Community parenting

Jun 15, 2008 at 11:15 p.m. ET

It's almost a ballet. A group of moms sit and chat as their collective children play nearby. One mom always has her head turned and is counting: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, all there. Seconds later, it's another mom whose head is turned, counting, while the other mom joins back in the conversation: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, all there. And the scene continues, zig-zagging through the group until it's back at the beginning, then it starts all over again.

Three Moms & Toddlers
It's one of those unwritten parts about living in community: keeping an eye out for each other and each other's children. It's not parenting one another's children, and only occasionally is it disciplining one another's children, but it is that neighborhood safety net in action. We're not shirking our responsibilities as parents, but we are helping each other parent.

We're in this together

I'm fortunate to live near a beach, and this ballet is evident all over the beach, all summer long. It's a beautiful thing to watch, and to be a part of. And it doesn't just include the kids of the defined group you are with; it really includes all kids. You may be taking turns identifying the location of and counting all the offspring of the mothers present in your current conversation, but you are also keeping that peripheral eye out for all kids. We rely on one another in this way.

Just a few days ago at T-ball, I was watching my kids run around the outfield when on the edge of my vision I saw a boy (eight or so) fall from the monkey bars at the adjoining playground. He didn't get up immediately, and although he wasn't shrieking, he was holding his ankle. This boy's mother was caught up with a younger sibling at another game, so I stepped closer to the playground and called out, asking him if he was okay. He turned and looked at me, then turned to another woman, asking the same thing. Yes, he was fine, he said to both of us. Moments later, the mom was there checking up on things, too. A ballet could not have been choreographed better.

A matter of trust

As wonderful as this community parenting is, one also has to be careful not to take undue advantage of it. It's a delicate balance. While we would never deny the kids our watchful eyes, moms who seem not to put in their time applying their own eyes are kept on the periphery of the conversations until they either understand (or reassert their understanding) or show that they really are paying attention. I wouldn't call this a hierarchy (I've seen long-time members of the major mom cliques temporarily on the edges), I would call it a part of the community trust. For this community parenting to work, we all have to trust each other.

This shared sense of care and concern for all the kids is one of the things I love about living where I do. I don't take it for granted and I appreciate it every day. Knowing that just about all the grown ups around my kids care and that sense that we are all in this together makes a positive difference in all our lives.

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