When our first child, Lani, was born in 1991, my wife, Miriam, and I were in the midst of planning, with a group of other families, to develop a cohousing community. Cohousing is a contemporary style of intentional community where future residents band together to co-develop their dream village. We were at a group meeting one day when Lani began to fuss. One of our friends and future neighbors said, “Give me that child”; he showed us how to use the little finger, with fingernail pointed away from the roof of her mouth, as soother for her to suck on. Lani calmed immediately.
As new parents, Miriam and I were very appreciative and relieved—not only because the group was accepting, while we were concerned of disturbance, but also because we knew we’d learn and get support from more experienced parents in our cohousing community. This early act of kindness was a warm forecast of the many graces of parenting in community. A few years later, our son, Ben, was born. Again we were overwhelmed by the support of our community. Neighbors offered to keep the young Lani to relieve us as we adjusted to having a second child.
Cohousing aims to recreate the closeness and safety of traditional, smaller communities, but within the context of larger, modern cities. These resident groups collect together well ahead of any construction, in order to design and build the community that supports a close, collaborative lifestyle. Unlike co-op housing, the legal structure is usually Strata-title, like any townhouse complex, and members keep private, equity ownership of their personal homes. The cohousing movement has grown nicely over the years as shown by the Canadian Cohousing Network (see https://cohousing.ca )
The biggest difference between conventional housing developments and cohousing is the shared village atmosphere that is created among the homes. A pedestrian core is maintained; cars go to the periphery or underground. Quieter, safer village life returns to the community space. In our community, where Miriam and I raised Lani and Ben, we also shared children play areas, workshop facilities, kitchen, dining room, celebration areas, lounges and guest rooms. We had a large garden, outdoor play areas and a natural creek area to support the ongoing multi-generational community lifestyle.
The African proverb “It takes village to raise a child” proves insightful, even in modern North America. We raised two children in a cohousing village, and treasured the collective support and nurturing from our neighbors in many ways.
Our two children were born while we were in the design and development phase of our community. We dreamed of a community that would be a safe environment for kids—and we got it. When we moved in, we found that we knew and trusted all our neighbors so well that we were quite happy with our kids playing spontaneously anywhere in the community, with other kids or in another household. Often enough, there was a gaggle of kids at our place too.
It was a safe environment—even when we didn’t necessarily share the exact same rules and values as other households. We had rules about limiting screen time that other parents didn’t have; we were more laissez-faire about set bedtimes than elsewhere. When Ben complained that it wasn’t fair that his friend Andrew got to watch a movie when he didn’t, we learned to reply, “Do you want to go to bed when Andrew goes to bed?”
We hoped for the benefits of shared life, and got even more than expected. This included carpooling kids to school or events, easy access to babysitters and the simple graces of caring neighbors. We always could find a community babysitter, without driving anywhere. Often enough, this was on short notice too. As our kids grew older they also became the trusted, next door babysitters. We valued the precious relationships between our kids and other people of all ages. And we enjoyed a spontaneous, engaged social life for parents and the children—something our communal areas helped foster.
Our daughter, Lani, was always very fond of dogs, cats, and all furry animals. Miriam and I could never consent to her pleas for a family dog, since our professional lives were simply too busy. However, Lani developed delightful relationships with neighbors and their friendly canines on her own terms and initiatives. Those neighbors also appreciated Lani’s attention and dog walking. One year, Lani wanted all dogs for her birthday party, so we invited all neighborhood dogs and had an exciting romp at a local park. Lani was in dog heaven!
Another time, our adult neighbor, Nadine, wanted to go gold-panning. When she couldn’t find an adult friend to go, she invited Ben, who was 12 and shared Nadine’s interest in collecting rocks and stones. At other times, when other parents could not get away for a group camping trip, we were able to take their kids along with ours. The relationships between the children and other adults were rich and diverse. The diversity of backgrounds and cultures also offered many lessons on inclusion.
Of course, life was not always rosy or cheery for community parenting. Disputes and rivalries among neighboring children was a part of shared life. It was important for parents to communicate well, so that we could step in and model how to navigate conflict. Many times, our kids needed some cool-down time or support to work out a solution. However, we’d usually see them all playing merrily again together within the day. In retrospect, we realized that our kids learned valuable lessons about working things out with others. Our teachers reported that the cohousing kids seemed better accustomed to working things out, when things got difficult.
Currently, after twenty five years, Lani and Ben are both grown adults and pursuing their careers and partnerships elsewhere. However, both still carry the sense of home and family that is the core wealth of community life. Both are well-adept at working things out, even through the difficult times. As for me, I’m currently supporting the development of a new cohousing project, Compass Cohousing (see https://compasscohousing.com/ ), in Langley, BC. I found so much natural benefit from raising our kids in cohousing that I look forward to creating similar, healthy multigenerational environments for more families.