What do we lose when we don't cultivate relationships with our neighbors? More than we might think.
I just read an older post by Peter Gray, and it brought to mind the class I taught last summer where we talked about what "community" means and the implications of having few or weak relationships with those who live closest to you. Often, we are content not knowing our neighbors because we don't see a need for it. In fact, many are thankful that we don't have to rely on each other for survival the way we used to, and now we can easily pick and choose our acquaintances. You never know what weirdos might be lurking in the house next door--better to stay inside, right?
Gray's article would have been perfect to bring up then. In his article, he links the decline of free play (basically, kids playing outdoors, generally unsupervised) with the increase in obesity, depression, and suicide. He goes on to say that the reason parents keep their children from free play is the fear that their children might be harmed by strangers.
It's no wonder; if you believe that your neighborhood is full of strangers, then you'd be crazy to let your kids run wild among them. But is the answer to keep kids in adult-supervised activities all day long? Or is the answer to decrease our feeling that all those people out there are strangers?
I live in military housing, and kids are everywhere: in their yards, in other people's yards, in soccer fields, on playgrounds, and sometimes in the street. One neighbor kid, who I learned later is autistic, even walked into my house uninvited in order to chase after one of my cats. For someone without kids, frankly, it can be annoying, but this annoyance is also reassurance. People around here obviously trust one another, and even though there might be some unsavory individuals here, the good ones outnumber the bad, and we look out for one another.
Gray's article includes some suggestions about having more community centers. I'm not opposed to that, especially in areas where yards and communal spaces are minimal, but I think the key here is to create environments where neighbors can meet and forge a sense of trust and alliance. For example, some community centers might still fail because parents don't trust that their kids are safe there with little or no supervision. Therefore, the community centers must be places that give adults, teens, and kids something to do and opportunities to meet. Only then will everyone feel they are safe places to be.
If no funds are available to create these places, then residents might have to work a little harder to get out there and meet their neighbors, but it seems like it's worth the effort when the consequences of continued isolation are obesity and suicide. Additionally, I don't think it's a stretch to say that adults (parents or not) would feel safer and less lonely if they had stronger ties to their physical communities. So, what can we do to strengthen our relationships with our neighbors?
1. Recognize that people (Americans especially, I think) fear rejection and often won't make the first move; however, they will probably respond positively if you initiate friendship.
2. When new residents move in near you, welcome them. Introduce yourself and give them a card with your name on it (phone number, email address, and family members' names if you're comfortable with that) and a list of local businesses that you recommend. Also, if there's anything you wish you would have known about the area when you moved in, let them in on that information.
3. When you move to a new area, because of #1 above, don't wait for your neighbors to make the first move. Go door to door and introduce yourself. If you're having a housewarming party, invite your neighbors as well.
4. Be helpful. An invitation of "let me know if you need anything" only works when you truly mean it. If you see someone who looks like they could use a hand, go over and offer your help. If you know you have an elderly neighbor, go over once in a while to see how s/he is doing.
5. Be visible outside your front door. This can take different shapes depending on your living situation. If you have a front yard, mow it or work in a garden. Set up some chairs outside. Walk, jog, or ride a bike in the neighborhood. Take advantage of communal spaces or community activities.
6. Overall, take initiative. If you'd like to see a change in your neighborhood, then start it. The more people there are participating, the more that will want to join. It's all about taking the first step.