It Takes a Village: Where We Get Parenting Advice

Most of us know the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” And just in case you think it originated with Hilary Clinton’s now decade-old bestseller It Takes a Village, the phrase is far older than that. (Origins aren’t totally clear, but the best guess is that it’s an African proverb). At any rate, the sentiment is intact: None of us should fly solo on this parenting thing.

Today’s parents may not have an actual village; it’s been generations now since most families routinely lived either together or in the kind of proximity that allowed for multiple related caregivers. But that doesn’t stop parents from seeking a village. Successive generations of parents have sought parenting wisdom through whatever means available (books, magazines, blogs, message boards, apps).

What remains the same are the questions and the issues for which parents seek a guiding hand—sleep, feeding, discipline, and education. You could say that the old days of village-oriented child rearing was superior, that our current reliance on smartphones rather than smart grandmothers is leaving us more alone, but that’s too simplistic.

The fact is that no matter what the generation, parents have always needed to reach out for help: to vent about a sleepless crying baby; to ask advice on what to feed; to share tips on, well, everything. How we do it is less important that the fact that we need to do it.

Here’s a look at where the last several generations of parents have looked to create their villages:

- By the book. After families stopped living in communal spaces, parenting experts emerged on the scene. Science was ascendant in the post-WWII years and into the 1950s and 60s, and parenting became something smart folks thought they could “solve” with some commonsense prescriptions. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s groundbreaking The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care came out in 1946 and it remained a bestseller for decades. His wasn’t the first book parents turned to for advice, but it was arguably the most influential and enduring. You could say that Dr. Spock paved the way for other highly influential advice-peddling parenting books, like the What to Expect series. Before anyone ever thought of going online, and without having a mom or grandmother on the premises to ask questions of, books and parenting magazines filled the village void.

- The early internet era. Think about this: Right now, there are new moms and dads who never lived in a non-internet world. But in the early days of whirring modems and AOL, parenting “villages” coalesced on listservs—email messaging groups that must have felt revolutionary to new parents in the 1990s. Imagine how amazing it felt to “meet” like-minded parentspeople in the same sleepless trenches as youall across the country or the world, without leaving home. It was an evolution in sharing, and a revolution in the spread of information.

- Websites and message boards. As connecting to the internet got smoother and easier, parenting websites flourished, magazines moved online, and blogs overtook the cyber world, in a sense creating micro-villages. Soon, the information street became two-way; not just a place to go for advice, but a place to give and share advice with other moms. Sites like BabyCenter, for example, made it easy for moms-to-be to meet up in message-board groups geared not just to being pregnant, but also being the same amount of weeks pregnant. Groups that began when the members’ babies were no bigger than lima beans remained active through pregnancy, the newborn period, and deep into baby and childhood. The village got both bigger, and at the same time micro-targeted. Newer sites like Bundoo and others take it a step further, not just connecting parents with each other, but giving them 24/7 online access medical and parenting experts.

The upshot? It still takes a village. It’s just that now, your villagers are everywhere.