We’ve all heard the quote, “It takes a village to raise a child.” To me, it’s more than a simple phrase – it’s a way of life. I was raised by a single mother and I probably wouldn’t be the man I am today if not for the village that invested in me.
Extended family, neighbors, teachers, and my mother’s co-workers all contributed to my upbringing in significant ways. Sometimes it was in the form of encouragement. Other times, they disciplined me without a second-thought because they wanted to make sure I grew up with the skills I needed to be a productive member of the community.
Today, it seems as if our villages are disappearing. Whereas, my relatives and neighbors could intervene in my life whenever it was necessary, they couldn’t do so in our current culture. Everyone minds their own business and the notion of communal parenting seems to be old-fashioned.
I used to lament this changing dynamic until I realized I had the power to change it. I decided to follow the example of those who invested in me and invest in this generation of children.
Two years ago, I volunteered to mentor a group of teenage boys. When I first met them, they were a rowdy pack of middle-schoolers from various ethnic and economic backgrounds. Some lived with both parents and others were being raised by single parents. I inherited this group because the previous mentor left abruptly.
“I have to warn you that these boys can be a little challenging,” said the program director with an apologetic tone. “I hope you’re up to it.”
I assured him that I was. He introduced me to the boys and released them to my care. At the beginning of our relationship, I worked hard to earn their trust. However, they rejected me and refused to let their guards down.
One of the boys, Jack (not his real name), was especially disrespectful and combative. He made a point to disrupt our sessions and point out how much more he liked the previous mentor.
After a while, I started to hope that Jack wouldn’t show up for the meetings. My time with the boys was more pleasant when he wasn’t there to interrupt and cause trouble. However, Jack was rarely absent and seemed to thrive on antagonizing me. I tried to remain positive, but I grew frustrated and wondered if working with these boys was even worth it. I considered leaving the program several times, but I knew that they would feel abandoned and rejected.
Fortunately I had a breakthrough with Jack that changed the whole dynamic. One day after the meeting, I noticed Jack’s mother walking down the hall. I grabbed Jack’s arm and told him to come with me. His eyes grew wide when he noticed that I was making a beeline towards his mother.
“Are you Jack’s mom?” I asked politely.
“Yes,” she said tentatively. “Who are you?’
“I’m Jack’s table leader,” I said extending my hand. She turned towards her son and gave him an icy glare.
“What has he done now?” she said immediately dropping my hand.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong,” I said “I just wanted to tell you that your son is a great young man. He is a natural leader and I’m proud to be a part of his life.” Both Jack and his mom were surprised by my statement. They looked at each other and then his mother turned back towards me.
“Just let me know if you have any trouble with him,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “He won’t give me any trouble.” And from that moment, he didn’t give me any more trouble. In fact, our relationship has grown strong over time. Jack has even convinced the other boys to let down their guards and trust me.
I support the boys by listening to their hopes, dreams and concerns; attending their sporting events; and taking them to play paintball or laser tag. I’ll admit that the boys are still rowdy and rambunctious, but their hard exteriors have melted and they’ve let me inside their private lives.
I’ve also developed close bonds with the boys’ parents. As a consequence, they’ve given me permission to be a part of their village. And conversely, they are a part of mine.
Join the conversation: Do you believe the notion of communal parenting is a thing of the past?
This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 print edition of Your Teen Magazine.
Photo by hepingting