I’ve seen parents benefit from the exchange of advice on the sidelines at a soccer game, and by volunteering together for a parent-teacher association. But not every parent can participate. How can we help restore and strengthen social networks that nourish parents? Networking reduces not only parents’ anxieties but also overuse of the medical system.

Being a parent can be a lonely job. More than half of all children in the U.S. spend part of their childhood raised by single parents. Single or not, working parents are often so busy juggling jobs and family that it’s hard for them to connect with relatives, friends and other parents. Yet when parents compare notes, they are often relieved to discover that they are not alone, that they share mutual concerns about bedtime battles, homework overload, fears about how their children will fare in a world of vanishing resources, to name a few. They realize they aren’t the only ones who sometimes feel like they don’t know how to help their child – that they’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work. Exchanges with other parents provide more solutions and more resources, along with confidence and hope.

When parents speak their fears out loud and know that they have been understood by others who care, they are likelier to find a fresh perspective. Parents often feel that they must be perfect, that they should instinctively know what to do with their children. Of course that’s not realistic. Parenting is a process of trial and error where mistakes themselves can be teachers. But parents will only learn from their mistakes if they can face them, and that takes an underlying sense of security. It helps to have a safety net of reassuring relationships with other parents who share their challenges and cheer them on. The sidelines of their children’s soccer games are a fine setting for that back-and-forth. Perhaps every generation has to learn that it takes a village to raise a child.

When communities strengthen themselves, children get supported not only by their own parents but also by all the other parents and adults in their universe. Pediatricians, teachers and other professionals can help develop opportunities for parents to connect – formal ones such as parent-teacher associations and parent groups, and informal ones, too. I used to schedule pediatric appointments during the same block of time for children of the same age so their parents could compare notes in the waiting room. Public libraries and children’s museums also have become interested in helping parents get to know each other. But the job of strengthening communities cannot be accomplished by child- oriented professionals and institutions alone. Internet social-networking sites can be -helpful tools to share community information. Communities become places where children and families thrive when a critical mass of people and institutions share their commitment to everyone’s well-being. 

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