Yesterday morning, after the big ones were off to school, Nicholas and I walked up to the neighborhood playground. I leaned against the stairwell of the tiny climber and tried to work on my Advent article for Liguorian magazine (don’t knock it; it’s due in four weeks) while Nicholas spun the steering wheel and used his bottom to wipe the dew off the west-facing slide. I figured when he was ready to go to the swings, I’d put the NEO aside.
Shortly, five people joined us: two men, a woman, and two little boys. The man greeted me in heavily accented English. In the course of about three exchanges, I learned that they were newly arrived from Ethiopia.
Nicholas was fascinated by these two little boys. He followed them over to the swings, and when they returned to the climber, he soon wanted out of the swing. I went to throw away a piece of trash, and when I turned back toward my son, I saw him running, giggling, toward the climber. But not toward the climber, as it turned out. Toward the little boys’ mother, who caught him and picked him up just as I would have, cuddled him against her, just as I would have, and kissed his cheek, all unselfconsciously, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
She and I talked for a few minutes, until Nicholas caught sight of one of the men inside the tennis/basketball court, playing with a basketball. “Baw!” he said excitedly, pointing, and made as if to go inside.
“Oh, honey,” I said, “he may not want you bothering him while he’s playing with the ball.”
Oh, how wrong I was. Nicholas ran for the chain-link door into the enclosure. The man beckoned to him, leaned over, played with him, kicking the ball back and forth, throwing the ball, telling Nicholas to throw the ball, retrieving it for him.
You’ve heard the saying It takes a village to raise a child. Political overtones aside, we can all see the truth of it. We remember that once, it was true, too: the days when extended families lived close by, and you never paid for babysitters, because you could exchange child care. But this isn’t how we do things in contemporaryAmerica. Even in our local parish, where when someone stops me to talk, someone else grabs Julianna before she runs too far, we take a “hands off someone else’s child” mentality. We keep our distance from other children, lest we look like molesters or kidnappers—or maybe just because, frankly, our own kids have us so worn down that we don’t want to deal with anyone else’s. I feel bad writing that; it sounds so ungrateful, considering the times that people have volunteered to take my children for me—when Julianna was in the hospital, when I’m overwhelmed with a new baby.
But this was different. Ordinary. Unplanned. It was a lesson in cultural differences to watch the ease, the inevitability, with which these adults regarded my child. They came to a playground with their children and adopted mine as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
And it made me wonder: if we lived as if community was the norm, instead of clinging to our American “rugged individualism”, might we not find ourselves so worn down?
Note: this morning, when I went to look up the phrase “it takes a village,” guess what I found out? It’s an African proverb.