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It takes a whole child to raise a village

“When we get our story wrong, we get our future wrong,” David Korten wrote in Change the Story, Change the Future. If children are indeed our future, then the stories we use to educate and help them come of age are the most important stories to get right.

What was the story behind the proverb “It takes a whole village to raise a child”? There is an abundance of literature that strongly suggests that a whole village was probably performing rites of passage to collectively raise their children. Rites of passage were their shared story.

Today, rites of passage are often associated with mysterious, secret acts undertaken by drunken college students, gangs, secret societies, or other groups to welcome or “initiate” a member. Media reinforce this concept with headlines like “Bullying is not a rite of passage”; “Teens and Drugs: Rite of Passage or Recipe for Addiction?”; and “Fighting in Panama: The Implications; War: Bush’s Presidential Rite of Passage”. These rites focus on the individual and relate to perceptions of inclusion or exclusion from a group.

But there is another side to the story. Before rites of passage were ever construed as initiation of individuals, they were, in fact, community-organizing processes that villages engaged in for the purpose of community resiliency, adaptation, and survival. After all, community survival is contingent on children knowing and committing themselves to the values and practices that have allowed their village to exist across multiple generations.

So when we say, “it takes a whole village to raise a child,” I invite you to consider that it means it is the essential responsibility of the village to educate the young in the community lore that will allow successful continuity into the future. Collectively raising children strengthens community connections and social capital. Planning for our children focuses attention on future generations and the long-term consequences of our values and actions.

Raising children in ways that ensure the survival of our species for generations into the future is our most important work. We knew this eons ago and therefore did not simply leave it in the hands of individual parents and hope for the best. Instructing children through a rite of passage uses meaningful rituals that reinforce the shared values and beliefs of a community. This strengthens the community’s resiliency and ability to adapt, and renews its commitment to life-affirming values and behaviors.

When we get our story rite, we get our future right. Indeed, rites of passage have always been our shared story of community survival, yet this is a story we as a society seem to be forgetting. For over forty-five years I have explored and practiced this story of rites of passage as a community-organizing process. This ecological process that acknowledges and exploits the reciprocity between the individual and community facilitates youth and community development through rites of passage. This story includes guiding principles for organizing groups in ways that strengthen their commitment to collaborate in order to mutually solve problems and raise their children. It is a unifying story, built on a vision of hope rather than fear that can emerge from the creative imagination of a community and offer a bridge between western science and traditional wisdom.

The celebration of a rite of passage is renewing for the entire community. A child’s public expression of and commitment to a community’s values and beliefs reinforces expectations for behaviors for the survival of the entire community and health and well-being of all our relations. A child’s coming of age presents an opportunity for the whole community to examine, adapt, and re-commit themselves to their social and cultural heritage. In this light, it takes a whole child to raise a village.

Featured image credit: “Leaf” by Magnus Hagdorn, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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