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  • Popular writing about families routinely points out a lack of supportive networks, but almost never explores ways to rebuild villages. Tweet This
  • The political and media-driven debate about families fails to consider ways to strengthen and promote nuclear families, the most basic building block for a village. Tweet This
  • One rarely discussed collateral benefit of having a parent at home is that the family can more easily end up with a kinkeeper. Tweet This
Category: Family Life

There’s a familiar story that comes up again and again in news articles about parenting: Once upon a time, people lived in communities in which they mutually supported each other. But these communities, often literal villages, have lately disappeared, making life needlessly difficult. And so we need to do something about it.

The latest example in the genre appeared last week in The Atlanticwhen staff writer Faith Hill lamented parents’ current lack of knowledge about childrearing. A few paragraphs in, Hill quotes a lactation consultant who succinctly identifies the source of the problem: “Your village has been completely eroded.”

This is a common lament among parents on social media. A deluge of recent news articles and books has similarly traced the challenges of modern family life to parents’ lack of a village. Everyone apparently understands that this is a problem.

But The Atlantic article also illustrates a common problem in this kind of discourse. After bringing up the lack of villages, it veers off to discuss formal parenting classes and government funding. I was confused; classes sound interesting, worthwhile even, but they’re not a village.

This veering off dominates parenting discourse, and it means we’re mostly discussing things like how to pay for subsidized child care or extend parental leave. We all lack the villages we need, the conversation goes, so how can we invent some program to replace them?

Look, I wouldn’t say no to more parental leave. And providing aid to parents can certainly be a good thing. But if the core problem is that people lack a village, then the bigger goal should be obvious. We need to rebuild our villages. To offer an analogy, if I were starving, I wouldn’t look for some sort of systemic alternative to food. I’d look for new food. There is no substitute for sustenance.

There are plenty of reasons writing on parenting consistently sidesteps the village-building problem, but the biggest may be that villages—which were typically organized around family tribes and clans—disappeared very gradually. 

Probably the most interesting recent chronicle of this disappearing process comes from Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard known for the idea of WEIRD psychology—with WEIRD standing for “western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.” Henrich’s 2020 book explores this concept at length, but to summarize, the idea is that a series of Catholic Church policies in the medieval period gradually dismantled tribal- and clan-style family structures in Europe. Interestingly, Henrich also points out in the book that medieval villages weren’t just collections of random people but were actually based on family networks.1

Henrich has argued that the upside of the West’s WEIRD evolution is greater wealth, democracy, and education. But of course, the trade off was giving up the kind of big networks many of us seem to long for today.

In a similar vein, historian Stephanie Coontz has written that the emerging market economy of the late 1700s helped develop the West’s unique sense of individualism. Suddenly, you could abandon your family farm and get an hourly job in the city. These changes gradually pushed the West away from a “work mate” concept of marriage in which couples were seen as partners in an enterprise such as a farm or shop and toward a “soul mate” model based on emotional connections. There’s nothing wrong with emotional connections, but this shift meant that the traditional economic incentives people had to invest in their villages eroded.

There’s a lot of history I’m glossing over here, but the point is that it took many centuries for the West to develop an emphasis on the individual, while at the same time the tribes and families that formed the basis for villages became less important. 

A parenting discourse focused entirely on things like government-funded child care or parenting classes does nothing to address the underlying historical conditions that left people isolated in the first place.

It’s hard, in that context, to think of policy solutions that might roll back centuries of change. How can we reintroduce a little pre-WEIRD culture into our lives? How can we strengthen families so that bonds are more than just emotional? And how can we cultivate an environment that’s more fertile for the types of villages we had before these changes took place?

I don’t have all the answers, but it’s frustrating that we’re basically never asking these types of questions at all. A parenting discourse focused entirely on things like government-funded child care or parenting classes does nothing to address the underlying historical conditions that left people isolated in the first place. Worse still, in many cases the political and media-driven debate about families fails even to consider ways to strengthen and promote nuclear families, the most basic building block for a village.

That’s not to say our many contemporary policy discussions don’t matter. But if everyone is right that villages are lacking, the process of rebuilding should be a priority as well.

It’s also probably not necessary to take on 1,000 years of family evolution in a single policy. We can start small. For instance, housing policy could go a long way toward promoting family-village life by allowing a more diverse set of building types. As I’ve written previously, most cities effectively only let developers build single family homes. But homes with backyard cottages, or where units are arranged around a courtyard, make it easier for multiple generations of families to live in close proximity to each other. Pro-village housing policy is policy that encourages village-like housing types.2

Housing is just one small piece of the puzzle. Another would be adopting child care policies that enable parents to remain at home, in their kids’ lives and out of the wage labor force, if they so choose. Institute for Family Studies blog readers will likely be familiar with the general arguments in favor of at-home child care, and there has been a refreshing push lately to make this option more visible.

But one rarely discussed collateral benefit of having a parent at home is that the family can more easily end up with a kinkeeper. What I’m talking about here is a term researchers use to describe the emotional labor of keeping families together across time and distance. The role of kinkeeper has historically fallen to women, whose (immense) labor in the domestic sphere has made them natural archivists of family lore, tradition, and values. Not coincidentally, I’ve found that in my own huge extended family, the kinkeepers tend to be the stay-at-home parents. I’d go so far as to say the role of kinkeeper is an essential one for a family village, and that it’s much easier for someone to assume that role when their daily work is focused on the family rather than on an unrelated job.

Of course, many families today need both parents working just to get by. But the point is that in debates about child care or other policies, we could start from the assumption that the ultimate goal is to help more people turn their families into the foundation of a village.

I think, at the end of the day, that’s really what we need: a better set of assumptions. Articles like the one in The Atlantic are well-intentioned and grasping at solutions, but they assume that the positive things of the past are gone for good. I hope for all of our sakes that’s not the case. We humans long for connection. As is so often repeated in writing about parenting, we were never meant to raise children in isolation. And while there may yet be new ways to foster connection, billions of humans over thousands of years have already figured out one thing that works really well: Families, and the villages they can become. 

Jim Dalrymple II is a journalist and author of the Nuclear Meltdown newsletter about families. He also covers housing for Inman and has previously worked at BuzzFeed News and the Salt Lake Tribune.

1. The reason Henrich mentions the family-based nature of villages is because the medieval church prohibited marriage between cousins. But the prohibition kept extending out to more and more distant relatives. Eventually, this actually made it hard for people to find mates; everyone in the village was at least distantly related somehow. 

2. If this is difficult to visualize, think of the movies Coco and Encanto or the TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In all of those works, extended family members are living in close proximity to each other, and everyone benefits as a result. Building more places like that is one small step on the path to rejuvenating the family village. For even denser, and real-world examples, consider the ruins of Mesa Verde, which were effectively apartments built into cliff-sides, or the pastel villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre, which typically feature mid-rise apartments organized around a plaza.