My brother and I grew up with a lot of adults in our life — aunts and uncles and godparents and family friends we’d known since we were born. My parents were good at friendship, even as busy professionals with young kids, and they did the things that actually have to be done to keep friendship strong — making plans, cooking dinners, carving out time to get together.
Recently my brother and I were talking about resilience and our own small kids, and this sprawling, loving network of grown-ups came up. “They were people we could have called for help if we needed to,” my brother said. “We never did, but we could have.” In some ways, just that knowledge was enough. Now that I’m a parent, I want to make sure my children have a similar support network.
“You can’t have too many adults who love your kid,” says Bruce Feiler, author of “Council of Dads,” which is being turned into a TV series that will air on NBC in March. Faced with a rare cancer diagnosis in 2008, Feiler reached out to six friends and asked them to be part of his twin daughters’ lives.
“Anthropology has a term for this, the alloparent,” Feiler says. “It means someone who provides care to a non-descendant. In the past, parents died much more frequently, or might need to be away from the child for long periods of time, so it literally did take a village to raise that child.” Feiler notes that our current mode of living — alone in our homes, often far from extended family, valuing privacy — has inadvertently worked to wipe out this support system.
In addition, “friendship is under a lot of pressure in our culture today,” Feiler says. In many families, parents are working outside of the house and are protective of the time they spend with their children at home. While this is positive for families, “it means we don’t see our friends as much,” Feiler says. When he received his diagnosis, he gave a lot of thought to the men he wanted to play a role in his daughters’ lives, especially if he did not survive.
“What I did unknowingly, out of instinct and fear, is create this different kind of person — not family but more than a friend,” Feiler says. “A special category that has made all of us feel connected and has created a kind of reciprocity with one another’s children.”
Feiler wrote letters to each friend. If you’re looking to create your own alloparent village, you can do that too, or it can be more informal. A group of friends can agree to play a role in all of their children’s lives. Each parent can form their own council of moms or dads. Another route is to simply put effort into spending time with other families and let the bonds develop naturally.
As kids get older, the role of trusted adults other than parents only grows in importance. “It’s very useful for a young person to get something that’s like parenting advice from a person who doesn’t have parenting skin in the game,” says Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescent girls and is the author of “Under Pressure” and “Untangled.” While it makes sense that teenagers are going to seek emotional independence from their parents during adolescence, Damour says, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to operate without adult guidance.
That support can come from teachers as well as family friends, and parents should welcome these relationships, as long as boundaries are being maintained.
“Good schools understand that you’re not going to educate a child well unless you’re supporting the whole child,” Damour says. “It makes sense that teachers develop appropriate and supportive relationships with students that go beyond the class work.”
What that looks like is “an adult who has an incredible fondness for your child, but does not see you as competition,” Damour says. “When a child comes to me, I always think, ‘What would I want another adult to say to my kid in this situation?’ ”
It can also be comforting to parents to remember that no matter how good their advice is, in the normal course of development teens will want to reject it. That’s why it’s helpful for them to have a network of other adults they can turn to.
Feiler says one mother reached out to him about forming her own Council of Moms, saying she put a list of names on the refrigerator and told her kids they could call these people, no questions asked, and talk to them about anything — drinking, identity issues, relationships.
I’ve found most adults will be happy to play a role in your child’s life, because even with all the chaos of modern life, we are primed to care about other people’s children. The joy I take in my nephews and nieces is a given, but one of the surprising gifts of adulthood is how much I care about my friends’ kids, with all of their strange and charming quirks. I am always honored when a friend reaches out to me for help with a play date or a drop-off, because it shows they trust me and think their child will be comfortable with me.
While the concept of a parenting village has lost steam in recent years, Feiler notes that we may be poised for the pendulum to swing back. Parents are stretched and need each other for the endless schlepping of carpools and games and birthday parties. And there are many single parents and same-sex couples raising families who may want an adult of the other gender to play a role in their children’s lives.
Each phase of life presents different opportunities to build and adjust that circle of support, as your child finds new interests and faces challenges. “Remember that the adults that are in your child’s life are not a museum, not Library of Congress,” Feiler says. “You can change them.” Or keep adding to them.
Last Halloween, we went trick-or-treating with our neighbors, who are close friends and have kids about the same age as ours. When we got home, my 5-year-old daughter plopped down on my friend Emily’s lap and embarked on an animated conversation, involving several props. I watched this unfold for about five minutes. The happiness on my daughter’s face delighted me, but what surprised me was how much my friend’s kindness and ability to be present for her moved me. And I realized the connection between them was as important to me as it was to my daughter.
I guess we all need a village.
Anna Nordberg is a writer in San Francisco. She is working on a memoir about becoming a mother without your mom. Find her online at annanordberg.com.