The Values Village
By A.D. Freudenheim  

16 October 2005

In the famous Clintonian formulation, it takes a village to raise a child. To nurture, educate, and guide a child from birth to adulthood successfully – to produce an adult whose life, in turn, helps to sustain the community – requires the active participation of parents and extended family, teachers, friends, colleagues, and respected elders. It is a clever construction, one that helped make more apparent to our increasingly-isolated Western eyes how less “developed” societies rely on a broad spectrum of their community to achieve what we sometimes overlook as essential to child-rearing.

The challenge posed by this simple village analogy may be the underlying assumption that, within one village, all those involved in raising a child share the same values. This is an ungrounded assumption; just look at the development of communities around the world, both those in the so-called Third World and those in America and Europe: no nation has been free of violence, crime or poverty, and sometimes even the most industrious citizens fail to support themselves, while others thrive. There are many, many causes of violence, crime and poverty, and not all of it can be pinned to something as “simple” as how a child was raised, or the values embedded in the community that raised him or her. The whole construct of a village of shared values can be called into question based on any individual’s actions.

The very idea of values can become all-consuming: they can take the form of a guidepost by which parents judge their children (and vice-versa), and become a weapon with which people try to coerce certain behaviors if an individual’s actions does not meet someone else’s expectations. Which is why, when the word “values” gets tossed around in my own familial conversations, I flinch. It is too easy to make statements like “I thought we raised you to share our values,” without recognizing the emotional hurt that is inflicted; it is easy to lose track of the long-term scope of genuinely shared values because of a short-term disagreement about one specific issue and moment in time. And it is much more difficult to remember that while the definition of a value may remain constant and objective, the application of those values is always subjective and individualistic.

For example, we may help a blind person cross the street – but step over a pile of litter without picking it up. Do we applaud our inner Samaritan and condemn him/her at the same time? In this case, courtesy, kindness, responsibility, thoughtfulness, and unselfishness may be some of the values at play, and many of us surely feel that we apply these values to our lives daily. Yet most of us also subjectively draw a line around the part of the world for which we feel that sense of courtesy, kindness, responsibility, thoughtfulness, and unselfishness; and we not only draw these lines but feel comfortable doing so. Putting this example in the context of the Clintonian village: the teaching of the values listed above may be consistent across the entire community, yet still do nothing to sway the highly individualistic decisions each person will ultimately make about how to apply these values in their daily lives.

Similarly, where family is concerned, most of us make an ongoing series of judgments and adjustments. To many people, family is itself a value; still, while its definition may be constant, its application rarely is. Even with family, we draw lines distinguishing between the people with whom we wish to engage versus those we do not, or how and when we want to engage with them. We might avoid the very wet lips of the too-friendly aunt, even though it seems important to her to kiss that way – and even though we like everything else about her. Or we might attend a reunion, because the chance to see family members we like outweighs the downside to seeing those we do not. Yet the person who revels in the aunt’s wet lips, but skips the family get-together: they have not rejected the value of family, but simply made a legitimate, personal decision about their own priorities. And if that person attends the reunion, but intentionally only talks to half the family members and studiously avoids the aunt – again, that represents individual decision-making, not a rejection of family values.[1]

In situations such as these, we may disagree with people’s choices, but we must be careful not to condemn them. That is a trap into which it is all too easy to fall. Instead, the distinctions between individuals – and even whole communities – are the details in which we should rejoice and take pleasure. From these differences come the the diversity of peoples and cultures that makes the world an engaging place in which to live, when one woman’s successful endeavor is another man’s frustration, or when one man’s art is another woman’s folly.

So what of standards? Communities can – and should, and must – set certain standards, but these are typically constructed around behaviors, not values. Most communities say that life is a value, yet also make careful distinctions between an individual’s act of murder and a nation’s act of war or its imposition of the death penalty. Most communities say that charity is a value, but while some compel such acts (perhaps through religious tithing), many others do not.

Even the smallest village, with the most well-meaning citizens, can be a challenging place to grow up. We do not make it any easier if we pretend that specific values always dictate specific behaviors, or by denigrating freedom of choice in favor of a uniform, monolithic approach to life.

[1] True, some family members might feel personally rejected by this behavior, the wet-lipped aunt included. However, the focus here is not the consequences of an individual’s actions, but rather his/her right to make such decisions in the first place. The person who makes such a decision without regard for the consequences has a wholly other set of problems with which to contend.   Copyright 2005, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.