It takes a village to raise a child. Ever think about what that might really mean or where the statement comes from? While there are some who say it originated in Africa, there is no clear proof. Like so many other common sense insights, it may have many origins; indigenes across time and continents very likely made similar observations long before the modern era. In 1996, Hilary Clinton released her book, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, her inspiration no doubt borrowed from the ancients. What is both interesting and disappointing, is the outright opposition to the idea from so-called social conservatives, perhaps the most notable being former US Senator Bob Dole.

In his acceptance of the Republican nomination for president he said, “[W]ith all due respect, I am here to tell you, it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child.” Senator Rick Santorum answered Ms. Clinton’s tome in 2005 with his opposing It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good.

On one side we have conservative social engineers who hold the nuclear family so sacred they seem to be at odds with the rest of society, and won’t hesitate to use the state to impose their will onto others. On the other side we have liberal social engineers who believe the state should be responsible for everybody. The problem with this, of course, is that while the state is only too happy to take away the individual’s rights [freedom] it will always leave the individual responsible for his or her actions.

Before I get too deep into this let me first state very clearly: I am neither conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. I consider the US political system has become one of the bigger deceptions on the planet. We war over which party gets to run the country into the ground, all the while ignoring the gorilla in the room; a corrupted system designed to enrich the few, estrange the many, all the while destroying the planet. It really doesn’t matter who wins an election because the politicians and high level bureaucrats work for the same few people and flog the same dead horse. The entire dance is choreographed to keep the public occupied and its eyes off the ball. Yet, I refuse to become a cynic. And while I have no interest in writing some ugly polemic, it is important to look at a few attitudes and assumptions if we’re to understand what kind of a village Hilary and Bob are arguing about.

Mr. Dole’s comments suggest a black-or-white point of view, not uncommon among social conservatives. I am reminded of the George W. Bush paraphrase of the Bible, “ are either with us or against us.” [Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23, “He who is not with me is against me...”] This is what’s known as a false dilemma; there are two and only two choices. Of course, this is not true. Conservatives assume that if a village were to raise a child the parents would be deprived of their rights. “Village” is taken to mean “government,” and in the case of conservatives, that would be an “ever-expanding, redistributive, supervisory Liberal government,” which, of course, is the only possible product of a supervisory liberal party assisted by its liberal media. And this evil government entity would take control of the children, rendering them godless humanists. Reminds me of the government’s residential schools so many Indians were shuffled off to, most of them hundreds of miles from home. Maybe conservatives really do have something to fear.

A common arrangement among Indigenes was for blood family members to live in close proximity to each other. While Mom and Dad were out earning a living, hunting, gathering, growing crops, trading with others, Grandma and Grandpa were back at the ranch helping to raise the kids. And not just Grandma and Grandpa, but aunties and uncles and other adults and elders. Regardless of who the parents were, when a child showed up, adults would notice and assume responsibility for the child’s welfare while she or he is in the neighborhood. That is, they would integrate the child into their circle as one of their own, which included teaching. This is not to say the same is not true in mainstream America, but there is a definite, almost exclusionary emphasis on the so-called “nuclear family,” which translates into something like “you take care of yours, I take care of mine.” In other words, I am only really responsible for my kids, and you are responsible for yours. If there’s a problem, that’s what the state is for.

Parents look to the schools, aftercare programs, sports or the local mall to do what grandma and grandpa did in times past. Special programs with hired help have to be invented to fill in the gaps of parenting. We spend loads of money and give ourselves kudos for doing this. If you take issue with this, that’s good. I urge you to study the statistics of teen pregnancies, gangs, teen homicide and suicide, runaways, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of motivation, but couple that with an equally in-depth study of federal, state, county, parochial, and secular programs to “combat” these statistics. Perhaps one reason for these numbers is that so many households require both parents to work outside the home just to stay afloat.

In healthy families, children know their parents love them. What they learn from interacting with so many others who organically and consciously help with their growing up, is that they are also loved and truly cared for by people not blood family. They develop strong self esteem and appreciation for the village that raised and continues to support them. They learn to respect others, including the elderly for they know there is great wisdom there. They cultivate an awareness of the needs of others and tend to those needs.

In mainstream USA there is great emphasis on the rights of the individual. It is the major political achievement of the US Constitution and we see it virtually every day in how much attention is given to the rights of the accused. Victim’s rights is a recent and still-developing interest. Is it any wonder that after 200 years of focusing on the rights of the individual we see so much self-centeredness? Contrast this with the idea of the giveaway; when all share generously with each other there are no “less fortunates.” That is when the whole village prospers. There are no dysfunctional differences in wealth or status or treatment, and balance is the focus, not individual accumulation for reasons of power and privilege.

I can see where conservatives, and even liberals on deeper reflection, might balk at the idea of exposing their children to such a village. Truth is, the village already is raising our children, just look at the evidence. And the effects are compounding. To briefly cite just a few immediately observable differences in mainstream USA and the once high-functioning villages of Indigenes, I offer the following:

Survival of the Village v. Success of the Individual: In my admittedly prejudice view, one of the major reasons mainstream America is suffering the problems it is today has a lot to do with this idea that personal success reigns supreme. I have to wonder if the Culture of Acquisition has learned anything at all in the run away greed displayed in the so-called Wall Street crisis. At what point does the practice of accumulating personal wealth begin to harm the larger society? It’s time to seriously consider this question. There are those who argue that if the individual is successful, the village will prosper. If that’s true, and with all the attention and support given to the accumulation of personal wealth, why is the US in the economic predicament it is in today? No one goes hungry in the village unless all are hungry. The focus is on giveaway, not takeaway.

Punishment v. Balance: Over 9 million people are held in prisons worldwide. While accounting for only 5.25% of global population the United States has far and away the highest number of inmates with some 2,030,000, or 22.5% of the world’s prison population! The US also has the highest prison population rate in the world at some 700 jailed per 100,000. Indigenous societies are more interested in restoring balance in the village, in bringing healing to the entire society, the very nature of which is to focus on the victims. Retribution is not a priority or seen as being necessarily productive. Restoring balance is. A punitive society breeds judgementalism, and vice virsa.

Proselytizing v. Allowing: What Indigenous people ever got into the business of nation building? Indigenes worldwide recognize the right of a people to live life as they see it, to organize their societies as they see fit, to develop culturally, economically, and spiritually as they choose. I recognize this is a volatile subject for some and this is not the place to fully explore this, but the US has a long history of imposing its will masquerading as prosperity “democracy” on countries and people who have only been harmed by these activities.

Honoring the Spirit in All Life v. Separation of Church and State: This one is also complicated in that we would first need to fully develop the ideas of “spiritual” and “religion.” While I support the separation of religion and state within the political structure of the United States, I lament the absence of honoring a non-religiously defined or informed Spirit openly and publicly as a people. Again we brush up against another false dilemma, which is that one can be a good person only if one is religious. Or so the church would claim.

Seeking Power v. A Willingness to Serve: Leaders of Indigenes were typically appointed by the people. In fact, in some 60% of tribes it was the women who decided this. Usually it was a person well-qualified, but not striving for the position, one whose ego was in balance and not seeking any kind of position. Now consider the process in the mainstream, so many talking heads clambering for political office. Sometimes I am reminded of Joseph Goebels who said the bigger the lie, the easier it is for people to believe it.

Respect of Elders v. Pursuing Youth: That 18 to 35 year old demographic, tweens, and beauty queens. Ah, yes, this is where it’s at. To its own detriment, mainstream America ignores one of its richest resources in its obsession with youth, physical beauty, wealth, and the privileged. It’s common knowledge the high esteem and respect indigenous elders are held in.

Compromise v. Consensus: Another false assumption is that compromise is the only way to move ahead. If Congress were an institution executing its charge in good faith, there would be no gridlock, no vengeful behavior, obstructionism and Ouija Board polling would not exist. The idea of compromise implies there are two choices only, while the act of compromising is considered a defeat. Hence, there is no compromise and the US taxpayer is proud benefactor of the world’s most most embarrassing political paradox; the country that touts its progressive democracy to the rest of the world cannot get anything done. Consensus results from thinking outside the box, or Beltway, choose your metaphor. It is a process of finding solutions not otherwise considered that give the parties concerned what they can live with and, hopefully, even feel good about. Indigenes of North America were able to consistently work out consensus decisions and would not take action on an issue until one had been reached that literally all of the people could get behind.

Competition v. Cooperation: Mainstream America prides itself on its competitive nature. I am reminded of a story about a non-Indian teacher who worked on a reservation. He tried to get the kids to go to the blackboard and work the same math problem. No takers. Frustrated and wore out by his inability to get anyone to move, he finally asked. The reason none of the children would get up and do the exercise was their concern that if one of them got the wrong answer that person would be embarrassed and feel ashamed. None of them were willing to cause such feelings. Math competency aside, this is cooperation for a reason that could have far more impact in life than getting the right answer of the day. It demonstrates the “village” taking care for the individual, it shows us what being mindful of the needs of others can look like. Winners are heroes, losers are...well, losers. Mainstream has managed to convince itself that failure or losing is a character defect, not an event.

There are many more differences between industrial culture and indigenous culture, but I think this is enough to make the point. Both Hilary and Bob are talking about some kind of village completely foreign to what the aphorism speaks to. I can see why social conservatives are leery of liberals saying it takes a village to raise a child. And I can see why liberals might question the obsessive focus on the nuclear family idea. Mainstream culture is full of code words, double, even triple standards, and Americanized English is loaded with conceptual traps and absent references that are ever more destructive than we might imagine. So, when we talk about it taking a village to raise a child, let’s first determine exactly what that village should look like.

Author's Bio: 

Rick is a mixed-blood Tsalagi (Cherokee), a sundancer, inipi (sweatlodge) leader, and presents workshops and lectures throughtout the country. For information, or to schedule a workshop or lecture please visit or his Expert's Page.