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Zwambag: We lost the village

The Motherload

I have these memories.

I’m five and six years old. I know this because I was school-aged and by the time I was seven, my family had moved to our new home in Alberta from the Saskatchewan town that I still consider my roots.  

I have a bike. I have two feet. And I have a lot of freedom.

As soon as my last bite of cereal has made it in to my mouth, I’m running out the door to pick up my best friend (who lives across the street) and then spend the day catching frogs at the creek, playing blind tag on the wooden playgrounds that have now been deemed unsafe for my children or running circles around the local baseball diamonds. As long as I was back by suppertime, I was good.

My community was filled with people who would fill in if I needed help. “Block Parent” signs appeared in enough windows that I’d never need to go more than a few houses before finding one. If I got hurt at the park, someone would make sure I got the help I needed and got back to my parents. If I was not doing my schoolwork, my teacher was empowered to do something and my parents would back the teacher instead of me. If I was shoving another kid while my mom was preoccupied with my brother, another parent would step in my mom would graciously thank that parent instead of jumping all over them. My parents knew who my friends were and how to get in touch with their parents. I grew up as one of 30 grandkids on a farm with animals to tend, chores to do and grain to harvest with 16 aunts and uncles who parented me.

My childhood was the epitome of “it takes a village”.

But somehow, we seem to have lost that village.

I feel like I’m raising my kids in a time where instead of parents building each other up and stepping in when needed, they’re competing to prove themselves better than one another and jumping at the chance to report each other for parenting choices that one should be allowed to make.

I’ve been thinking on this a lot lately as the “free-range parenting” community has both come together and come under fire after an American couple from Maine was found guilty of “unsubstantiated” child neglect charges. The neglect charges came after the parents were reported to authorities for allowing their 6-year-old and 10-year-old children walk to a park approximately a mile from their home by themselves.

The finding of “unsubstantiated” child neglect means that the case will stay open for five years, but it’s not clear what will happen if the family is reported again. Which seems likely as they have openly stated that they will not be changing their parenting methods and the case has drawn a lot of heated discussion.

The idea of free-range parenting isn’t really new if you ask me. In fact, 20 years ago, I’m pretty sure this was just called parenting. If anything, I’d say this new age of parenting where we are hyper-vigilant and protective of everything our kids are doing is the new concept, most likely brought on by a culture where we struggle to separate real dangers from ones brought on by fear mongering in the media, an onslaught of marketing for products that the big companies want us to buy and an intense desire to keep up with the Joneses.

So, I ask, what happened to the village?

I haven’t seen a Block Parent sign in a window in years, offering a safe haven if a child should ever find themselves in a dangerous situation. If I tell a child not to push another (or mine), I’m often faced with the child mouthing off to me or a parent saying I’ve stepping out of line. The advice of our mothers and grandmothers (who managed to raise a lot more children than most of us) is brushed off and seen as cruel, outdated or stupid. Parents who leave their children in a locked and warm vehicle and run in to pay for gas, 20 feet from the vehicle, are reported to child services by “well-meaning

Here’s the thing. In a world where parenting is terrifying, overwhelming and all-consuming, we need the village more than ever. If I’m busy making sure my one-year-old doesn’t break his face while he’s toddling across a bouncy bridge and my three-year old throws a rock at another kid’s head on the other side of the playground, I sure hope that other parent will step in and tell my kid that they’ve done something wrong and it’s not okay. I have friends who have put my kid in a time-out for bad behavior, and I say good on them. But I also know that they’ll pick up my kid should they fall, that they’ll encourage them to keep trying if they’re struggling to do something and that they will be a safe place for my child to turn if they ever need help.

I can’t be everywhere at once. And on days where I feel like my world is falling apart, sometimes I just need someone to say “I got your back”.

Would I let my 10-year-old walk to the park by herself? I’ll tell you when I have a 10-year-old. But obviously, these parents felt that this was perfectly safe for THEIR child and that was their decision to make.  At that age, I was definitely walking to the park by myself and was pretty capable of doing so.

So, instead of calling child services because you’re so concerned for these kids, why not just reach out? Let them know that you’re there if they need help.

Be the village. We all could use a little more of it.


Brianne Zwambag is a full-time boo-boo healer, snack artist, janitor, referee, master storyteller and child stylist in Fort St. John, B.C. who sometimes gets a chance to sit down and write about life, mommyhood and the issues that surround it.