A couple of weeks ago, I put a post here about how communities deal with abusive members and entitled it, “Misbehaving”. The title was intended to be provocative and to illustrate it, I searched for images of folks misbehaving. I found a couple of pictures of kids acting out and used them to illustrate the piece. I thought that they might add some humor to my post.
Someone in my community pointed out that these weren’t appropriate and I also got feedback in the form of comments when it went up on Facebook. I want to apologize and say clearly here that children are seldom, if ever, the cause of real problems in community. The issues I was pointing out all involved abusive adults.
Unfortunately, children, who bring so much to communities, are often not accepted into income-sharing communities, particularly if the communities are stressed out. Families and single parents have a harder time getting into communes and often staying in communes than people without children.
This is truly unfortunate and something that we need to change. While I can understand the issues on both sides, we can’t simply reject folks with kids.
I want to say here that I was part of a commune in the 1990s that helped raise two children, who are now lovely adults. I also know how much energy it took. There were usually five or six adults in the community and, although this wasn’t supposed to be the focus of our commune, parenting issues took up a lot of our time. (We actually did communal parenting, which I suspect few communities do.) I often wonder how my parents did it with two adults and five children, when we could barely deal with two kids when there were five adults.
I think that this is incredibly important work. If we are going to claim to be a real alternative to this dysfunctional society, we are going to need to figure out how we can support parents and families. We are going to need to take on the responsibilities involved in raising children. Communes and communities need to open their doors to families and single parents.
It does take a village to raise a child. We need to be those villages.
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I interviewed dozens of members of two egalitarian communities, rural Acorn community in Virginia, US (30 adults and one child at the time of research in 2014) and suburban Kummune Niederkaufungen near to Kassel in Germany (60 adults and 20 teens and children in 2016). You can find links to my four articles on Acorn community below this text. I share observations and insights from interviews that I conducted with some members of these communes. I will demonstrate the similarities between childhood in such communities and the conditions for optimal child development derived from research and theories based on ethnographic studies of indigenous societies.
Egalitarian communities constitute a more advanced version of experimenting with alternative economy than ecovillages. They share labor, land, and resources according to one’s needs and everyone contributes in a chosen way. In Kommune Niederkaufungen, one usually needs to integrate into one of the work collectives to be accepted. Members can spend money according to their needs but in Acorn community there is a monthly pocket money to cover extra expenses such as alcohol or cigarettes, whereas in Niederkaufungen expenses of above 150 Euros need to be announced. Both communities operate enterprises. In Kommune Niederkaufungen, some members are employed outside. In Acorn community, weekly 42-hour work contribution is required but each member decides what activities to do and no checks are in place.
In both communities where I conducted interviews raising children is considered to be a work contribution and is valued in the same way as activities that earn money. Recognition for care and reproductive work is part of the feminist philosophy of these communes and their pursuit of egalitarianism. In this way parents do not need to choose between making a living or raising children. Since work arrangement is quite flexible and many members work in the same place where they live (in Acorn community this is the case for majority of activities), it is easier to combine work with child care. Also non-parents can choose to participate in child care as a work contribution.
Thanks to these conditions parents can respond to a child’s needs without the stress of economic survival. The first three years of life define emotional development and negligence can lead to trauma and behavioural or emotional disorders. Research examining physiology and theories of child development underline the need for constant availability of an adult and touch in early childhood (see articles by such authors as Darcia Narvaez and Jean Liedloff). This is more difficult to organize in the mainstream society.
Communes provide an environment that makes it easier to pursue homeschooling or unschooling because of the close availability of many adults with diverse skills and knowledge. For example, a member of East Wind, a commune in Missouri, teaches French to one of the children by taking a walk and talking to them in this language. Children in Kommune Niederkaufungen go to school, either a public one in their neighborhood or an alternative school in the city center. However, they can tap on a vast expertise at home having access to many adults with diverse knowledge. (In Niederkaufungen, some members work in education).
Community skills and multi-age group
Children need multiple attachments, according to Peter Gray, and this is how children have been raised in indigenous communities.1 In the book “Free to Learn,” Peter Gray points to the advantages of being part of a multi-age group and engaging in free play with other children for learning and emotional development. Furthermore, he elaborates on the importance of unstructured play time with other children. Citing survey date, he mentions that one of the main obstacles for limiting such free activities with children in the neighborhood is the concern for safety. Parents prefer to occupy children with extracurricular activities because they are sure that they are taken care of. In a commune, it is easier to establish conditions for children to have free play. The children and their parents know each other and there are many trusted adults around so that children can play in safety.
Peter Gray shows that children learn skills that they observe are crucial in the adults’ world by playing. Growing up in an environment where a lot of discussions and decision-making takes place, this may encourage them to develop related skills. One of the members of Kommune Niederkaufungen said that there is a practice of exercising patience and letting someone express oneself in conflicts, which contrasts with the way his friends treated each other in his life before joining commune. This may also be an example for children.
Disputes among parents
Living in a commune requires a lot more discussions and collective decision-making than living an individualized life. For example, what parents allow to their children may affect other children more directly than in mainstream living. It can become a source of conflict. A father left the commune Niederkaufungen because of the decision of other parents to have satellite television. It was impossible to isolate this child from mainstream media influence. In this commune, at least four people needed to make a veto to block community decision. Parents in this commune gather regularly to talk about their children.
The impact on the society
Certainly the way children are raised shapes their personalities. Aggregated, it results in the human relations and values of society. Jean Liedloff considers touch deprivation in early infancy to be responsible for insatiable wants and searching for solace in consumerism. Narvaez asks what impact depriving babies of their basic human needs will have on the entire society. Peter Gray observes that inter-age education contributes to the development of empathy and compassion. Communities provide conditions to raise emotionally healthy and cooperative individuals. Hopefully, they will inspire mainstream society to create conditions that resemble communal child care.
Articles on Acorn community
Gajewska, Katarzyna (September 2016): Egalitarian alternative to the US mainstream: study of Acorn community in Virginia, US.Bronislaw Magazine and reposted on PostGrowth.org.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (21 July 2016): An intentional egalitarian community as a small-scale implementation of Post-Capitalism.P2P Foundation Blog.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (10 January 2016): Case study: Creating use value while making a living in egalitarian communities. P2P Foundation Blog.
Gajewska, Katarzyna (27 December 2014): An intentional egalitarian community as a small-scale implementation of postcapitalist, peer production model of economy. Part I : Work as a spontanous, voluntary contribution. P2P Foundation Blog.
Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD, is an independent scholar and futurist writer (Facebook: Katarzyna Gajewska – Independent Scholar). She has been publishing on alternative economy, non-digital peer production, universal basic income and collective autonomy since 2013 and is mainly interested in psychological and emotional aspects of transition to a postcapitalist society.
Architecture shapes culture, so a guiding principle of Cambia is, if we can make it beautiful, we do. Architecture is unique as an art form because it integrates function with form. This includes landscaping and outdoor play spaces.
Stepping stones have multiple functions; for example, they can protect clover, especially in the winter. The form also affects our local culture: when you walk on stepping stones, you are called to a child-like stance.
You can walk with your hands hanging down by your sides, and what tends to happen is that your arms raise up to maintain your balance. The stepping stones can draw you into being playful and childlike. As your hands go up, you are more likely to skip. As you start to skip, you are more likely to smile.
Cambia also boasts a trampoline. The trampoline draws kids from the surrounding communes. Cambia recently replaced our broken one, in an assembly effort which was guided by a gaggle of giggly kids.
The German modern architect Mies vander Roheis famous for two sayings, both of which are applicable. “Less is more“ is the argument for minimalist architecture to achieve simplicity, using white elements, cold lighting, large space with minimum objects and furniture
At Cambia, there is a focus on details. Door knobs from twisted branches, floors of pebbles and clay, salvaged redwood around the hot tub and hyacinth pool. It is these and dozens of other tiny aspects that makes this stepping stone commune so precious.
Handcrafted means focusing on details: doorknobs from twisted branches, floors of pebbles and clay, tiny signposts, salvaged redwood around the hot tub and hyacinth pool. It is these and dozens of other tiny aspects that makes this stepping stone commune so precious.
December is a month with a litany of holidays. Some celebrate Hanukkah, others Christmas, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, another holiday, or no holiday at all. Personally, I’m partial to Winter Solstice as a marker of the soon-to-return sunshine, and we had quite the Christmas feast here at Compersia, but on December 17th we also celebrated Saturnalia, as one of our members, Jenny, has done with her kids for several years.
Saturnalia is an ancient Roman festival in celebration of Saturn, the agricultural god of generation, dissolution, wealth, renewal, and liberation. The festival would start at the Temple of Saturn, with a pig sacrificed in Saturn’s honor, and the undoing of the woolen bonds normally tied around the feet of Saturn’s statue, signaling his liberation. Saturnalia would last through December 23rd, featuring public banquets, the exchange of candles and terracotta figurines as gifts, and (most importantly) an upheaval of social conventions.
Romans would ditch their togas in favor of colorful dinner clothing that was normally considered in poor taste for daytime wear. Masters and slaves alike would wear the the mark of a freed slave, a conical felt cap called a pileus. Slaves said and did what they wanted, including openly disrespecting their own masters without threat of punishment. Gambling, normally frowned upon, would happen openly, and even slaves would take part.
Even more so than a relaxation of social conventions, Saturnalia was their reversal. Drunkenness was the rule, rather than the exception. Slaves would have a grand banquet at their master’s table, sometimes waited on by the masters themselves. Each household would choose a mock king from their lowest ranks, the Saturnalicius princeps, also called the “lord of misrule.” This lowly king would insult guests, give absurd orders (such as to dance naked- always fun), and cause other mischief.
At Compersia, the children were our Saturnalicius princeps. For one day, they were given the chance to rule, to decide what was important (or fun) to do, and to have adults making them cookies all day (we ate some too), all without pressure to clean up their mess. The catch is that for big decisions, the children had to use consensus, since that’s what the adults of Compersia have assented to. In the spirit of true role reversal, some of the adults whined about the children’s rule. “But why do we have to make paper snowflakes right now?” “I don’t want macaroni and cheese for dinner!”
Ultimately, Saturnalia was joyous, whimsical, and did not result in our house getting burnt down. The costumes were on point, our tree ended up beautifully decorated, and the cookies were abundant. It turns out that the kids here are reasonably responsible and know how to have a good time!
Beyond the fun of celebrating Saturnalia in our own home, I think it’s a holiday that can hold wider inspiration for those who dream of social change. What if we aspired to bring the social upheaval of Saturnalia to the wider world, in an ongoing way? Elevating the oppressed and putting power into the service of the masses have always been worthy goals, far too noble to be confined to one day. If we’re to take any lessons from Saturnalia, perhaps this social upheaval starts in our own communities, when we successfully share power with the least powerful among us. Io Saturnalia!