Killmonger, in Black Panther, acted out the African proverb, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth,” to the letter. In other words, a child rejected by his community is in a devastating situation that often only gets worse as the child grows.
The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth proverb means that children desperately need connection, love, and community. If these needs aren’t met, they’ll cry out for help and even resort to destructive behavior. As members of the village, we’re all responsible for the children around us.
Another version of the proverb says “If the young are not initiated into the tribe they will burn down the village just to feel its warmth.”
For a deeper understanding of this proverb, we’ll explore its origins, meaning, including examples of how it plays out in society, and how you can help children feel embraced by the village.
The Origins of the Proverb
Made popular by the movie Black Panther, a Marvel film that came out in 2018, the origins of “The child who is not embraced by the village,” proverb are difficult to trace.
Like many other African proverbs, such as “It takes a village to raise a child,” the proverb may no longer have roots we can trace to a specific African country or group of people.
There are some problems with attributing a proverb to an entire continent.
It is hard to be sure that the saying or aphorism genuinely came from the continent without any specific references.
In addition, any culturally significant details about the tribe or group to which it belongs get lost, leaving the proverb a bit hollow, or as one expert said, more of a mix of “Hallmark and folk sentiments.” (source)
However, the origins of the proverb may very well be Africa.
The experiences and cultural attributes of many areas of Africa may indeed support the sentiment of the proverb.
The village lifestyle and value of the community are strong in many of the cultures on the continent.
Ultimately, there’s no conclusive evidence or research showing where the proverb is from.
We can only assume that perhaps, just perhaps, it is an African proverb passed on from generation to generation.
Some of the specifics about where it originated and even some of the phrasing has evolved, leading to two versions.
But, the main idea has stayed the same.
What Does the Proverb Mean?
“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down” proverb’s meaning is exceptionally clear and quite graphic.
A child lost and abandoned by their community will destroy it in order to get the attention and connection they need.
While it’s easy to understand how this happens in theory, it’s harder for society to avoid this outcome in reality.
The scenario happens frequently in societies around the world.
Perhaps this is true because most people’s instinct is to blame the young people for their perceived bad behavior instead of recognizing how their community has failed them.
For example, youth who show delinquent behaviors are almost always troubled young people who don’t have enough connection in their lives or who have suffered past traumas.
Perhaps their families are dysfunctional or abusive.
Or maybe they’re suffering from mental illness and no one has helped them get treatment.
Or maybe they’re exhausted, chronically stressed, and anxious due to living in poverty.
Here are some examples of “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth,” taking place in real life:
- The 2011 Summer Riots of England: During these riots, 14,000, mostly poor, marginalized people took to the streets looting shops, setting fires, and destroying property. This example includes literally setting fires, just as the proverb states. In the case of these riots, it was a call for help and an expression of anger and frustration with their situation. (source)
- Youth Expelled from Schools: Students who are feeling disconnected from school or society, in general, may exhibit behaviors that then lead to their expulsion. For example, possessing or distributing drugs and alcohol or bringing a weapon to school are some obvious examples. Other students might even be expelled because of poor academic performance. When kids “burn the village” through the behaviors that get them thrown out of school, what they need most is adult caring and embracing. Yet, expelling youth from school sends them even farther from the village. (source)
- Alisa: A personal story shows that a broken home and family cause trauma that resulted in rebellion and delinquent behaviors. At the age of 13, Alisa began stealing cars and soon after escalated to drug use, drinking, and skipping school. It wasn’t until Alisa was placed in a girl’s group home that she was able to experience true community and turn things around. With her village surrounding her with love, Alisa no longer had the desire to set it afire. (source)
You can probably recall some stories of youth in your own community who have done things akin to setting the village on fire.
These stories may include tragedy and almost always involve the criminal justice system.
All of the stories feature a similar beginning, in which connection and a feeling of embrace from the community somehow fails.
Important Factors that Influence Whether Kids Feel Connected
The first part of the proverb, “The child who is not embraced by the village…” focuses on connection to a community.
That embrace from the village is vital for the healthy development of the child.
There are many facets to communities and different ways that children may feel connected or disconnected.
Here are some of the main factors that influence the quality of connection that kids feel:
- School: The school environment is often one of the most important indicators of whether a child is connected to their community. In one study, one of the most important common factors that led to more serious criminal behavior was educational disengagement. Basically, this comes down to skipping school often.
When kids aren’t in school in their adolescence, they’re on street corners, looking for something to do.
Starting with petty crime such as stealing candy bars from corner stores, kids who continue this behavior can quickly graduate to more serious crime.
No longer connected to their schools, they spend more time in the streets where they learn more about how to commit crimes, where to sell stolen goods, and other details of criminal lifestyles. (source)
- Home and Family Life: Children who live in dysfunctional homes may feel disconnected. For example, a parent may use drugs or suffer from alcoholism which can lead to neglect and other negative dynamics in the home. Problems at home can quickly turn into problems at school that result in the child resorting to a criminal lifestyle.
Another common issue for youth who are disconnected is being in the foster care system.
Especially when children enter the system at an older age, they may age out of the system before being adopted.
This leaves 18–year-olds on their own without much of a support system for transitioning into adulthood. (source)
- Economic Stability: Another difficult point for children is poverty. When you’re poor, stability is hard to achieve. From moving around from house to house or shelter to shelter, to not having enough to eat, and missing out on health services, poverty affects children significantly.
Poverty can also affect a child’s chances of doing well in school.
Because they might be moving around, or they don’t have easy access to services like the internet or lack the support of available parents because they are always working, doing well at school is challenging.
Being poor is also very stressful.
No matter how much the adults in their lives try to shield them from it, poverty brings instability and stress that can leave children without the support they need.
In addition to these factors, others, such as mental illness, race, and the specifics of the social services available can affect how connected children feel in their communities.
It’s also important to remember that even in best-case scenarios where kids have warm, loving homes, good access to education and even economic stability, drug and alcohol use can still develop, leading to very destructive behaviors and lifestyles.
No one wants children to resort to burning down the village to feel its warmth.
So, what can we do as parents, teachers, and a society to help children? The village must embrace the child wholly and completely. The next section will explore some ways to build connections.
How to Help Children Feel Connected
It’s the job of parents, teachers, and society, in general, to love and embrace the children around us.
This happens in all of the areas of society where children spend time such as at home, school, community centers, and more.
In government policy, it includes providing health insurance, access to food and education and social service support such as counselors and therapists to help kids in trouble.
Different approaches to raising and teaching children can boost connection and a feeling of belonging in kids.
One example is the Montessori philosophy. The tenants of the philosophy are used in many schools and homes, offering excellent guidelines for educators and parents alike.
Created by Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor, in the early 1900s, the Montessori method evolved out of careful observations of children and their needs.
At the time, Montessori was revolutionary in that she suggested children should have appropriately sized furniture and be allowed to move around in the classroom.
Some of her ideas are still revolutionary today. Here are some ways that the Montessori philosophy promotes connection, engagement, and a sense of belonging:
- Motivation: In the Montessori method, children are allowed some freedom of choice regarding what to study and when. What’s more is that children are encouraged to pursue their interests, which helps develop children’s internal motivation (source). Engagement in the school environment can help students decide to stay, rather than skip school or drop out.
Even if you don’t send your child to a Montessori school, you can use this idea at home by helping your child pursue their interests.
A child who is engaged and busy is a happy, connected child.
- Discipline Practices: Discipline and punishment often go hand in hand, especially for children who are struggling and who feel disconnected. The Montessori approach helps by taking a different approach to discipline, aiming to educate rather than punish. In Montessori, punitive discipline is not encouraged.
First, the method aims to limit negative behaviors through preventative discipline.
Children who are interested and engaged are much less likely to behave in undesired ways.
So, Montessori encouraged teachers to offer exciting, enticing and interesting activities for children to choose from.
Another common discipline technique in Montessori classrooms is gluing. Rather than punishing a misbehaving child, they are moved closer to the teacher.
There, the child is encouraged to watch as the teacher gives a lesson to another student, or the child may receive more personalized attention from the teacher for a short time.
These are also discipline techniques that can be used in the home. Rather than sending your child to their room, invite them to help you in the kitchen, or spend a few minutes reading a book together.
When misbehavior is met with closeness, children feel connected again, instead of isolated.
- Teaching Grace and Courtesy: In the Montessori method, children are taught grace and courtesy explicitly in lessons from the time they are in preschool. Learning how to say “hello,” or introduce oneself are some of the first lessons. Later, children learn how to interact in and run class meetings, etc. These skills help create a community in the school environment. But, they are also helpful life skills that can help children connect in other ways in the community as they grow. For youth, knowing how to interact in mainstream spaces such as a job, community center, or the library increases the chances of their success as adults.
You can teach your children basic lessons in social skills at home, too! These skills will serve them their whole lives.
- Community Responsibility: In the Montessori classroom and home, children help keep the classroom neat and clean. It’s their job to sweep, wipe up spills, water plants, care for pets, and more. This community responsibility creats self-confidence and pride in children, Montessori believed. This aspect plays into connection, but also into engagement, both important parts of feeling a sense of belonging.
At home, you can take this to mean that assigning chores is a good thing!
Even if your kids aren’t wild about it at first, it builds a sense of responsibility and being part of a team that little else can accomplish in the same way.
Overall, the Montessori philosophy offers a great many ideas for how to achieve a feeling of embracement for children in our communities.
“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth” suggests that at some point children might even be rejected from their village.
This is exactly what happens when kids drop out of or are expelled from school.
Children and youth who are not participating in school need help!
Unfortunately, little money is dedicated to the programs that could help youth who are not currently served in schools.
Instead, people blame the youth’s parents or the youth themselves for failing to fit into the already established system. (source)
This is unfortunate because alternative school programs such as vocational training, alternative routes to college, non-profit organizations and publicly-funded organizations can help fill in the gaps.
These programs can usually offer smaller class sizes and more personalized attention for their students.
What’s more is these programs often offer additional services and help link students with other support like mental health, job placement assistance, crisis intervention, health, family planning, substance abuse treatment, and other services.
Other alternative programs include different criminal justice processes such as mediation, mentoring and restorative justice, among others.
In one such program in New Jersey, participants who have committed low-level crimes have a repeat offense rate of only 3%. This is much more successful than further ostracizing youth by sending them to jail. (source)
Conclusion: We Must Work Together to Embrace Our Community’s Youth
We all pay the consequences of failing to embrace the children in our communities.
Whether riots break out, like in London, kids commit crimes, or young people are lost to drug addiction, the costs of failing to love our children are high.
However, we can all play a role in embracing the youth in our communities.
Starting in our own homes, we can create environments that offer connection, engagement, and a sense of belonging.
For some suggestions on how to build that connection in your home, this article offers some good ideas.
We can volunteer at local community centers, serve as soccer coaches and support teachers at schools.
We can also advocate for our youth at the local, state and national levels of government.
One step at a time, we can take the African proverb “the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth,” seriously and put out the fires we’ve started.
Embracing our community’s youth will create a better future for all of us.