with, the friends I can do both with. I need the friends who do the things I do and I need the friends who don’t, the friends who think the way I do and the friends who make me throw up my hands in exasperation – but who exhilarate me with their conversation. I need the strangers in the supermarket and the barista with the piercings and the tattoos who smiles and remembers how I like my coffee. I can learn from them all. If ever I run up against something in my village that’s not great for me – I need that too, because it helps me fine-tune who I am.

As a parent, I want the same for my kids. I need it; they need it. How can my husband and I possibly teach our children everything they need to learn, in the ways they need to learn it, when we’re only two (fairly similar) people? Even if it’s sometimes annoying when they’re exposed to a perspective that doesn’t speak to us – maybe it will speak to them. Maybe it will give them a richer framework in which to begin to determine who they are; maybe they will find that they are not exactly like their parents, but that there is plenty of room for them to grow into fine, upstanding individuals.

And maybe they will only be able to fully appreciate what we can teach them if they’ve been exposed to other ideas. It’s hard to simply dictate a set of rules or beliefs in a vacuum; sometimes we need to play off of other perspectives, both to better define our own approach and to provide a contrast through which our audience (in this case, our kids) can understand what we’re trying to say.

So yes, I beg all the responsible adults who make up our village to be mindful of your impact when interacting with my kids – maybe even with me – and I’ll do my best to do the same for you and yours. But I also want them to see you for you. I’ll need your help if I am to raise them in accordance with my values, which I hope you respect enough not to consciously undermine – and even if it’s sometimes annoying, those values include welcoming you to enrich their lives in all sorts of ways that I would never be able to accomplish myself.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.