During this project we noticed some very intriguing community interaction patterns emerge among our participants. In particular, we identified specific positive aspects of having an extended support network of people who shared the values and morals of the participants.
The parents in our study who had close relationships with other like-minded families found that much of their parenting was being done for them by the community. Specifically, other parents were monitoring children’s activities, using teachable moments, and modeling appropriate behavior for the children (and for the parents too, actually). In this way, their network did not simply reinforce their parenting, it actually contributed in ways that the actual parents could not have done.
Cultural Leverage & Accountability
In addition to the direct activities that members of the community engaged in with the children, there were indirect cultural influences as well that parents could not provide on their own. Arguing is a good example—parents spend a considerable amount of effort attempting to set boundaries for how their children can talk to them when they (the children) are upset. Now, if a child violates these boundaries, he or she can expect some kind of censure from the parents. But if that same violation occurs in the context of a community that shares the parents’ values and boundaries, then the child can expect additional censure by his or her own friends and valued adults—this clearly raises the stakes for violating the parental boundaries, and provides increased incentives for conforming to parental (and communal) standards. Consider extreme censure: the child is much more likely to be rejected by and expelled from his or her community that his or her own household, so the community has access to at least one disincentive that the parents cannot replicate at home.
Validation and Expectation
Another valuable function that a like-minded community performs for parents (and married couples) is assisting them in establishing their expectations (we discuss this in the married couple case study as well), and in validating parents’ experiences as normal. We noted several instances among our participants where they derived comfort from simply tapping into their community to inform them that their experiences were in fact shared by others and to be expected as part of life in the future. This knowledge—which can only be provided by a peer network—allowed the parents and spouses to relax about certain issues that they could live with as long as they knew it was nothing to worry about.
The idea that a community of like-minded friends and family is beneficial to a household is nothing new. However, this study not only reinforced that idea, but also provided insight that such a community is both important and irreplaceable to parents and spouses.