PERHAPS I shouldn’t be, but I was amazed at the people who called or emailed to tell me they disagree with the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.”
They were responding to my July 24 column in which I wrote about how my visit to various youth-related events reinforced for me that it still takes a village to raise a child.
The whole notion of a village raising a child is ridiculous; it simply lets parents off the hook and puts undue and unfair responsibility on others and the government, one of the detractors said. It only takes two parents to raise a child, another said. Maybe that is why Africans are having as many problems as they are, another said. I failed to mention that it takes a strong and present father to raise a child (something I’ve written about countless times), yet another said.
I am assuming these people were raised by their mother and father in a remote desert or cornfield, where they were home schooled and estranged from all others, including their extended family.
They couldn’t have had a grandmother, grandfather, aunts and uncles and older cousins around. You know, villagers who help raise children. They obviously didn’t attend public schools — or private schools — where teachers and principals and counselors poured good things into them.
I can tell you without a doubt that teachers were important to my development. Whether it was Fannie Carson telling me almost daily in elementary school that I was as smart as any other student or — years later —William Carson, her late husband, telling me he thought I was West Point material, their belief in me boosted my self-esteem and spurred me to perform academically. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten came from Henry Price, one of my college instructors at USC — and it had nothing to do with school.
In the community I grew up in, particularly in my early elementary years, we’d see teachers at church and community functions or even out shopping. Even today Judge Mildred Weathers McDuffie, a retired magistrate, teacher and former Richland County Council member, talks about how she would stop by our house to have dinner. One of the things she was — and still is — noted for is caring for the whole child and being willing to go the extra mile to help children develop into productive citizens.
These were not mere teachers but members of the community who cared deeply about students’ development. Villagers.
I guess those naysayers never had coaches or piano teachers or karate instructors. Villagers who help develop toughness, talent and inner strength.
I guess they didn't attend church, where pastors and ministers and Sunday school teachers and others poured wholesome lessons into their souls aimed at building character and sparking spiritual development.
I guess they didn’t have neighbors or family friends in their midst, villagers who look out for children as they play and interact in the neighborhood, steering them in the right direction. I know my neighbors back in Edisto Court would do more than steer us if they caught us acting out; they’d take a switch to us and then call ahead and tell Mom, guaranteeing us another whipping — just in case the first one didn’t take.
Goodness knows, the critics couldn’t have had a Boys and Girls Club or YMCA or BigBrothers BigSisters program or Junior Achievement or day-care centers or after-school programs or summer camps.
And maybe they themselves have never counseled a niece or nephew or grand. Maybe they have never taken interest in the kids next door or across the street. Never a kind nod, a brief hello, a word of encouragement to do well in school. Maybe they have never volunteered at a community center or served as a lunch buddy or taught at vacation Bible school. Maybe they have never read to their child’s class or chaperoned on a school trip. You know, things villagers do, taking every opportunity to provide tiny nuggets of wisdom and guidance in the process.
Some who contacted me were particularly upset about the number of black children born out of wedlock — in the 70-percent range. (It’s 30 percent for white children.) I’m upset about that too. We’ve got to do something to change those numbers — for all kids.
But how do you even begin to address that important issue without reaching out and — gulp! — being accused of being a do-gooder villager?
Frankly, the fact that so many don’t have active fathers in their lives just heightens the need for a more active and engaged village.
Contrary to some people’s beliefs, the idea of a village isn’t built on expanding government benefits. It’s not about the government taking children from their parents’ laps and raising them. Can government play a role? Absolutely. But it shouldn’t and, quite frankly, can’t play the major role of raising children. That takes relationships, the kind villagers build.
It takes everyone pitching in just a little in an effort to, collectively, make a big difference.
It takes being unwilling to allow our youth to grow up without guidance and an understanding that they are expected to learn to read and apply themselves in school. That they’re expected to graduate high school. They’re expected to be leaders and not gang members. They’re expected to wait and become a husband and then a father rather than settle for being someone’s “boo” and, prematurely, a baby daddy. They’re expected to work. They’re expected to obey laws and live peaceably with their spouse and their neighbors.
And because we have those expectations, as villagers, it takes us being willing to help get our youth to gain the tools and wisdom they need to meet the challenges they’re sure to face.
Anyone not confined to a remote cornfield or desert, anyone who lives among people, knows that, in truth, we’re not islands. The young child growing up across town might not live in your world, so to speak, but he could one day impact your life: He could become a drain on public coffers, or he could become a successful businessman who pays his share of taxes and more. He could one day cross paths with your precious princess and become her prince, or her worst nightmare. He could one day kick your door in to feed a drug habit. Or he could be the cop who circles the block and makes you feel safe.
Truth is, practically all of us live in a village, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Problem is, while we’re pretty adept at articulating what’s wrong with today’s children and even pointing out the bad actors, a good number of us are pretty poor villagers. I’d be the first to say I’ve got room for improvement.
What about you?
Reach Mr. Bolton, author of “God Is Grace: Lessons to a Father from a Son,” at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.