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It Takes a Family (Not a Village) to Raise a Child



Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD - published on 12/22/14

I'll pass on the unsolicited advice, thank you.

Does it take a village to raise a child, or a family?

There is something about children that gives everyone a license to hand out unsolicited advice to parents.  I’ve heard it all:

• Getting off a packed airplane with my five children, I asked my nine-year-old to carry our six-month-old while my husband and I kept track of our toddlers and carry-on bags. Ladies gasped, one woman even cried in a loud voice, “He’s going to drop the baby!” Multiple people asked me, “Is he okay with that baby?” Yet no one offered to help me… “He’s fine, he can carry the baby,” I reassured people again and again. The problem here was not my nine-year-old, or my parental decision to have him carry the baby. The problem was that other people were uncomfortable. This is not my problem.  

• The Sam’s Club greeter told me I was a “crazy mother” to take my infant from my car to the store in a fleece sleeper without a coat. “You have a coat on, where is his?” he said. I wondered why he didn’t have any criticism for the smokers just outside the door. 

• Standing in line to vote with a crying infant, I finally found a chair and sat down to nurse her. At least five women gave me breastfeeding advice, one even asking, “Is the milk coming out?” Yet no one offered to hold my place in line. 

• While single parenting with five kids at a children’s church service, my three- and five-year-old started tickling each other while I was trying to nurse an infant and calm another upset child. The lady in front of me turned around and said, “Are you going to do something about this?” Perhaps she would have felt better if we had stayed home?

Once in a long while I get the opposite, some kind person who tries to help us rather than just offering criticism. When two of our children started fighting over the iPad in the airport security line, the man behind us asked the TSA officer for stickers, and our children were quickly redirected. No eye rolls, no sharp words, no loud conversations about our children with the person next to him — he just solved the problem with a small act of kindness. 

If you think my children are annoying, or my parenting makes you uncomfortable, I have news for you — my children are the next generation of Americans, the people who will pay your social security and your nursing home bill. They might even become the physician who takes care of you in that nursing home. I truly hope I can teach them to have kind words for you. My children are more than just a carbon footprint or trash generators. We are grateful for our children and we joyfully accept the privilege of raising them. If you want to help me in a moment of distress, I’d appreciate it. But I don’t need your unsolicited criticism. It really doesn’t help. 

Parenting has become a fight against culture, against how everyone else thinks children should be raised. A parent’s job is to filter through the thousands of messages presented to our children daily and choose which ones we will promote in our own homes. There is more than one right way to raise a child, yet everyone thinks their way is best. It is the privilege and responsibility of parenthood to choose the way you raise your child. With a few exceptions for egregious choices that harm children, you don’t get to tell otherwise responsible people how to raise their children or how to manage everyday activities. 

Does it take a village to raise a child? What a child needs is unconditional love, love that usually comes from a family. A village can help, if it supports the family. We make nice excuses for parental criticism —  in the name of safety, or children’s rights — but ultimately such criticism isolates and does not support. If you want to help a child, help a parent.  

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a mother of five young children.  Connect with Dr. Berchelmann at  

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