I didn’t grow up with neighbors. There was a brick house at the end of our half mile lane, but we never borrowed a cup of sugar. (Why would we when we could call Don & Jeanne?) The idea of neighboring has always been a foreign concept. When I moved into my house in Upper my mom was aghast that no one brought me a casserole, not because it went against her own experiences (the only move she ever made was from the house she grew up in to my father’s home that he grew up in, after they wed) but rather I think she was disappointed that neighbors only did that in the movies.
How to be a good neighbor always escaped me. What’s the appropriate amount of time to chat when you get out of your van or while you’re grilling? If you invite them for a swim, is this considered an open invitation? How far from an open window can they hear?
Once again, country life made me a tad naive.
So when I came home from a run one day to see our elderly neighbor out picking up sticks, I was stumped as to my participation level. I like to be helpful, but rarely excel in manuel labor. (Casseroles are more my thing. Or book recommendations. That’s how I “help”.) However, my children exhibit the perfect height-to-strength ratio for stick picking, so I ran inside to fetch the eldest two. By the time we got to the door, the sticks had been gathered and there was nothing to do. Now, I was just the crazy neighbor with all the kids who knocks on the door, asking to pick up sticks.
The following week, the story repeated, this time with the neighbor’s daughter struggling with the mower in grass so high you would think I had been in charge of mowing. Out comes elderly neighbor man with a rake, as the storm clouds headed our way. I raced inside and found the eldest again and we each picked up a rake.
This time we didn’t ask. We just started raking. H Boy LOVED this. Like his mama, he likes to be helpful, but like his daddy he is super with work-tasks. He went to work raking the biggest piles and then carrying them to the trash can. He was so proud of his work – and I of him.
I tend to think of my parenting goals in terms of character rather than final product. I have no idea what any of these kids will look like on the other side of time, but I know certain values I want ingrained into their hearts. Kindness, thoughtfulness, humility, bravery. I’ve also given a lot of thought to the process of instilling these ideas into their database. How exactly does one become kind and humble? Where do we get so brave as to try something new?
I decided it’s by picking up a rake.
We just do the thing that needs done. We don’t talk as much in “ought to’s” and “should have’s”. We see a friend who needs something so we give it to them. Even when we don’t know the social norms of living across the street from people, we pony up the guts to walk over with a rake and say, “we want to help.”
When we do this – as if it’s normal – our kids begin to believe it’s normal.
Growing up, my circle of friends were so comfortable in one another’s houses we knew where the snack shelf was in each home. One time, a friend walked in after a softball game and immediately went rummaging for some pretzels. A family from outside The Circle was there and the mother was appalled at my friend’s action. I was stumped by this mother’s reaction. What’s so wrong with making yourself at home? (Related: this made me an awful hostess. Why should I offer you a glass of water? You know where the glasses are. Mi casa, su casa around here.)
I need to change the “normal” setting of our family’s way of life. Perhaps then my kids will grow up knowing what to do when they see someone who needs help. And hopefully it won’t be so profound that they’ll have to blog about their success with it afterward – it’s just a part of what they do.