If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times, “it takes a village to raise a child.” The ubiquitous proverb is often quoted not just because it’s so true, but also because we need to consistently be reminded. There’s no more important responsibility of each community than the raising of its children.
This week, I had the pleasure of publicly interviewing my friend, Frank DeAngelis, in a fireside chat format as part of our district-sponsored Community Speaker Series. Frank is the retired principal of Columbine High School who served as principal before, during, and after the deadly massacre that killed 12 students and one teacher on April 20, 1999 and seared Columbine’s place in the national historic consciousness.
As Frank reflected on his experience over the last twenty years since the shooting (can you believe it’s been twenty years?), several important messages resounded for the listener. The most important message for parents, I believe, was his emphatic call to ‘stay engaged in your child’s life, even and especially when they are adolescents.’
Frank remarked how one of the assailant’s parents, when asked by police to see her son’s room after the shooting, said, “Oh, you can’t go in there. Nobody’s been in there.” He further detailed how the boys had spent nearly a year recording videos of their plan and hate-filled mindsets in the basement of one of the boys’ homes. Had one of the parents searched their son’s room, walked in on a video session, or glanced at the computer screen over the months preceding April 20, 1999, maybe 13 innocent lives would have been spared and only folks in suburban Denver would even know of a school named Columbine.
I share this story not to place blame on parents for school shootings, not even to address gun violence. I share this story because it is a powerful illustration of an extreme cost of parental and, to some degree, community disengagement.
His message reminded me of advice I often give parents. While your growing child may be actively pushing you away, resist the urge to let them. They still need you. And while they don’t know it, they still want you. I am not advocating that we hold on in unhealthy ways, micromanaging the decisions and experiences of our maturing child. I am reminding us to stay engaged.
Provide freedom...with clear expectations.
Let go...but check in.
Celebrate success...and apply consequences.
The reality is that even the most trustworthy, responsible kids have underdeveloped prefrontal cortices. They still need our engagement and correction.
And this engagement shouldn’t and doesn’t stop with an individual child’s parents. In his book, Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand, James Vollbracht advocates families, neighborhoods, larger communities, the business world, and elders step up and step in to assist what he sees as an unstable and disconnected culture in order that it can become a healthier, supportive one. What would it look like if we all took responsibility for the “collective"? It might be when we see a child who is not our own riding his bike unsafely, walking alongside him and saying, “Hey bud, your mom would be so sad if you got hurt riding like that, please ride more carefully.” Or, when we see a young girl drop her candy wrapper on the ground, picking it up and saying, “I’m going to throw this away for you and hope you’ll do the same in the future.” What if elementary libraries were full of senior citizens reading with kids after school or our middle schools had a waiting list of folks who wanted to coach the 6th grade flag football team? What if, as Vollbracht asserts, we each made a point of stopping at every lemonade stand we cross?
The Search Institute has developed a widely respected Developmental Asset Framework that identifies 40 assets, 30 of which are necessary for youth to thrive. Of the 40 assets, eight of them are directly impacted by adults taking responsibility to care for more than just their own child. Those assets are:
If you see my kid and he needs your help, admonition, or advice, I invite you to step in. And I’ll do the same for yours.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.