The neighborhood in which you live offers your kids a great opportunity to develop empathy, engage in kind acts, and practice social skills. Whether you reside in a suburban split-level, a condo in an apartment building, a boat in a marina, a chateau in the Dordogne, or a cabin in the woods, there will be people (or forest creatures) your child is likely to see and/or be seen by on a daily basis.
When your child walks by, you want the folks next door to say “There goes a great kid!” instead of “There goes the neighborhood!”
Here’s how to help your kids be “good neighbors”:
Be a role model. Children do what we do, not what we say. And they are watching! Model the consideration, kindness, and generosity you would like to see in your kids. Don’t gossip or make snarky remarks about neighbors. (You can do that in private with your spouse.) Welcome new families to your building or neighborhood with a gift or invitation to dinner. If your neighbors are going on vacation, offer to take in their mail or feed the parakeet. When you see a neighbor, acknowledge them with a “hello” or a friendly wave. Indulge in small talk when appropriate. Your kids will take your example as a cue for their own behavior.
Teach your children to monitor whether their actions might disturb, annoy, or harm anyone. I call this sort of mindfulness “in-reach.” It involves looking inside to develop empathy, self-awareness, self-control, and consideration. You’re teaching your child to anticipate how his actions might affect others negatively, and to refrain from such behavior. While the neighbor may have a sense of, and appreciation for, how well-behaved little Johnny-next-door is, it’s also possible she is not consciously aware of the intentionality behind your child’s contribution to the serenity of their environment. Thus, the rewards from “in-reach” may not be externally reinforced by the neighbor. So it is up to parents to value and acknowledge their child’s responsibility and self-monitoring.
Since there are different types of neighbors, neighborhoods, and housing styles, this awareness and restraint can take many forms. For example, if you live in the suburbs, “good neighbor” manners for children to follow would be:
- Don’t walk on a neighbor’s grass or flowerbeds.
- Don’t leave your bike, scooter, or skateboard on a neighbor’s property or sidewalk.
- Keep pets out of neighbors’ yards.
- Make sure a neighbor’s car, house, or koi pond are not at risk from your outdoor activities (e.g., games, rocket launching, drone photography).
- Limit noisy activities to day-time hours, i.e., don’t shoot baskets late at night, no matter how much your soul might need such a contemplative, stress-reducing activity. Of course, if a neighbor works nights and sleeps during the day, this might need to be adjusted.
For apartment-dwelling families, children should honor the following rules:
- Don’t leave your toys, sports equipment, or other gear in building corridors.
- Don’t run up and down the hallways.
- Don’t make noise in public areas.
- Be aware of, and refrain from, sound and movement that might be heard in neighboring apartments (e.g., jumping on the floor, throwing a tennis ball against the wall, cranking the music up too loud).
- Be mindful of day-time versus sleep-time; i.e., noise is more forgivable at 2:00 PM than at midnight.
When practicing “in-reach,” a child’s restraint and consideration are evidence of her good intentions. It’s what she doesn’t do that takes the prize. Now let’s look at what children can do to build warm and mutually rewarding relationships with neighbors. I call this type of good neighborliness “out-reach.” These are ways your child can connect directly with, and show kindness to, neighbors. While kindness is always appreciated, its expression may need to be tempered by cultural and geographical sensitivity. This way kids will know whether it’s best to bring their neighbor a basket of kale or catfish.
Here are some “good neighbor” tips your kids can use to engage with others and be of service.
Always greet neighbors when you see them. If you’re at a distance, wave and smile. If you’re within hearing range, say, “Hi, Mrs. Dodge.” Adults should be addressed formally unless and until they tell you to “please call me Jane.”
Address neighbors by “sir” or “ma’am.” If you’re conversing with a grown-up you should say “Ma’am” or “Sir” (again, unless you’re asked not to). Is this an increasingly archaic and near-extinct custom? Absolutely! And that’s why you should use it. You will stand out for your good manners. This will not only make you feel proud and confident, but bring all sorts of respect and treats your way.
Talk to your neighbors. Some neighbors may be housebound and/or lonely. The enthusiasm and interest of a young person could really brighten their day. There are few things people like more than a good conversation. Show interest in your neighbor. Ask about her life, job, family, childhood, cats, garden, travel adventures, etc. Your neighbor will be thrilled—people love to talk about themselves!—and you may find a fascinating new friend. Of course, you need to observe the difference between showing interest and being nosy.
Notice a need and fill it. Your neighbors may range from an 85-year-old woman living on her own, to a young family with seven kids, to, heaven forbid, a frat house full of 100 partying college students. No matter what the circumstances, there are always things you can do to give them a hand, bring a smile, or boost their spirits. Shovel their walkway, cut their grass, or rake their leaves; you’re not doing it for the money, but I bet you’ll be offered some, which you can then refuse and feel even better about yourself! If it’s about to rain and you see a parcel on your neighbor’s lawn, put it on their porch. If you notice your neighbor unloading grocery bags from the car, offer to help. If your neighbor is computer-challenged, figure out and solve his problem.
Apologize and make amends. If you break a neighbor’s window, or you and your friends kept them up at night with a noisy party, go over and apologize. Do it in person or drop a note under their door. Offer to repair any damage, or bring a peace offering as a gift.
Do something kind. This doesn’t have to be in response to a need you notice. It can be out-of-the-blue. Play a concert for your neighbor on your guitar. Drop off a book you thought she'd be interested in reading. If you’ve had an especially bountiful harvest, bring your neighbor some tomatoes or zucchini from the garden.
Participate in community service. Parents should encourage their kids to create or join existing community service projects. This is an area where your example is important. Once kids experience the benefits of giving—and research shows there are many—they will develop a life-long habit of working for the betterment of their community. There are myriad ways families can volunteer their time and/or resources: participate in toy, clothing, food, and blood drives; support natural disaster responses; work in animal shelters; paint, repair, or build homes; clean up litter; tutor, mentor, or coach; help out in homeless shelters; organize block parties and community events.
Of course, these behaviors and activities need to be modified depending on the child’s age. Very young children may not be capable of doing some of these by themselves. But they can carry the brownies their big brother made and share in the appreciation; they can use their tiny shovel to help Dad clear the neighbor’s driveway; they can go along for the ride when Mom drives Mrs. Dodge to a doctor’s appointment. Older tweens and teens can volunteer on their own as they discover the causes, venues, and activities they find most rewarding.
Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. And there’s nothing a village likes more than pleasant, friendly, helpful kids! As a microcosm of the world at large, your neighborhood contains many of the elements kids will encounter as they grow up and eventually move out on their own. So it’s never too early to use it to nurture a child’s empathy, thoughtfulness, and generosity, and to help develop social awareness, healthy relationships, and a lifelong habit of community service.
Illustration entitled “Florence’s New Neighbors” is gratefully used by permission of Janet McDonnell.