Someone once said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Hillary Clinton also said it, but she never claimed the maxim as her own. It may be an old African proverb. It has certainly been restated in many different ways over the centuries.
Oddly, when Ms. Clinton first said it, a lot of people got their feathers ruffled; something about her denigrating parents, I think. I suspect Clinton’s naysayers have never lived in a village, or ever had to parent someone else’s child, or maybe were never children themselves.
I’ve visited the kind of villages in Africa that originate proverbs like the one about raising children. In them, for better or worse, children are community property. They play in public spaces, but many of those spaces are public simply because children play there. Somewhere there exists a title to that space, and it’s in some grown-up’s name; but kids share it as if it belonged only to them, all of them.
I grew up in a village. True, it was part of a Zip Code of nearly 100,000 people, which was part of a Borough of four million in a city of eight million. But the extended block on which the Baisleys lived was a village; we kids, the 93rd Street Gang and the other kids who lived there but weren’t lucky enough to be in the Gang, were community property.
This sense of community parenting showed itself in small ways and in big ways. Like most city neighborhoods of the 1950s and 60s, kids roamed Canarsie streets freely. The first one out in the morning, at least on Saturdays and in the summer, would run to the next one’s house and see if they were up yet. Typically, on those mornings or late afternoons during the school year, you’d hear the cry, “Can Joey (or Kurt or Judy) come out and play?” Usually they could unless they’d been recently grounded for misbehavior.
Play dates were still in their inventor’s mind. Our parents never made appointments for us except for pediatricians and dentists, and those were things we hated. Play was spontaneous, wherever and whenever kids happened to be.
Where parents got involved, usually, was once the children settled into someone’s house. Then it was, “My house, my rules.” No one ever had qualms about disciplining someone else’s child for misbehavior. Believe me, we feared other parents way more than we feared our own.
For me, community parenting was most effective at mealtimes. True, most times the command from Mom was, “Be home for dinner.” That meant 5:50 p.m., when Pop got home from his office. Sometimes, however, an invitation from a mother, such as Mrs. Robins, superseded Mom’s command.
Lucille and Ken Robins were Scott’s parents. Scott was Jewish and, therefore, not part of the Gang. But he lived on the block and he was my friend, at times my best friend. It was with him that I made the daily trek home from Isaac Bildersee JHS every day. You know, the ones that were ten miles uphill. Okay, they were ten and a half blocks, and only the half was a long block, but it was far for a kid.
Those walks home seemed longer when you had to go to the bathroom. I always had to go to the bathroom after school. Public school restrooms were for a) smoking, b) dealing in contraband, or c) getting beat up. I avoided them as if my life depended on it, which I believed it did. So Scott and I would walk those blocks as fast as possible, talking all the way to keep our minds off our bladders.
Thanks to Mrs. Robins, I had the joy of Jewish mothering. While I was in her home, I followed her rules. No flopping onto furniture. No entering rooms other than the living room, kitchen, or bathroom. And take your shoes off before entering. Never had a problem with Mrs. Robins’ rules, not even the one about eating everything on your plate.
I was a picky eater at home, according to Mom. I liked to keep my meat, potatoes, and vegetables separated: meat not touching potatoes and vegetables not touching the plate. I might have suffered through green beans. I especially liked them raw as I’d walk through the grocery store with Mom. She’d always tell the clerk how many I’d eaten so they could estimate the cost of goods devoured. I liked corn, but that’s not really a vegetable, is it? Same thing with tomatoes. Every other green or veggie-like thing was against my principles. Except in Mrs. Robins’ domain.
Scott’s mom could get me to eat anything. Broccoli? Yes, ma’am, I like broccoli. Cauliflower? Sure thing! Brussels sprouts? Well, I don’t really like them, but why not? Eventually, mothers talking the way they do, Mom found out what I was eating. My life changed that day.
For the few years we lived in Oregon in the late 1990s, my first wife, Sandy, got to be that kind of mother. Though not rigidly at 5:50, most nights we all ate together, she and I and our children, Stephen and Kellyn. That was such an oddity in 90s suburbia that our kids’ friends used to wrangle invitations to dinner just to eat with a whole family. Sometimes we’d play silly games at the table. They’d laugh and laugh and then report back to their parent or parents, who’d stare in disbelief that such relics existed.
The Baisleys, the Robinses, the Sullivans, the Bongiovannis, we were all relics. But we ate our vegetables—together.
There were exceptions to the rule about Canarsie parents not getting involved in their children’s play. The parents of the 93rd Street Gang were the exceptions. They not only got involved, three or four times each summer our parents actually created memorable events on our behalf.
The biggest parent-initiated Gang event remains embedded in my mind even after half a century. I can’t remember any amusement park trip that beats the day Susan’s dad took us to Steeplechase. We needed at least one other driver, so Uncle Nat drove too. (I’m not sure whose uncle he was. Just like Pop being Uncle Artie all over Canarsie, so Nat was everybody’s Uncle Nat.)
Steeplechase Park was at Coney Island, but it wasn’t Coney Island. Coney Island was the Boardwalk, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s, and salt water taffy. Steeplechase was rides, not a lot of them, but they were super cool because, except for the Parachute Jump and part of the park’s eponymous Steeplechase ride, they were indoors. Not until I visited the Mall of America as a middle-aged man did I again experience such a place.
For photos and more information about the history of Steeplechase Park, see this article in Carousel History. https://carouselhistory.com/ny-steeplechase-park-coney-island/
We started the day with the Steeplechase, a horse race ride. Six or eight kids could ride at one time. It was a genuine race. We contorted ourselves into the most aerodynamic postures. We did anything and everything to get the horses, side by side in their predetermined course, to go faster to win the race. I suspect, and maybe always suspected, that each race’s winner was preordained, like some Calvinist lottery. But who cares? Finishing second that day felt like the crowning achievement of my life.
Next up was the big Slide that ended in a spiral that gradually spit you out. It was wood, like everything at Steeplechase; smooth, slick, dark brown wood. They gave us burlap bags on which to make the descent. We were warned not to dare let any fleshy part of our body touch the wooden surface on the way down. You could burn off a finger that way. Properly chastised, we slid. Fast. Hot. And in maybe five seconds it was over and each of us, in turn, rolled off our burlap. For a short ride, no one felt cheated.
We rode other rides that day. The Himalaya I remember slightly. The Fun House I only recall because Billy Knudsen led us in singing a song with the repeated line, “Sweet marijuana” as we progressed through its various chambers. One of the rides placed you and three others in a low car that sped so quickly on a round course that all the riders ended up pressed into a single human blob. I don’t remember what it was called.
During the day, we wandered outside Steeplechase as well. Some of us rode Coney Island’s three great wooden roller coasters, the Thunderbolt, the Tornado, and the awe-inspiring Cyclone. The truly brave souls dared the Parachute Jump that soared above Steeplechase. It pulled you high into the air and then dropped you a ways before yanking your body back up and then letting it down slowly from a dizzying height. I wasn’t one of those souls. No one rode Coney’s famous Wonder Wheel. Perhaps it seemed too tame for the Gang.
There was nothing tame about the ride I have replayed in my mind over and over through the years. I know I did it—twice. I just can’t grasp the complexity of its design. That great feat of engineering was the Bobsled.
Steeplechase’s Bobsled doesn’t exist anymore, like the park itself, and I’ve never seen another. No twenty-first century insurance company would dare underwrite it.
The ride, which consisted of two to four people packed into a bobsled-like car, starts on a track similar to a roller coaster. The track guides the car to an incline and then pulls it upward, again like a traditional roller coaster. Just past the crest of that incline the ride changed from traditional to bizarre. The track ended and the now-free car sped through a twisty-turny course with high semi-tubular walls. The riders, if working together, could create a little extra excitement by leaning into the curves, forcing the car higher up the wall. Next to being stared at by a mother elephant with babies to protect, and no fences to protect me, the Bobsled ride was the most thrilling experience of my life.
The Gang piled happily into Mr. Sullivan’s and Uncle Nat’s cars at the end of the day. Although many of the Gang had been to Steeplechase before, and would go again with their parents and younger siblings, nothing could match the fun of that day we spent riding the rides together.
Other parents added their unique forms of entertainment to the Gang’s repertoire of experiences. Billy Knudsen’s dad owned a boat. I’m not talking rowboat here; a lot of dad’s or uncles had those. Mr. Knudsen’s was a cabin cruiser with a swimming deck in the stern. We earned our sunburns the day he took us out in the bay.
Mom and Pop couldn’t afford a cabin cruiser or a trip to Steeplechase, but what they lacked in quality they more than made up in quantity.
During the summer months, a community band gave weekly concerts in the park behind the school administration building in Valley Stream, Long Island. The audience would bring folding lawn chairs and place them on a big macadam square in front of the spacious bandstand. Other spectators spread blankets on the grass around the pavement.
Mom and Pop loved what they called The Concert. They made it out to Valley Stream as often as they could, and most of those times they filled the station wagon with members of the 93rd Street Gang.
Gang members weren’t really thrilled about the style of music. It was mostly stuff for old people, thirty and up. We did, occasionally, join in the sing-alongs. That was where the band played the kind of songs our parents sang around Grandma’s piano on Saturday nights, things like By the Light of the Silvery Moon with sound effects, and everyone was supposed to sing along. And they did. That’s why the generation raised on the Beatles and the Stones can still sing Let Me Call You Sweetheart.
We never sat with Mom and Pop at the Concerts. We’d walk to the outer edge of the park and sit on or by the bridge that crossed a little creek. It was darker there, for making out if you had a significant other. You could hear the music, if you wished to listen, but it was quiet enough for conversation. I loved Tuesday nights in Valley Stream and the laughter and, yes, singing on the trip home: seven kids and two parents. That’s not helicopter parenting, unless the chopper is a Huey that drops you off, let’s you do your job, and returns to get you out of trouble. I appreciated the Gang’s moms and dads for thinking of us without trying to become us or curtailing our kidlike ways.
The closest thing to neighborhood parenting I’ve experienced in the past quarter century occurred when the church we were attending in Newberg, Oregon, decided to start its own youth group. This was a big deal because during the five years of its existence, its youth remained part of the founding church’s youth group. By now the church had grown to well over 150 people in each of two Sunday services in its rented building.
The kids themselves, most of them anyway, were clamoring for their own group. The pastor, wisely, called a meeting of all interested kids along with their parents. From its very beginning, this group was to be a collaboration between kids and parents.
We all learned a lot at that first meeting. For starters, we learned there were too many kids for just one group. We also learned that high school kids have different needs and expectations than middle school kids. We made a decision to meet again soon in two groups, but that both youth group design teams would include kids and parents.
My son, Stephen, was a founding member of the senior high group, and I was a founding parent. Once the group got going, the kids generally planned the meetings and chose the events. We parents were there for support and occasional guidance, but not to run the show. Still, the kids liked having us around. I enjoyed the friendships forged with church members I hadn’t met before.
The two youth groups were so successful that within a few months the church hired a youth pastor to oversee them. He did not run the senior high group; the kids did. His daughter was in the group, but when he showed up it was as her father, not as the boss.
A lot of trust developed in those teenagers; trust in each other and trust in their parents and the other parents. We had a lot of fun doing things together, like our improv nights based on the Whose Line Is It, Anyway comedy show popular on TV. In the more serious moments, the high school kids felt free to ask real questions about faith and life. The group even founded a puppet ministry for the church’s children, complete with puppeteers, musicians, and sound and light techs, all under eighteen.
As they neared the end of Stephen’s final year with the group, I learned that neighborhood parenting was still alive and well if we allow it to be.
One spring evening before graduation, the high school kids met in one of their homes. It was the night where they would celebrate the five group members who were graduating. At one point in the meeting, each graduate was asked to take a seat in the middle of a circle of all the kids and whichever parents were there. Each graduate was to share their dreams, hopes, and concerns for their immediate future, and the group would listen, giving words of affirmation and support.
Stephen’s turn in the center arrived, and he sat in the chair. Then he spoke to directly to me.
“Dad, I’m going to say some things that you don’t know about. Mom knows, but you don’t. So I’d like you to leave the room. I’ll tell you eventually, just not tonight. Okay?”
What was he going to say? How did Sandy know it and not me? I thought I knew my son, and he’d been keeping secrets? How dare he tell other kids’ parents and not want to tell me? How dare he ask me to leave the room?
But he did. And I did. Sometimes your best parenting is done by someone else’s parents. I hear it takes a village.
I hated school; I’ll admit it. I’ll also admit I had some fun in the hallowed halls of P.S.114, Isaac Bildersee Junior High and Canarsie High School. You’ll read/hear about it in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.