Natural Life Magazine

Intentional Communities
An exploration of the community way of life

Kids in Community
by Helen Forsey

kids in community Photo Vendla Stockdale/Shutterstock

Children who have grown up in community or who have spent part of their childhood there can recount a range of experience as diverse as any other aspect of communal life. For parents too, the communal experience will vary widely.

Few issues in community arouse more intense debate than questions involving children. For both the best and the worst of reasons, our deepest feelings often come up around our own or other people's kids. These little human beings can inspire our love, respect and nurturing, and teach us new things every day, but their presence can also evoke our prejudices or expose our lack of consideration or responsibility. Just as they may represent our most meaningful commitments and our most treasured joys, children can also be symbolic extensions of our egos or reminders of realities we would rather ignore. All these aspects tend to be magnified and shared in community.

Parents or would-be parents may join a community in order to find the kind of broad-based support and stimulation that an extended family ideally provides. The potential benefits are obvious: a range of people and role models for the kids, a relatively safe and healthy environment, a variety of activities, lots of attention, and an atmosphere of trust and sharing.

Co-operative child care and home-schooling are often part of communal life, providing the kids with a peer group and plenty of stimulation, and the parents with invaluable support. Moreover, non-parents who enjoy kids have the opportunity to spend time with them, choosing from a range of flexible roles as uncle, aunt, teacher, grandparent or playmate.

Most fundamentally, the values of a stable and caring community can offer children the priceless experience of an alternative way of living and a solid base for growing up into the larger society.

The problems, though, can be as disheartening as the promise is inspiring. Even leaving aside (as most of us would!) those communities where rigid authoritarian structures oppress children and parents alike, raising kids communally is often a difficult challenge. Differences in parenting styles can spark intense conflict, and potential disagreements seem to come in an infinite variety of permutations and combinations. What are appropriate toys, chores, diet, entertainment, bedtimes – and who should decide? Should there be sections of the community's living, dining or work areas where children are not allowed, or would such restrictions be ageist? What is the right balance between giving children the attention they need, and encouraging healthy independence and respect for others' priorities?

The perennial community questions of individual versus group are particularly crucial where children are involved. Are the biological parents responsible for child care, education, and “discipline,” or are these communal responsibilities? Can the community afford the very significant commitments of money and labour that are required? It takes a lot of hard work to raise kids, and, as for so many communal ventures, a “critical mass” of energy is needed.

Adolescence presents a whole new set of challenges, especially in small rural communities where a teenager may have few peers and little to “do.” A parent may face a major dilemma if a youngster blames the communal setting for their discontent. But many parents and kids have left community long before this stage, and child-related issues are often a contributing factor in the decision to leave.

Despite the potential difficulties and the undoubted challenges, being a child or a parent in community brings many rewards, and it is an option well worth considering.

Helen Forsey is an activist and writer who lives in an intentional community in rural Canada.


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