In the Company of Community

One of the first things adults are anxious to teach a young person is sharing. Apparently greed is still a deadly sin, and we hate to see our kids deny siblings or friends a chance to try their toys. But this makes sense because the ability to distribute and sometimes ration food and supplies was a survival skill for our ancestors. It’s an important concept to pass on because it has gotten our species through a lot of rough times.

Sharing is a cornerstone of community. With those we love, the opportunity to share a meal, tools, or a listening ear brings us closer. And when we share with strangers we get to expand our circle of care and the human family feels a little cozier.

It doesn’t really make sense to get uptight about wanting our children to share. Parents can also be rigid with our expectations for saying please and thank you. We can even get downright UN-generous about needing our young people to act willing to give and take.

Personal congruence

As I’ve said before, teenagers have terrific radars for justice. If they see something unfair or hypocritical they can be quick to call it out. When I was young my dad demanded that I share with my sister, but this insistence didn’t jibe with how he treated us. Why was he asking me to be generous when he wouldn’t be that way himself? I also heard, “say something nice or don’t say anything at all,” regularly from both my parents, but I saw them talking nasty about extended family and politicians. As a teen I asked myself, “what kind of backwards world am I living in?”

Aligning our words with our actions – being congruent – is a crucial parenting skill. Whoever coined the phrase, ‘do as I say not as I do’ obviously had no idea how children actually learn about integrity.

All those talents that go into being community-minded – sharing, looking out for neighbours, putting others needs before your own – young people don’t pick them up from lectures or lessons. Children learn about community development by observing it and experiencing it.

Young does not equal dumb

In March I took part in an international young leader’s conference over Zoom. We were supposed to meet in Boston, but due to the novel coronavirus we gathered in front of our computers from seven different time zones and five continents. On the second day I was in a session where a teenager from Denmark told a story about how her dad used to encourage her to speak her mind, but now he was acting decidedly unsupportive. The young woman said, “I’m staying with my mom right now, and because she’s sick – maybe COVID-19 – we aren’t leaving the house. My dad lives close by and he’s been dropping off groceries for us, but he keeps telling me that my mom is exaggerating and a quarantine is unnecessary.” This teen was playing a key role in her household while her mother was out of commission, and she was frustrated with her father.

The facilitator of the session asked the teen what she felt most proud of. The young woman replied, “I am trusting my thinking and doing what I know is best, even if that means my dad disapproves or mocks me.” Then the facilitator asked what’s been the hardest part. She answered, “I’m not just concerned about the health of people in my home; I’m concerned for the whole community. It’s difficult for me that my dad is making this personal when we should be thinking about everyone.” Then she added, “It’s so typical that grown-ups think teenagers don’t know what we are talking about. But you know what? None of the adults have ever faced a global pandemic before, so we are all learning this new world together. I hate getting treated like I’m stupid just because I’m young.”

Walk your talk

When parents actively demonstrate what it means to share, our young ones will integrate the value of community. Children and families need community to survive the frenzied early days of parenting, but in order to thrive community also needs us – young and old can play a role.