Living Columns & Blogs

How can we build connections in our neighborhoods?

Several years ago my husband received an email from a neighbor, telling him she was going to call the police the next time the boys hit a tennis ball into her yard. Our boys loved to play baseball in our yard and sometimes the ball would land on her property.

That email made me sad for several reasons. When I was a kid, we played outside all the time, inventing our own games and being physically active. Today, instead of active play, many kids are spending most of their time inside, in front of screens. This behavior has physical and mental health ramifications such as obesity, depression, anxiety and the constant need for instant gratification. Today, it’s not so common to see kids playing outside in their own neighborhoods, so when they do, they should be encouraged. An occasional tennis ball in the yard seems harmless, especially when weighed against the alternative.

My neighbor’s manner of addressing the issue is another change from how problems used to be resolved. Back in my day, if kids were causing trouble, neighbors knocked on the door and talked to parents directly. They could do this because they knew each other. It was common for neighbors to drop by for a cup of coffee or for my mom to send me next door to borrow a cup of sugar. These things don’t happen anymore, or they don’t happen enough. Our neighbor did not deal with the issue directly, demonstrating ineffective ways of resolving conflict.

Neighborhood connections are important in raising healthy and happy children and in building positive and safe communities. Research on risk and protective factors for kids cites neighborhood attachment as a risk factor if it is low and as a protective factor when kids are bonded to their communities. Kids who know their neighbors are less likely to vandalize, steal or commit other crimes against them. In fact, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about the impact neighborhoods can have on kids in his book “The Tipping Point.” He points to studies of juvenile delinquency and dropout rates that show a child is better off in a good neighborhood and a troubled family than a troubled neighborhood and a stable family.

How can we build connections in our neighborhoods? Start a neighborhood newsletter as my husband did and ask neighbors to contribute to it. Our newsletters alert neighbors to missing pets, water outages, recommendations for baby sitters or electricians, and any news of interest that neighbors choose to share. Take time to get to know your neighbors. Host a neighborhood potluck picnic. Pull together a caroling group for the holidays. Sign up as a neighborhood to do roadside trash cleanup. If you have a neighbor who might need help during the winter months, knock on his door and introduce yourself. Offer to shovel his driveway or run errands.

So how did we respond to our neighbor’s email? We did the neighborly thing and baked cookies that the boys took over to her to apologize.

Denise Herr McCann is division director, Centre County Youth Service Bureau.