Parents, find your village

Diane Levy taught me to be a boring mother. For that, I will always be grateful. When one of my children was going through a slightly clingy stage, I read Diane’s book Of Course I Love You, Now Go to Your Room. In the book she talks about the ‘boring cuddle’. We’d arrive at a birthday party or play date and I’d have a little cling-on shadowing me. I used to find it very frustrating. I didn’t want to abandon him, but I’d often find myself persuading, encouraging and chastising all at once, while missing out on the great catch-ups the other mothers were having.

Diane taught me a great strategy. I’d offer to take him over to where the other children were having fun. If he declined to join them, I’d get my cup of coffee, sit with the other grown ups, and place an arm around him (the boring cuddle), but do nothing else to entertain him. I told him he could sit with us as long as he wanted to, but I couldn’t leave the grown ups. I learned to be supportive, without rushing in to solve any of his problems. Very quickly he picked up that it was much more fun to hang out with the kids, he knew I was there if he needed me, and his confidence blossomed. This simple strategy was a bit of an epiphany for me at the time, and made me think that a regular chat with Diane Levy would be a very useful thing indeed.

There’s no doubt you’ll get plenty of advice during pregnancy and in the early days of parenthood, but if there’s one thing Diane would say, it’s this – “Find your village”. Parenthood is wonderfully rewarding and brings a new dimension to your life, but it can also be daunting and isolating. The thing is, says Diane, we were never meant to do it alone.

“We weren’t designed to be stuck at home with two or three little children,” she says. “We were designed to be living together with several generations of family. That meant someone was always available to hold the baby for a while when she got grizzly, or to help out at mealtimes.” Diane uses what she refers to as the National Geographic family as an example of how sometimes more is more, when it comes to the people in your child’s life. “The fathers are off together hunting and gathering, the women are gathered together, talking and laughing and grating something, while the children are playing together nearby.” Of course that’s not the reality for us in New Zealand nowadays. So, says Diane, if society no longer provides us with an automatic village, we have to hunt one out.

She speaks from experience. Diane had her third child when her other two children were aged 13 and 11. She found herself at a completely different stage of life from her contemporaries. “Suddenly, I found myself at home alone with a baby. I had plenty of friends I could go out for coffee with, but there was no one for Deborah to play with.”

Diane joined a coffee group and the help and support was invaluable. The group managed to keep on meeting until the children were about 7. Even though Diane had other children and had been through all the ages and stages before (and was also an experienced family therapist), she craved the company of people who were going through the same things, at the same time she was. “I desperately needed a forum to ask mummy questions of other mummies. The coffee group model is an amazing source of information and support.”

A network of other families is an advantage on several levels. Finding your village will give you support and it will set an example to follow. Diane believes there are some lessons children learn best from other children. In the same way we aren’t designed to be alone with children all day – they aren’t designed to only have their parents to learn from.

“Socialisation is very important from a young age,” says Diane. Next time you’re at the playground, Diane suggests you keep an eye out for how the little kids are watching the big kids. Rather than us always doing the teaching, it’s great for children to learn by example from those just a little bit ahead of themselves. Instead of an adult trying to get a child to learn a seemingly impossible skill, if our child can watch another, of the same age or just a little older, half-way up the climbing frame, it suddenly seems possible for them to do it.

Rather than a parent imposing the limits, “Don’t do this, don’t do that,” often the environment can do the teaching. If you don’t have a good grip on the monkey bars, you’re likely to end up going splat. “Often a parent’s job is to make sure that our children have the chance to learn through ‘safe’ mistakes,” says Diane. Let them have small frights but guard them from doing themselves harm. “Parents need to arrange for some kind of socialisation so their child has the ability to play with other children. Since most of my peers were at work, for me that meant going to what was then known as Georgie Pie, ordering myself a bottomless cup of coffee, and sitting down to read while Deborah ran off to the playground and had a wonderful time playing with a steady stream of new friends,” adds Diane.

Children also need to know there are other mothers they can run to if they are hurt or need something. Of course, we’re not just talking mothers here. Fathers who are at home all day with their children need support just as much. “It can be a little bit harder for them to find their village sometimes,” says Diane. “Being one of the girls is right for some dads, but not for others.”

Sometimes finding the right group will be a case of trial and error. “If you are not able to find your village, some sort of day care is another way of giving your child other adults and children to relate to.” Of course the thing about actual villages is they all have a range of different ages. It’s wonderful if you have grandparents living nearby, but that’s often not the reality. “Rent a grandparent is unfortunately much more difficult, than rent a village,” laughs Diane.

This year Diane went to Jerusalem to visit her daughter who has a small baby. It’s hard living so far away from close family, and Diane is looking forward to seeing her daughter find her own village of parents and children. “That kind of support really can be a wonderful thing,” she says.