They say it takes a village to raise a child. A close community can give our children a sense of belonging, help them develop key social and emotional skills, and provide them with support as they grow. As parents and caregivers, we can help our children find their communities and foster these key connections for years to come.
A sense of belonging
Just how important are community connections? “They are fundamental for childhood development,” says mother, former teacher, and registered clinical counselor Laura Henderson. “We need a sense of belonging. We’re not meant to go through life alone.”
Henderson works as a counselor in a private practice and as a school counselor at an elementary school, and she knows the value of community. “Children are the best example of the benefits of community,” she explains. “It’s wonderful to watch them grow, increasing their knowledge, skills, and experiences.”
In addition to creating a sense of belonging and helping with development, a strong community can provide young people with all types of support:
- a place and people to turn to in times of trouble
- access to various resources and a network of people for potential future opportunities
- positive examples of diversity, cultural differences, and new perspectives
Something you give, something you gain
Elaine Su is a mother; teacher-librarian; writer; and equity, diversity, and inclusion advisor who also champions the value of community. As a first generation Chinese Canadian settler, she describes how community is a fundamental part of her culture and how this plays a role in raising her own family.
“You can’t care for that which you don’t care about, so I believe it’s vital that our kids care about the people around them, and vice versa,” Su explains.
Community teaches children that they matter, but it also teaches them that they’re not the only ones who matter. “Community is both something you gain from and something you give to,” Su says. “I want children to learn that we all have little and big roles to play in building and sustaining community.”
How to build a community
Just as our social connections change throughout our lives, a child’s community will change and grow as well. A four-year-old’s community will look different than a 12-year-old’s, for instance.
Community for very small children may include close family members, day care or preschool teachers, and their peers. Gradually, their communities will grow to include other familiar adults that they interact with often (such as neighbors, librarians, or mail carriers), plus friends. Older children will start to build community connections at school, through extracurricular activities, and perhaps even online (see “Internet communities”).
According to Henderson, helping our children find and maintain positive relationships can often be as simple as modeling these positive relationships in our everyday lives. “Our children watch and pick up on everything we do, including how we speak to, and connect with, people in our communities—even how we relate to our partners!” she explains.
Su gives an example of how to teach young children to help build community. “It’s about naming that good feeling you get when you see a dog you recognize and pet, and then when you see a particularly good stick at the park, you pick it up and leave it in their yard for them with a note. That’s building community.” These small acts can guide children to assume a role within the community and learn hands on that they have capacity and agency.
A tailored approach
As parents and caregivers, we need to recognize that since each child is unique, each child’s community will be unique. Henderson reminds us of the metaphor used by renowned psychologist Marsha Linehan, in which she cautions us against trying to be a rose if we’re actually a tulip, and that we should instead “find a tulip garden.”
In other words, if your child has trouble fitting in or coming out of their shell, encourage them to explore and find the community in which they can truly thrive. Perhaps your child dislikes being on a soccer team, for example, but would love to be part of a chess club or musical theater group.
“One of the biggest problems I see is people encouraging their children to have connections, but not healthy ones,” says Henderson. “We need to validate being different, and think outside the box, providing social opportunities that fit our children.”
Although connections are important, it’s vital that children have healthy connections. As parents, this means teaching our children how to set healthy boundaries. Henderson suggests the following tips:
Starting very young, give children a sense of control over their bodies and relationships: if they don’t want to give someone a hug, don’t force them.
Explain why we don’t hit people or touch people when they don’t want to be touched.
Validate their emotions
Even with negative emotions, let children know that if someone or something makes them feel bad or uncomfortable, they can trust their emotions and inner voice. Encourage them to name and express these emotions.
Set an example
Express emotions and model healthy boundaries in your own day-to-day life.
Tell them why and when there are limits to boundaries; for example, why they do, in fact, need to brush their teeth.
Online connections can be meaningful, joyful, and important for young people: a child interested in a niche hobby might connect with like-minded kids, for example. The key is staying safe online. Parents can help by being closely involved, setting rules, teaching their kids about privacy and media literacy, and setting up parental controls.
Need extra support?
Find a counselor through your local association of clinical counselors. Children and teens can also reach out to their school counselors.
A lonely problem
Is your child or teen lonely? Counselor Laura Henderson says that it can sometimes be hard to tell, and adults don’t always recognize loneliness in their children. Conversely, sometimes parents and caregivers assume that a quiet, introverted, or soft-spoken child is lonely, when they are not. It’s best to check in with your child to see if they’re feeling lonely.
If they are, Henderson recommends “listening and validating their feelings, rather than listing reasons why they shouldn’t feel the way they do.”
Then you can make a realistic plan together. “Don’t promise them that they’ll go out tomorrow and make a new best friend,” she emphasizes. “Instead, think of a plan as a ladder, and focus on the first rung.” She suggests finding someone in their class that they might want to get to know better or someone they have something in common with. “Then, you can scaffold it with next steps.”
Don’t let kids have all the fun!
This is the perfect opportunity to foster your own community connections too.
- Sign up for a course or join a program through your local recreation or cultural center.
- Take part in community events and celebrations.
- Attend city hall meetings.
- Make a weekly coffee date with a friend (or group of friends).
- Chat with your neighbors.
- Volunteer with local nonprofit organizations.
Community through books
Can books help build community? Absolutely, says teacher-librarian Elaine Su. She describes books as “validating, affirming, and literally lifesaving.”
Referencing renowned literature professor Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Su explains how books can be mirrors (reflecting our own world back to us so we can see it clearly), windows (giving us glimpses into familiar or unfamiliar worlds), and sliding glass doors (allowing the reader to open up their perspectives and put themselves in someone else’s shoes).
In particular, reading children’s books that depict diversity through joy is particularly powerful, according to Su. “It shapes the way our kids frame their views of the world. In my view, it’s the easiest and most joyful way to unlearn a lot of the harmful biases and norms that most of us are steeped in, having grown up in societies that are really built around those biases and norms.”
Su adds that, in addition to providing books, public libraries are wonderful community hubs, offering a safe place and many free resources and programs for all ages.