It Does Not Take a Village

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It was in 1996 when Hillary Clinton introduced America to the adage “It takes a village,” which is supposedly taken from an African proverb and refers to the philosophy that in order to raise a child, one needs more than just family. Since then, it has been adopted by many organizations, such as transitional living programs, health care organizations, and rural family support. This philosophy has been adopted by people both on the political Left and on the political Right, for example through calls for free pre-kindergarten childcare and government paid or supported family leave.

“It takes a village” basically means that all sorts of nannying organizations — government, schools, churches, neighborhood watches, and more — are required to raise a child. But I grew up with a mother who had the opposite philosophy — it was not the government’s or anyone else’s business how she raised her children. My mother, Gisela, is an unintentional libertarian and she has illustrated to me that it does not take a village to raise a child — it takes a good (and in my case great) mother!

 

My mother Gisela, age 6.

 

Gisela grew up the youngest of a dozen in post-World War II Germany. Her own mother, Gretel, was a strong woman who was willing to be jailed to protect her children; this actually happened, but the authorities released Gretel because no “village” was present to care for her children — thank goodness! My mother must have learned this strength from her mother, but she also learned the importance of staying away from organized efforts to “help,” whether they are government-run or private social organizations.

Gisela does not sign petitions or join neighborhood watches. She learned this distance from her father, Gustav, who died before I was born. So I never had the opportunity to meet this man who I have heard so much about and who shaped my mother’s life philosophy. Gustav, according to my mother, was also one to stay away from crowds — enjoying his afternoons at movies, especially the American classics, and taking long walks in the forests surrounding the city of Wiesbaden. Gisela, too, loves classic movies and nature, but she also gained his do-it-yourself practicality, which she illustrated in the many moves we made. For example, as we left Fürth, Germany, the apartment we lived in for a year didn’t need to be painted, but regulations required the walls to be painted before each new tenant moved in, so Gisela put baby powder in the nail holes (we had a lot of paintings hung up), found two empty paint cans, and left the cans in the hall for inspection time. Not only did the inspectors believe the apartment had been painted, but they also thought it had been done professionally. When we arrived in Jonesboro, Georgia — home of the film Gone with the Wind — in the middle of the night and one day before Christmas, the carpet still smelled like the previous owners’ dogs, so Gisela — still in her skunk fur coat — started ripping out the carpet, which revealed a beautiful hardwood floor beneath.

“It takes a village” means that all sorts of nannying organizations are required to raise a child.

 

Gisela came to the US with my father in the late ’60s. They have now been married for 52 years, which is remarkable for any couple, but even more so, considering that they had only known each other a couple of weeks before getting married. I came along in 1974, the youngest of four children. And it is this history that I will relate for Mother’s Day — how Gisela raised us to be independent, successful, and happy without a village; with a happy, stable home that was our safety net, even though we moved every three years, because of my father’s career in the army. A safety net with lots of flexibility, like that of a circus acrobat, to allow us to bounce back quickly.

The five pillars of my mother’s childrearing were:

  1. Don’t expect other people to raise your children;
  2. Keep your distance from authority;
  3. Don’t follow every rule;
  4. Don’t blame others for your mistakes;
  5. Treat children as individuals.

* * *

Don’t Expect Other People to Raise Your Children

Gisela has always said that people should not expect other people to raise their children. In the same vein, Gisela does not support governmental gifts of handouts or childcare, especially to those who don’t truly need them. My parents took the decision that my father would go to work while my mother would stay at home; they did this at the sacrifice of an extra income. My siblings and I benefited from the arrangement. For me and my sister Katherine Gisela sewed by hand, with needle and thread, the most perfectly pleated and hemmed cheerleader skirts — the envy of all the other girls. One Christmas, I was given a two-story, blue-and-white, colonial-style dollhouse with a shingled roof and electric lights; Gisela had stayed up working on the dollhouse long after we had gone to bed.

I grew up with a mother who had the opposite philosophy — it was not the government’s or anyone else’s business how she raised her children.

 

Gisela never complains about money (regardless of how little she’s had). My father David, having lost his job as an accountant around 1970, while my mother was pregnant with my brother, reenlisted in the army. Gisela never laments that they lacked money to raise their children or bemoans the fact that now people in Europe, including Germany, get Kindergeld (money to have children), and she didn’t get any of this government largesse. She thinks that level of government interference is unnecessary — people who cannot afford to have children, shouldn’t. This is not to be taken as the idea that only wealthy people should have children. Gisela often recalls the time when they lived in Oklahoma (1971–1972); David was making around $320 a month and their rent was $180 a month and they already had three children. Yet they never went into debt and were able to make ends meet. Her frugality came with a sense of mischievous adventure, such as when we were taking road trips. Gisela would tell us all to get on the car floor before driving up to a motel, we would giggle while we waited to see if a room was available, but the reason behind this behavior was to save money by getting only one room for the five of us. Her perspective was that children are not expensive, or as she would say it “raising children is only as expensive as you make it.” And when the government cares for a child, the price is exceedingly high — for example, at the border facilities, to care for a child the government is paying $775 a day. This is only slightly higher than the $750 a day during the Trump administration.

Keep Your Distance from Authority

When my father retired in 1989, my sister and I were in high school and we four (Gisela, David, Katherine, and I) moved to San Francisco — something my parents had planned to do because of memories of living there in 1974. I was actually born in San Francisco, on the Presidio in the Letterman Army Hospital. Because of my father’s relatively low military retirement income, Katherine and I were eligible for free meals at school, but we didn’t take them. We were taught that just because something is offered doesn’t mean you should take it. This lesson goes through my mind when I see apparently well-fed students line up for free groceries (while they waste away their time on smartphones). To get their free food, they must sign up for government benefits. Why would someone be willing to enter the welfare system, which may entail a lifetime of government control over your choices, rather than maintain anonymity and be free, just for some unneeded food? The desire for anonymity extends beyond government service enrollments. Gisela was known as the invisible woman among the military wives; she was always there to help if needed, but never one to need help. She stayed away and didn’t sign up for clubs, wasn’t a PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) mother, and kept to the family circle. This distance may have stemmed from seeing what havoc busybodies can bring, especially if aided by the government.

Don’t Follow Every Rule

When rules are immoral or foolish, they need not be followed. I have never seen Gisela put on a seatbelt in an airplane; I am not sure that there is any good evidence that seatbelts in flights will save you during an accident (although seatbelts may be helpful during turbulence, but harmful in rough landings). She also doesn’t engage in the security theater of taking out liquids from her suitcase when flying (and not once has the TSA flagged her for this important “security violation”!). But, these minor things are part of a bigger picture.

During the 1980s, homeschooling was illegal in the states where we lived. Yet homeschooling is the epitome of not expecting others to raise your children. My siblings and I were always free to choose between homeschooling and going to school. My parents never forced us to stay out of school; and it had nothing to do with religious sensitivities over being exposed to evolutionary theory or sex education. It was a personal choice. When the school’s administrators called, Gisela just said something along the lines of “oh, we are in the midst of moving” (which was entirely believable, since we moved every three or four years as a result of my father’s army career). Her perspective was that it wasn’t the government’s business how she raised us. She was sure that we would be fine, even if others — including many relatives — had their doubts.

Experts in childrearing may have said one thing, but she knew better for her own children. After all, experts can be wrong, and often are.

 

I spent 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 8th grades at home. I loved homeschooling. Sometimes we were all being homeschooled, but other times it was just one of us. I have known many children and parents who have attempted homeschooling unsuccessfully. It seems that often it doesn’t work out because the parents turn homeschooling into school at home — making the kids work at desks, get up at a specific time, focus on lesson plans, even sometimes ridiculously making their children call them by their last names. In our case, Gisela (and David) allowed us great freedoms. We didn’t have to start at any particular time and, yet, we are all very punctual adults. We could work in bed, on the floor, in any room, or even at our desk! And our learning wasn’t built around lesson plans. Rather, we wrote quite a bit and read a lot! In fact, when I returned to school after homeschooling, I read so much during “reading drive” month that my teacher thought that I was cheating to get the free Pizza Hut coupons. Gisela even wrote a note to one of my teachers explaining that I read all the time — even in the bath! We weren’t policed about what we read or watched. Gisela’s idea was that if something was too mature for us, then we wouldn’t understand it anyway, so it wouldn’t matter, and if we understood it, then we were ready for it. Thus, as a child of eight or nine years of age, I saw my first Faces of Death film. Before I’d reached my teen years, I was reading books intended for adults, especially books about animal care.

Gisela’s light hand on the tiller of childrearing was also evident in the fact that we didn’t have bedtimes or curfews. She always waited up for us, and I am sure that I worried her more times than I should have, but she has said that freedom is more important than easy childrearing. This freedom gave my sister and me the ability to travel with only each other to France and Spain before I had even turned 16. What a difference from the ridiculously named “kid-adulting” seen nowadays, in which “children” in their 20s still only take family vacations.

In many ways, Gisela’s unconventional parenting may have originated in a well-founded desire to defy the “experts.” Experts in childrearing may have said one thing, but she knew better for her own children. After all, experts can be wrong, and often are. Gisela, for instance, was told that she wasn’t pregnant when she was nearly due with my brother, who weighed in at a healthy seven and a half pounds!

Don’t Blame Others for Your Mistakes

My siblings and I weren’t perfect, yet we were never punished. I was never told to go to my room or grounded, and I never lost “privileges” such as TV time or dessert. If we did something wrong, Gisela would get upset, perhaps even angry; and she would tell us why she was upset. This is the way we treat adults who do something wrong, and why should children be treated differently? I am pretty sure that humans are the only animals who “punish” their children. More importantly, Gisela did not allow us to deflect the blame to others. I never heard her say that any of us “had fallen in with the wrong crowd.” This type of mentality is the flipside of “it takes a village.” With “it takes a village,” the onus is on others to raise your children, whereas in blaming others, the reason for wrongdoing is other people’s children. Failure to thrive is either because you didn’t get a handout or because others pushed you down. I think that this is one of the reasons my siblings and I are successful; we didn’t expect to be helped by others, but we also took responsibility for our own failures and worked on them to ensure improvement.

Treat Children as Individuals

This is probably the most significant thing: Gisela treated each of us as individuals. We got to spend time alone with each parent; David, for instance, would sometimes take us separately to plays, restaurants, and museums. We were encouraged to explore what we found interesting and were never told, “Oh, that won’t make money,” or, “That’s too difficult.” Gisela refused to put importance on superficial things, such as clothing or keeping up with the neighbors. We didn’t always have the best and newest things, but there wasn’t a friend of mine who didn’t want to spend time with me and Gisela.

Gisela never had to tell us to set the table, because we always looked forward to dinnertime. This is not to say that every meal was delicious; my friends had difficulty chewing the steaks my mother cooked, because they were a bit on the tough side. And we all loved liver and onions, which for the longest time I thought was a tender steak. But there was never any pressure to eat, and more importantly, this was a time when we all talked. Our time at the table, a table we still have today, could go on for hours as we discussed our day, our thoughts, things we read, and movies we’d seen. We conversed, sometimes argued, but more often laughed.

This is probably the most significant thing: my mother treated each of us as individuals.

 

I have always been interested in nature and anatomy, an interest I share with Gisela. And she allowed my interest to flourish. We had pets of all sorts — cats, mice, bunnies, parakeets, and even a duck. Once I convinced Gisela that it would be a good idea to get the pregnant mouse from the pet store; this little mouse got bigger and bigger, but she died. Then Gisela opened her up to see what had gone wrong: was it actually a tumor rather than a pregnancy? No, the little mouse had too many fetuses, and that had killed her. I got a lesson in natural selection and stabilizing selection that I still teach to students in my Introduction to Human Evolution course. I still have the mice fetuses in formaldehyde. In the same jar, I have a squirrel baby whom I couldn’t part with as a 6-year-old; the baby was in our yard, and we took him in to protect him from our cats. We tried to feed him and keep him warm, but the little guy didn’t make it. So seeing that I couldn’t part with him, Gisela said “no problem, we’ll just put him in formaldehyde and keep him forever.” She went to the medical center in town and got the preservative and he is with me, to this day.

* * * 

Conclusion

There are so many wonderful aspects of my childhood, and now my adult relationship with Gisela. She’s my favorite dance partner, and not a day goes by without our talking to each other. We always have a laugh. Her philosophy and mine are aligned, and I believe that without her I wouldn’t have my libertarian philosophy. Gisela raised us — with the help of my father — as free-range children before that became even a term. She gave us the freedom to explore books, art, movies, and the world. We knew that the only safety net we needed was home. And she did this all with humor, patience, and always an independent spirit.

3 Comments

  1. Scott Robinson

    Dear Elizabeth,

    Nice article. When HRC (you know, instead of HRH) said, “It takes a village.” I did wonder if that’s who all of Bill’s frequently accosted women were. Seriously, I did think that it was the rationale for why you couldn’t raise your children alone, but the government needed to guide and assist you. I’ll look for any studies I can find, but do you know of any comparisons between children raised by the village at an orphanage compared to children raised by their parents?

    Best Wishes,
    Scott

    1. I don’t know off-hand of any studies like this. I do know of studies that illustrate that the early childhood “education” that is trying to be pushed on people now is not helpful for most students. The data that show it is helpful to get kids in classes as early as 3 to 4 years of age are studies that have dealt with people in poor neighborhoods, often without both parents and where mother’s are more likely to be drug addicts or the schools are better than just leaving the child in even more substandard childcare.

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