On a recent Saturday, my wife and I installed a swing on a tree outside our town home in Virginia. Within an hour, we had kids from all over the neighborhood coming to try it out, and we were happy to oblige. Children laughing and playing in the summer afternoon sun, parents out on the street chatting—this is the integral image of “Main Street Conservatism.”
Yet there are some kids in the neighborhood of whom my wife and I are leery. They are in difficult family situations, exposed to things we would not show our own little ones. Their parents are never around, too busy inside their own houses, doing whatever it is they do. The things that come out of their kids’ mouths, and the way their children treat their fellow playmates, make us a bit uncomfortable. So we do the delicate dance of trying to be welcoming while closely monitoring interactions and intervening when necessary.
That afternoon got me thinking about my own childhood and the role of neighbors, both good and bad. I hadn’t realized before just how much of an influence those experiences have on the development of children and the welfare of their own families.
I lived in, at the time, a more remote part of Northern Virginia that still looked and felt somewhat rural—there were a few farms that were within walkable distance of our house. There were few kids in the small neighborhood, and lots of woods and streams. Only two boys were of similar age to me, and their family circumstances were miles apart.
The first, a nice, if somewhat awkward boy, was growing up amid a failing marriage. One of the first times I visited his house, I was perhaps seven or eight years old. His parents had a loud, acrimonious screaming match right in front of me. I had never seen anything like it, and it was terrifying. The family also had pets…lots of them. Dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, hamsters, and God knows what else. Perhaps this was aimed at distracting the kids from the marital feuds, but it made the place even louder, and it stank. The boy seemed to insulate himself from his parents’ battles by playing all the latest video games that they bought for him. This, for me, was reason as good as any to come over and play. But my parents were increasingly uncomfortable with me visiting, for obvious reasons. I’d say I was uncomfortable, too, but I wasn’t mature enough to understand why.
The other boy was much more sociable, and his family situation far more stable. We met on a youth soccer team, and ended up playing in the same local baseball little league. His parents’ house was directly behind my own, separated by maybe four or five acres of woods. His home was an exemplar of stability and calm, while his parents were friendly and welcoming, even if his dad, a veteran like my father, seemed to take a peculiar delight in projecting a gruff, “break anything in this house and I’ll break your arm” persona. It didn’t take long to learn that he was all bark and no bite. I ended up spending a lot of my childhood at this friend’s house. I have countless memories of running around his backyard, playing with Legos in his family room, and running over every Christmas Day to compare his presents with my own.
In a word, his family was normal. I’m sure his parents had their quarrels like any married couple, but they were discreet enough never to do that in front of me. I knew, and my parents knew, that this home was a safe place for me to spend a part of my childhood, especially on lazy summer days. It was from this family that I learned many important lessons—that there was such a thing as whipped cream that could be placed on top of ice cream, that middle school need not be as scary or intimidating as I feared. Indeed, I got a ride to school with my friend and his older sister once she got her driver’s license. This put me in a different category of cool. I still remember with fondness walking through the woods in the early morning for those drives to school, sitting with my friend’s father talking baseball while he drank his coffee.
All this to say, having good neighbors can make a significant impact on a child. Our respective families were never close, but the parents respected and trusted each other enough that, if an emergency took place, either one could leave their kids with the other for however many hours were necessary. My parents never worried that I might be exposed to something inappropriate or emotionally damaging when visiting my friend’s house. They were never concerned that my friends’ parents might try to impress upon me some worldview in contradiction to their own.
This, I’d wager, is what we all want. We don’t necessarily need to have neighbors who are our best friends, who we party with every weekend for barbecues and beers (though that’s certainly welcome!). We need neighbors who maintain stable, respectable families who we can trust with our children and who can help us when we’re in a bind. We want neighbors who we know, who return our smiles and waves, with whom we can have a friendly 10-minute conversation. This shouldn’t be an especially conservative ideal, though with the many attacks that have been lodged against the traditional family and its fundamental rights, it sometimes seems that way.
My friend’s father passed away this winter. I hadn’t talked to him in many years, I’m sad to say. I’d seen the mother and the daughter and her own young family at Fourth of July parades or when I’d go for walks around the neighborhood when visiting my folks. Even then, in my late twenties and early thirties, that home remained a safe, welcoming refuge. I found an incommunicably nostalgic fondness for the family that inevitably bubbled up into prayers for their wellbeing. They had an impact, which cannot be easily measured or quantified, on my childhood and growth into adulthood.
At the funeral, I did my best to hold back tears for a man who, like my own father, died well before his time. So I offer my thoughts here, hoping that the witness of good neighbors, in stable families, with respectful children, will spread its influence far beyond this little story. As I now appreciate, my own family certainly needs them.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.