Today's Family August 2006

It Really Does Take a Village

Are we parents forgetting we’re all in this together?

Deanna Adams

My husband, Jeff, often jokes that whenever he did something wrong, his mom knew about it before he got home. That was because the mothers in the neighborhood looked out for each others’ kids – and if one of them was getting into mischief, someone’s mom was the first to make a phone call and alert the other. Jeff’s mom had six children—so that parenting network served her well. And because she only had two eyes, this certainly helped in the raising of so many children, and all their friends.

Back then, moms stuck together. Even if they weren’t the best of friends, they all felt a kinship, bonded by their parenting role. As a result, they didn’t feel so alone by the overwhelming task of raising children. And some did become good friends, accumulating lots of amusing stories they now share.

Times have changed, of course. Unlike our parents’ generation, we rarely stop to chat over the fence with our neighbors (if we even know who they are), or feel free enough to borrow a cup of sugar, or heaven forbid, call another mother to discuss, and/or commiserate, about our teenagers’ activities.

Case in point. A few years ago, one of my daughters’ friends came to spend the night. I had never met the parents, so anticipated meeting the mom to assure her we’d make sure things went well during her teen’s first night’s stay at our house. But I didn’t get the chance. Soon as the car pulled up the drive, the girl got out, and Mom promptly drove away. I didn’t even have a chance to walk out and catch her before she was already out of view. No “Nice to meet you.” No “Thank you for having her.” No “Do you plan on being home all night?”

Sadly, that scenario has happened more than once and each time it does, I’m left baffled. Wouldn’t these parents want to know what kind of people we are? Do they ever wonder exactly what situation they have just placed their child in? How many other kids are in the house and what the sleeping arrangements are? Does the child have a computer in his or her room and thus allowed unsupervised time to access anything—and I mean anything—from it?

Have any of these questions even occurred to them?

Is it me, or does it seem like today’s parents are becoming disconnected with one another—and that many seem to prefer it that way? After nearly 20 years as a parent, I’ve noticed that, unlike previous generations where mothers kept in contact with one another concerning their kids, we hardly know the parents of the kids our children socialize with. Or even get a phone call from them with any kind of query concerning their child’s welfare. Or even a polite hello-and-goodbye upon dropping off them off before venturing onto their now kid-free activity? In fact, it sometimes seems parents make efforts to avoid talking to other parents. And I don’t believe it’s because they’re all too shy.

To be perfectly honest, I am uncomfortable doing so myself. I feel as if I’m bothering a parent by calling them to ask if they will be indeed picking up our children from an event, or that they’ll be no alcohol available at a party, or that one of the parents will be home while my daughter is there. And the awkward feeling has only intensified through the years because more than once I was made to feel embarrassed. When I’ve gotten a less than favorable or not-so-friendly response to my phone call or because I’d like to greet them when I drop my child off. While I view this behavior as just being courteous, they act like it’s an invasion.

Granted, there are a few—though now fewer than ever—parents who over-stay their welcome by chatting too long in the doorway, or attempting to become best friends. While there certainly are those who ruin it for the others, they are generally the exception, rather than the rule.

I recently brought up this issue at a party and most of the parents—several with now grown children—knew exactly what I meant. I had only to mention a couple of my own experiences to tweak their memories. They all had similar stories.

“Don’t parents care what’s going on with their children, or are they just too busy, or dare I say, too lazy to take the time to touch base with one another?” I asked one father of a 15-year-old son.

“I think they do care,” he said, “but being the one always asking the questions [tell me about it, I add] seems too much of a hassle, so they just avoid it. And yeah, sometimes they’re just too lazy to bother.”

Although lazy sounds a bit harsh, I believe it’s at least partly to blame. It echoes today’s culture. We’re already doing so much. Working a lot of hours, as well as a host of other pressing responsibilities. Taking time to follow up with other parents, many who we don’t even know, is hard and just another duty we have to perform.

One mother at this party said it best: “It’s so much easier to just let them (teens) go. They don’t even have to ask anymore. They say ‘Hey, Mom I’m going to so-and-so’s house, and I’m staying overnight there.’ And off they go and the parents don’t even make a call to check if that’s true. It’s takes time, effort, even assertiveness, to communicate with the parents – and to have to tell your kids ‘no’ sometimes, and precisely why it’s really hard work being a responsible parent.”

I agreed, adding that my daughter, when the subject comes up, says it’s because “their parents trusts their kids”—in a slightly accusing tone. Hearing that from my daughter (who I do in fact trust, though I’m not blind to the reality that 16-year-olds will at least, on occasion, try to get one over on their parents) is painful. Not just because I don’t want her thinking that I don’t trust her, but because trust is actually the bigger issue.

It appears that today’s parents are too trusting. Yet we don’t seem to trust, or believe, that we should all be working together. If we did, we might not feel so alone with the overwhelming task of raising children. And we might actually make a few lasting friendships along the way—while accumulating lots of amusing stories once our kids are grownup.

I may not agree on every issue Hilary Clinton supports, but I do know this. She is absolutely right about this one: It does take a village to raise children. I think we owe it to our children to take that time to stay in touch with one another. To band together for support and camaraderie. And in our doing so, can keep our kids safer, maybe even  prevent them from getting themselves into mischief.

Deanna Adams realizes there’ll be some parents who won’t agree with this article. She looks forward to greeting them at the door when her daughter comes over. But she promises to keep her visit under five minutes, and won’t even make them sign a release form.