The benefits and challenges of raising kids in community – intentional community, co-housing, eco-village, communal house, or neighborhood of like-minded families.
By Wendy Priesnitz
You’ve probably heard the quote that it takes a village to raise a child. And you may also have heard the extension of it that says, “I’ve seen the village and I don’t want it raising my child.” Well, there’s another extension, which I much prefer, that says, “…and a community to keep the parents sane.” So what if you could have a hand in creating that village? And what if that community in that village was great for both children and parents? What would it be like if you could raise your kids in community?
There is evidence that living in intentional community – be it co-housing, an eco-village, a communal house, or just a neighborhood of like-minded families similar to the ones in which some of us grew up – is a great way to raise kids.
Some of the advantages for your children can include:
- physical safety in a familiar environment surrounded by caring adults,
- broadly-based interactions with people of all ages and exposure to different ways of doing things,
- readily available playmates,
- having positive conflict resolution modeled for them,
- opportunities for creating a small independent school or doing unschooling in a stimulating environment,
- the chance for children to relate to grandparent substitutes, when the real ones are dead or living far away.
For parents, it means readily available shared child care and the other kinds of mutual support suggested by the quote I mentioned earlier, as well as a solution to the seclusion often felt by stay-at-home parents. Community living also provides the opportunity for sharing some of the equipment that accompanies life with children, from toys and play equipment to things that are only used for short periods of time like birthing tubs, breast pumps, car seats, and high chairs. Shared meals and property maintenance can also free parents up to spend more time with their kids. Even non-parent adults who enjoy kids can benefit by spending time with them in a variety of roles.
In fact, Diana Christian, editor of Communities Magazine, says that creating a safe and wholesome environment for families and children is one of the reasons people join or form communities. Further, she notes that unless a community provides good facilities for children, it won’t attract as many new members.
In the late 1980s, Daniel Greenberg surveyed over two hundred intentional communities and visited twenty-five communities around the U.S. for his doctoral dissertation in Child Psychology. Most communities Daniel visited had an extended-family-like atmosphere, where people had ample opportunity to form close relationships with people of all ages. That meant children living in community had plenty of role models and tended to develop friendships with many non-related adults.
In addition, he found that the world of grown-ups was largely demystified for children, perhaps similarly to the way unschooled kids learn about their parents’ lives by being around them on a regular basis. Greenberg wrote about the ongoing informal learning experiences encountered by these kids, from problem-solving through household management and a variety of more vocation-related things.
In an article on the Intentional Communities website, Diana Christian notes that, as a result of these friendships with adults and exposure to their daily tasks, “Community children are often more socially mature, confident, outgoing, competent, and verbal (and at far younger ages), than their non-community counterparts.”
In spite of the benefits, few issues arouse more intense debate in intentional community settings than questions involving children. Writing in a 1995 article in Natural Life Magazine, Helen Forsey put it this way:
“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.”
Different parenting styles can definitely spark conflict: What are appropriate toys, chores, diet, entertainment, bedtimes – and who should ultimately decide? Should certain areas and events be adults-only? How to balance independence and attention? And then there’s adolescence with its occasional problems and differing opinions on how to deal with them.
These issues can be worked out using the communication tools that are available, and can be opportunities for everyone involved. Nevertheless, it’s important to do some self-examination and planning prior to making the decision to move to a more communal living environment.
Parenting coach Kassandra Brown, who moved to an ecovillage with her two young daughters a few years ago, says, “Intentional community and ecovillage living are not for everyone, but if your heart is longing for more connection with other humans, more sustainable ways of living on the planet, and challenges to your idea of reality then it might be right for you.” She stresses the importance of preparation, especially if you are going be living with kids in community – to know who you are and what your goals are, and to clarify your vision. She provides information about doing that in an article in Natural Life Magazine’s November/December 2013 issue.
Many people who aren’t ready to pull up stakes like Brown did find a solution by actively cultivating community on their own city blocks or in their local neighborhoods. Shared weekly potlucks, community kitchens, removing fences separating backyards, planting vegetables in your front yard or on the boulevard between sidewalk and road, forming a childcare co-op, and researching a neighborhood preschool or school are all tactics that can build community and lessen the isolation of urban living for nuclear families.
Whatever form your exploration about living with kids in community takes, when it works well and with the right people involved, bringing up kids in community settings can be a great experience. Despite the potential difficulties and challenges, being a child or a parent in community has many rewards.
“Children in Community” by Daniel Greenberg, in Directory of Intentional Communities (Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1990)
“Kids in Community” by Helen Forsey, in Natural Life Magazine, March/April 1995
“What Do Children Learn in Community?” edited by Ron Miller and Joshua Russert, in Communities Magazine #114, Spring 2002
Best of Communities: VIII. Children in Community (Fellowship for Intentional Community, 2014)
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Child Magazine, where this article first appeared, and the mother of two grown daughters. She has been a journalist for forty years and is the author of twelve books.