How does good parenting happen in the absence of community?
As a mother of two (soon to be three) children under four, I shudder at the dozens of news reports I’ve read lately featuring parents who carelessly or intentionally leave their young children alone in cars or public places for extended periods of time. I found myself passing judgment on the mom who sent her kid to the park while she was at work, until I reflected on Gracy Olmstead’s suggestion in her piece, “Parenting in an Age of Bad Samaritans,” that the woman perhaps had no one in her life to whom she could entrust her daughter’s care. Perhaps this unfortunate incident is a byproduct of a greater cultural disease.
I lament that we live in a society in which we can’t rely on strangers in our community to take responsibility for unsupervised children. Several of the parenting stories that have made headlines recently have highlighted a departure from any dutiful sense of neighborliness. Today’s bizarrely voyeuristic witnesses are more likely to call to the police or videotape a child in potential danger rather than personally intervene. This spirit of isolation and fear is feeding the nanny state and criminalizing any parenting method which falls short of 24/7 surveillance.
Other entries in our conversation about parenting and bad Samaritans:
Because I have small children who often fall asleep in the car when I’m running errands, I know how frustrating it can be to have to wake them up and drag a couple of grumpy little ones into a store–just to get one or two items. But in this world and this time, I can’t so much as pick up books at the library, run into the post office, or drop off the dry cleaning without hauling the kids in with me. It’s tempting to just run in and out, but the sad fact is, I simply don’t trust my neighbors. I’m not convinced that a bystander won’t observe me leaving the kids in the car for three minutes and call the police. Part of me truly desires a “free-range” childhood for my kids, but I question whether it’s possible here and now.
In my opinion, leaving a young child in a car unattended for an extended length of time is probably not the wisest choice, but it’s also often something short of criminal. However, when I weigh my personal convenience against the remote risk of child abduction and the prospect of finding myself at the mercy of the roulette wheel that is the justice system, I always take the kids along.
Perhaps I’m just suffering from a lack of faith in humanity. When I was growing up, I remember my parents calling the cops on a neighbor whose parties were too noisy. Most likely my family didn’t simply go speak to the offenders themselves because we didn’t actually know any of them. In an age when so many of our personal relationships and interactions take place electronically, it’s really not that surprising that people feel uncomfortable addressing conflict directly with others, in person. But I hope and believe that we can do better at cultivating our immediate community than the examples we have been given.
So, we all know that we live in a largely atomistic culture, one in which people are fearful and suspicious of their neighbors. My husband and I reside in the D.C. area, a place where one keenly feels that chill of isolation. Our doors are always locked, and we know where all the registered criminals live in our general vicinity. We live in a townhome, but we don’t sit out on our stoop chatting with the passersby.
Sadly, we don’t have any close family living nearby. We’ve had to foster a community for ourselves with the help of our parish family. These things don’t just spontaneously generate. Relationships of mutual reliance are laborious to create and maintain. I honestly do not know how people do this without the support of the church. We live nearly 30 minutes away from our church (and many of our fellow parishioners), and this is not uncommon for our area. Yet, it will be to one of those families that I turn when I go into labor in a couple of months. There must be something more we can be doing to ensure that we don’t end up like the mother who left her daughter unsupervised at the park all day while she went to work.
Here are a few solutions we’ve implemented to invest in authentic connections with those immediately around us. I occasionally bake some bread for my neighbors or invite them to a gathering at my home. They frequently return the favor by mowing the little patch of grass in front of my townhouse or shoveling the snow on my sidewalk or dropping by used clothing their kid has outgrown. It’s remarkable how one good deed often begets another. We’re working on these relationships. I’m not ready to ask them to babysit, but we have asked them to keep down the volume while our kids were sleeping. It’s a baby step.
I also joined a national organization called Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS), hosted at the local Baptist church. The forty-plus moms in this group really support one another. When someone falls ill, faces bereavement, loses a job, or welcomes a new baby, the members rally around the family, providing meals and whatever else is needed.
Many churches, like our own, also sponsor such services on behalf of the faithful. When one of the couples in my church recently lost a baby, the members cleaned their home, delivered groceries and meals, and entertained the mother’s older son while she went to appointments. I recently read an article by Carey Nieuwhof on The Parent Cue* called “Why Your Kids Need Five Other Adults in Their Lives.” For our children, those five adults who regularly participate in their lives can be easily found within our church community: their godparents, the priest and his wife, and the parents of the other church kids. We desperately need these voluntary associations!
In my limited experience of parenting in exile, the only way to keep your head above water is to be someone that invests in others and gives of your time (little and precious as it is), even though it may cost you something. A dear friend of mine (who recently moved out of the area) and I used to alternate days of going over to each other’s homes and watching of all the kids, while the mother of the house got errands and cleaning done. It was quite helpful, and I miss it.
Plenty of people give lip service to “doing life together,” but few actually live it out. Scripture teaches us that we will be known as disciples of Christ by how we love one another (John 13). What a pity it would be if we fell short of this calling. As for our home, we’ve adopted some close friends as family, and we are trying in a few small ways to be the kind of neighbor we want to see in our community, particularly through the Christian practice of hospitality. We got started with the modest goal of inviting one family we don’t know very well into our home for a meal, once per month. Perhaps you can begin this practice with your own neighbors.
If you find yourself a stranger in a culture unfriendly to parents and children, I encourage you to take the advice of Jeremiah: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
*Not an endorsement of the website.
Adrienne Meador lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.