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The Importance of Community


My daughter and son-in-law have recently moved into a two-up-two-down, terraced house in a street composed of similar houses. Scarcely had their removal van (aka ‘man with a van’ service for first-time buyers with no furniture!) driven away than they received three invitations to ‘drop in’ on new neighbours for a cup of tea/wine/local brew. A couple of days later and they were at a BBQ party (possible illegal – but responsibly managed as far as fire risk and littering were concerned) held on the banks of the river that runs through the city where they have settled. Key information about the locality was provided during the party and my daughter quickly had contacts for all the services she needed.

This very positive experience of community resonated with some work I have been doing recently in a northern town where transition to parenthood education and support are being taken very seriously as a central plank of public health strategy. Health Visitors, Children’s Centre staff and an amazing group of voluntary workers have come together to design and deliver a new programme. The commitment of the volunteers, and their skills and knowledge, are truly humbling.

Such initiatives are the way forward for our overstretched very early years services. Cohesive neighbourhoods where a variety of organisations provide a foundation of support and concern are needed to bolster and to some extent at least, replace health and social care services that can no longer be relied upon to help in times of crisis.

The fabric of strong communities is woven from services offered by local churches, schools, parent groups, supermarkets (that provide space for local charities/interest groups to have a stall and talk to people) and ‘good Samaritans’ who take responsibility for the care of their neighbours.

The resurrection of such communities across the country depends on overcoming the ‘go out in the morning, close the door; come back in the evening, close the door’ mentality that I certainly feel I was part of from the 1980s onwards. It depends on recovering the balance between work, home AND the community.

Local organisations and initiatives need to be supported at county and national level – primarily by not being overwhelmed with rules, regs and paperwork. T. Berry Brazelton once suggested that the only quality assurance required for local initiatives should be an answer to the question, ‘Do they support or undermine family functioning?’ I like the idea of an official form with a single question that has to be responded to on no more than one side of A4; half of the form should be comments from people who can speak from first-hand experience of what the organisation or initiative has meant to them.

Is this a Utopian vision? I think it’s the only way forward if we are to reduce the isolation of families with very young children and the loneliness, anxiety, depression, and abuse that comes when mothers and fathers feel that they are entirely on their own. Remember that the human family has never, for 99.9% of the time that homo sapiens has walked the earth, been a nuclear family. It has always been a community family where the care of and responsibility for very young members of the race has been shared by the mother with family members and other available community members such as women past childbearing age and adolescents ‘in training’ for parenthood.

Support for family wellbeing can and should be multi-faceted. It certainly is no longer going to be provided exclusively or even primarily by statutory services. Rather than withdrawing money from organisations such as Homestart that offer support for a fraction of what it costs statutory services, and that offer it at a level attuned to the needs of local people, this is the kind of organisations that must be funded to provide the vital community base that has to be rebuilt so that families can provide the sensitive parenting little citizens need.

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