Merlene Davis: The new village can't make it alone


I had several messages from folks Friday morning who'd read my Thursday column and wanted to talk about young people who desperately need our help.

They, like me, were concerned by the number of recent killings that involved our youth.

Some messages were from parents who were hurting because their children had been snared in a seemingly inescapable net. Some family members and neighbors said those who are entangled at a very young age lose hope of ever regaining their footing.

One phone call was from Herman E. Walston, a Kentucky State University professor who has been worked in early-childhood development for decades. Walston wanted me to shine more light on parents and the role they play in the lives of youth. He isn't trying to blame parents. He is trying to educate them and all of us about the results of so many parents who are so young and rudderless.

Walston is in the second year of a three-year project at KSU that is exploring ways to reduce or eliminate high-risk behavior in young people and ways to strengthen their abilities to bounce back when they fall.

The project, Promising Youth Center for Excellence, offers after-school and summer sessions at which 100 black and Hispanic youths, ages 8 to 15, are taught how to be more respectful, how to engage with their peers and how to interact in society, he said. The program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The participants see skits and scenarios played out and are then questioned about how they would handle similar situations.

"We review those concepts and let them tell us how they would deal with it," Walston said. What he has noticed is that parents, who are required to participate, don't seem to have the appropriate skills either.

When challenged, "parents get down to the child's level," he said, often responding as the child has.

I'm 60 years old, and Walston is close to my age. We don't understand why parents sink to the level of their children. My parents ended most challenges quickly, sometimes simply by saying, "Because I said so."

There was no reasoning. There was no explaining. My parents knew more than me, and my parents were in charge. Period. And that was true for any adult in my life, too.

Mrs. McNamara, who lived across the street from my childhood home and who seemed creepy, had just as much right to correct me as my parents. And she often did. Our parents didn't rear us alone, and they weren't expected to.

"If adults said something, it was for the benefit of the child," Walston said. "Now, parents will say, 'Don't talk to my child like that.'"

We cry out for a village to raise a child, but the village doesn't exist anymore, at least not the way I remember it.

"That community no longer exists," Walston said. "We don't know our neighbors. Society is so mobile now."

The reason the village worked in my youth was because there was trust and there was a handing-down of social mores. The elder family members lived close by and often issued edicts even when parents were adults with children of their own.

When elders aren't nearby, younger parents are left to rear children in the same manner as they live their own lives. They become peers and not parents.

Walston's project is hoping to change that, as are similar programs, such as the BMW and GEMS Academies at First Baptist Church, Bracktown in Lexington.

"We demand respect," Walston said. "If they do not obey, we give them timeouts. We don't put them out of the program because we want to help them."

Apparently young parents don't trust others enough to help correct their children, and yet they might not have enough experience to rear their children alone. And younger parents have bought into the lie that they are the only people who can shape their children's lives.

That's our fault, us older and wiser folks. We haven't reached out. We've only pointed fingers. We, society as a whole, have not adjusted to the new village. We and our young people are paying for that.