Some years ago, someone invented a catchy phrase about child rearing. “It takes a village.” It sounds good but ignores the fact that in third world societies where villages actually exist, childhood is often difficult, even a time of danger.
There are no villages in our world, except possibly among a few Native American groups. Even the familiar rural communities of the past have disappeared as young adults moved away to jobs that often continue to move them around every two or three years. Then businesses, schools and churches — the secondary glue that holds communities together — also failed, consolidated or shrank. Modern people may know the names of neighbors but share no ties other than locality.
The rural community was much like a village. At its heart, it was family and family connections, in most cases a good place for children. Growing up, I could travel for miles under an umbrella of close kin, slightly more distant kin and very distant kin, all of whom knew who I was. Some of them could recite shared genealogical ties back 150 years or more. I could stop at any house in an emergency or just to refresh and visit. It was an umbrella of welcome and security.
One function of community is to teach children to fit into that world. The word is discipline, not in the sense of punishment but of teaching although punishment might come into play to underscore teaching. In the first place, it was necessary to learn to fit into the expectations of birth family, momma and daddy. Instruction was usually subtle, given in incidents of everyday living and maybe enforced by occasional praise.
Punishment as enforcement was often corporal, administered by either parent. There was no “time out in your room,” since children shared rooms with siblings. The peach tree switch or razor strap filled the bill. Peach trees grow long, straight suckers from their bases. As switches, these seemed to wrap all the way around the offender’s legs. Straight razors are kept sharp with straps of thick leather about two inches wide and two feet long. Paired, as my father’s was, with a matching strap of polished canvas, this instrument delivered significant impact and an accompanying pop. Mother, so gentle and comforting in times of sickness or sadness, was also quick with the switch or strap. Daddy was much slower to provoke, but his work-hardened hands and arms made his physical admonitions memorable.
Just as our "village” provided a large umbrella of joy, comfort and security, it also was involved in instruction and discipline, including punishment. Grandparents, uncles and aunts, sometimes older siblings, were expected to keep children out of trouble and to intervene physically if necessary. Expectations and limits were understood.
I have been told that I acted up during a funeral service for which my mother was playing the piano and that her mother, my grandmother, arose from the congregation, took me outside and physically demonstrated why I should not have behaved that way. She told me to stop crying at once and took me back into the church. Since I was 3 or 4 years old at the time, I have only a vague memory of the event but believe all that I ever heard about it. It sounds just like Grandmother Ella.
In my late wife’s family, her father, Troy Slater, was a typical authoritarian head of household. He administered corporal punishment to all of his six children, although he was interrupted once out in the yard when the family dog bit him, aroused by the wails of his son. He just as readily punished many of his grandchildren when he deemed such to be justified.
My darling Annette, beloved by nieces and nephews, nevertheless spanked them as she deemed necessary, but still remained beloved.
A more frequent form of intervention outside of close family ties is a social threat that goes, “Do you want me to have to tell your momma/daddy on you?” Embarrassed mothers who are also angry about bad behavior must be taken very seriously.
Being raised in a “village” has its down sides. It encourages conformity and uniformity in thought and action. New thoughts, beliefs and behaviors are questioned or forbidden. Technological changes might be accepted quickly, but changes in values come slowly.
One of the social tools used to keep people in line is gossip, behind-the-back talk about members of the community by other members of the community, usually a small clique that interact frequently. Such talk spreads like wild fire. To the extent that rumors are accurate, they might encourage people to end behavior seen as bad in the community.
But gossip is rarely accurate and is done more to satisfy the gossipers than to maintain community standards. Even when it lacks any foundation in fact, gossip can inflict lasting social and psychological injuries.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.