Fijian Children: The Village Family Model and Why It Works

“It takes an Fijian Village to Rediscover Innovation”

“Mommy. Mommy. Watch me do this trick.”

It’s a beautiful winter day in suburban Australia – cool and comfortable, a welcome relief after a week or so of rain. This is 2017, and there is actually a child outside on a skateboard, but he and his mother aren’t actually outside, being in the great outdoors. It’s just the place between points A and B.

 “No, we don’t have time for that. Let’s start walking.”

This is home, or at least a version of home. Save for the climate, Western Australia could be Colorado or Maryland: all places I’ve lived, all prosperous, with homes full of creature comforts and scheduled people all fighting for a chance to get more stuff, with the world a ghost town outside the front door. Go into any of these houses, and the children have their own rooms, with their own stuff, which they enjoy on their own schedule. Go into the kitchen and they even have their own food.

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In July, I spent three weeks in Fiji with Habitat for Humanity with a group of fellow Westerners building a house for a family. We were supposed to keep children out of the construction site, as if that were possible, as if you could ask raindrops not to gather in puddles. Picking up hammers, banging nails: this was expected, and the children were corrected, but they weren’t corralled.

This is a variation on a theme: Fijian children help with chores like making dinner, and they have conversations with adults, even ones to whom they’re not related, just because this is what members of a community do. This is an expression of an instinctive thing: the desire to be a part of the community and to learn how to be a member of the community.

 “Yes, very good trick! We must show your mother.”

In Fiji, it’s not like there are children in adult spaces. There is no adults’ space or children’s space: there’s just space that fills up with people of all ages. As parents go to work, grandparents and older relatives watch the children. This is not retirement; this is their second career. They’re less like bodyguards and more like shepherds who chaperone their children into the wide world.

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Sometime in adolescence, the rules change for Western children, but no one tells them. All the things that are too dangerous, that are too risky, none of their business, or just a waste of time are now not only their business but their responsibility. Their curiosity and sense of adventure was sure to be their death, and suddenly, one day, the world is asking them to dig those departed friends from their graves and figure out how those zombies can make them more competitive college candidates.  

But for a few weeks, I was immersed in a community where children were people, and everyone matters, and a house isn’t a place to both hide your stuff from your neighbors and give it an elaborate display case.

It is thus utterly reasonable for a Fijian child to approach foreigners – many of whom waited for initiative before acting – and take them by the hand, engaging them in play as a big brother or watchful auntie looked on from the side. No fear. After all, it was their village, the house was for their neighbors, and there was no place else where their initiative wasn’t welcome under the ubiquitous care and guidance of not just one adult, but all of them, foreigners included.

And I thought “this must be what utopia for innovators feels like.”

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