In Bangladesh, the international NGO Save the Children has been working with Imams to address the problem of paedophiles. In what must be a truly unique project, the Imams use their Friday prayers to teach their congregations about how to prevent sexual abuse towards children. Even more astounding, they address the unnamed paedophiles in their congregations, providing them with clinically proven strategies to prevent situations in which they might abuse. Men (there is, I’m told, no belief that women could also be sexually abusive) are encouraged, if thinking about sex with children, to avoid being in close contact with children, avoid touching children unless the children are their own and contact is necessary, avoid being in public spaces with children where the feelings of attraction may be sparked, and to avoid alcohol or other substances that might lower one’s inhibitions.
Much closer to home, in Toronto, a program called More Than a Haircut that is run through the Macaulay Child Development Centre has been finding a natural way to engage African-Caribbean men in the parenting of their children. Realizing that men seldom show up for parenting classes, and that many fathers are confused about what they can offer their children, child development specialists studied where young fathers regularly gather, and who they would take advice from. In a surprising twist on parenting classes, it was barbers and barbershops that became the focus for the intervention. Non-stigmatizing, and embedded in the community, professional parenting coaches are working with their haircutting counterparts to provide men with information about how they can help their children, appropriate discipline, and child development, all in ways that respect the fathers’ culture.
These are both excellent, albeit unusual, examples of the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. It certainly does, but we have mostly forgotten that we’re not just talking about mentors and soccer coaches. In contexts where the challenges children face are much more serious communities need to find creative ways to help their children get what they need from the adults who look after them. Safety, secure attachments, food, health care, clothing, education, and a moral compass are among the dozens of things adults across a community help to provide children. While we know that children who receive these things are more resilient, what we don’t always understand is the complexity of tailoring services in ways that match the needs of the communities they serve.
I spent the last week hosting 75 guests from around the world who came together to talk about researching resilience at the Resilience Research Centre in Halifax, a Centre that I founded and now co-direct with Dr. Linda Liebenberg. It was astonishing to hear many similar stories of how communities were responding to children in ways that kept children safe. Indeed, if we think of our communities as sources of social capital, it is remarkable the variety of resources that we can mobilize.
Most commonly, since Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, we have thought of social capital as people resources and the mutual ways we support one another. Even my own recent book We Generation could lead to a similar conclusion. But a community’s capital also means the informal and formal services that governments and NGOs provide to community members. Odd how we often forget that most communities invest some financial capital into social services (some more than others) but we tend to focus more on what the informal social supports provide. I am convinced that there is a vast number of programs like the two I just mentioned that are meeting children’s needs. Only, they are doing it by harnessing the power of people’s natural social networks and the grassroots institutions that already exist in our communities.
Kids need us to think about their needs and design services in ways that reach them, the people who could help them most, and the ones most likely to do them harm. In Brazil, an excellent program called Aquarelle diverts children from the streets or exploitive employment after their regular school day. The program provides as much as five hours of activities that include tutoring, sports, arts, music, and of course mentorship. It is an amazing initiative that communities own and house, often in old schools or other buildings. The focus is on ensuring that children who would otherwise be left very vulnerable are provided with extra support and diversion away from potentially dangerous behaviors.
In my own country, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA’s, Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, and hundreds of other community agencies provide the same type of support, often in our most disadvantaged communities. That, to my mind, is what social capital is really about. After all, for those children facing the most problems, too often the adults in their lives are themselves heavily burdened by economic pressure to work long hours, or the exhaustion of living in poverty, with illness, or a lack of community connections. It really does take a village to raise a child, only that village will sometimes have to be creative in how it reaches out to those who need help.