Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Reality: Few Is Beautiful, Too Few Is Hard

March 3, 2003

One secret about life in small rural communities is that the fewness of numbers has it own rewards. Few is beautiful.

Few is beautiful? Isn't that part of the problem? Well, it is and it isn't. Many years ago, psychologist Roger Barker studied a small Kansas town. He developed a theory to explain how "undermanned behavior settings" create the circumstance in which people are pushed, coerced, pressured, enlisted, recruited or invited - you choose the term - to participate in basic community or group activities. Community institutions require warm bodies to take key roles to maintain a minimal level of community activities and services.

How does this work? Imagine an eight or even a seven person baseball team. Everyone has to show up, play harder and do more things. New plays have to be learned. More practice is required.

A poor-fielding right fielder is better than no fielder at all. The coach will work with the player and so will the rest of the team. The right fielder feels important, because he or she is important. The team would be worse off without him or her. In order to compete, the team experiences more communication, self-correction, growth, teamwork, commitment and unity.

Small schools have opportunities. Small rural high schools are an example of this concept. Students who might not be given the time of day in an urban school are involved in many varied opportunities for development in small schools. For example, they are likely to be playing team sports, taking part in the school play, singing in the choir, working on the yearbook, planning the homecoming dance and more.

Don't forget about 4-H, FFA, church youth groups and other extra-curricular activities where leadership and initiative are developed and honed. Almost every rural setting is short-handed, pressing into action all who volunteer and those who respond to urgent invitations. Read that as "pressure."

In rural environments, children might not be all above average, but they are treated as such. Opportunities abound for below average and average students, while bright and energetic students respond to leadership opportunities.

Children develop general competence and versatility, and learn to assume responsibility. They learn to subordinate their wishes for the good of others, make lifelong friends and have fun in the process. Isn't this one of the reasons why rural communities are a great place to raise kids?

Interdependence for adults. The same principle applies to other short-handed settings - a small church, service clubs, community boards, family farm operations, small businesses and so on.

People are truly needed. They depend on each other. They care about one another - because they have to, and because they care about the adequacy of basic community experiences. They already know the answer to, "If not us, who?" The answer is nobody. If the number of participants falls below a critical number, the game is no longer baseball, but "work-up" and everybody loses.

A by-product of all this activity and community involvement is the sense of personal value and power rural residents feel. They are exposed to a wide variety of experiences and are placed in positions of trust and responsibility.

They become quite skillful in working with people. Whether their involvement is an enlistment or a draft, they are forced to grow and extend themselves in many ways. It is a fortunate circumstance, because happiness is attained chiefly by service to others.

People need a sense of mission and opportunity to tap their pent-up creative energies. By having few numbers, rural communities develop competent, committed, hard-working people who are flexible and willing to assume responsibility and are able to work together as a team.

Individualism linked to population centers. An overmanned environment is more competitive, socially conscious, impersonal and requires fewer commitments. It encourages passivity, detachment, specialization, and cultivation of leisure and aesthetic interests.

What is involved is a greater preoccupation with self and a diminished concern for the well-being of others or for the community as a whole. If one is genuinely not needed, then energies are directed at personal goals.

Few can be hard. Yet there are costs coupled with the benefits of short-handed situations. The energy and effort required tends to be wearing and exhausting. Standards often have to be lowered to adjust to the inadequate human resources available. Quality may suffer.

There are also feelings of insecurity when we, like the right fielder, are thrust into a contest knowing we are unprepared and somewhat inadequate but still needed in the game anyway. These things take a toll in personal stress and tension.

The flip side of the coin to the busyness, hard work and responsibility of rural life is that the effort and energy required is wearing and exhausting. People burn out.

Rural politics can be almost too democratic. Opposing sides of an issue have their supporters. There is tension connected with trying to resolve competing interests. Public opinion is real and personal.

There is another kind of trade-off. Personal interests and goals have to compete for time in an awfully busy arena. There isn't much time to be passive, detached, specialized or to cultivate leisure or aesthetic interests. It doesn't go with the territory. Time and stress management and the ability to say no are crucial to maintain a balance between a dynamic personal life and the community’s need for community service and participation.

Economics aside, the out-migration of people from rural communities tips the balance from something beautiful to something hard. Too few becomes too hard.