Why We Need to Know Our Neighbors

The nanny-state attacks again. This time the dateline is Austin, Texas and the victim is a writer named Kari Anne Roy and her six-year-old son Isaac. Isaac was up the street from his house when a woman, presumably she lives in the neighborhood, decided that somehow it was not OK for Isaac to play outside alone and took it upon herself to return him to his house. Perhaps if this busybody had left it at bringing Isaac home to his mother (with a dose of condescending I-know-better attitude), the story would never have ended up exploding into a new criminalizing childhood narrative. Alas, the story got much worse.

A police officer showed up a few minutes later to question Roy, and days after that came representatives from the local office of Child Protective Services. As Roy reported to Free-Range Mom Lenore Skenazy, the woman, who required interrogating each of Roy’s three children without a parent present, “asked my 12 year old if he had ever done drugs or alcohol. She asked my 8-year-old daughter if she had ever seen movies with people’s private parts, so my daughter, who didn’t know that things like that exist, does now,” Roy explained. “Thank you, CPS.”

In the end, the “case” was resolved after CPS found nothing they could define as a problem, though God knows they tried. Instead, Roy’s son is now afraid to be alone and worries that either his mother is going to be taken away or that he will, and Roy was advised by a CPS representative that she should just not let her kids play outside.

Got that American parents? No playing outside for little Johnny and Suzie. Fresh air? Yeah, there’s perfectly good oxygen inside.

It might be comical if it weren’t so infuriating. What did the woman, the police officer, or the child welfare worker think they were doing? Certainly not helping. And while there are lots of ways to dissect what is wrong with this incident, in an effort to be constructive, it seems important to focus on one way to avoid such situations: Get to know your neighbors and build a physical community around your family.

Over at RealClearPolitics, Heather Wilhelm had it right:

Reflecting on Ms. Roy’s run-in with Child Protective Services, it’s worth noting that she didn’t know the neighbor who turned her in. If you read up on similar cases, that variable shows up again and again…. Friends rarely call the cops as a first resort. Alienated strangers often do—and isolated, atomized communities are often the first to hand over authority to a faceless, overpowering state.

This idea that if you know your neighbors, they are less likely to get you in trouble is echoed in the experience and advice of Mike Lanza, the author of Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play. He’s an advocate for letting kids off the leash and encouraging them to play outside. In fact, he took his own advice and tricked out his front and backyards with all sorts of outdoor fun and then opened up both spaces to anyone who wanted to come over and join his kids.

In a sign of the times, he is constantly asked about whether he fears litigation or a lawsuit should some neighbor’s kid hurt themselves at his house. And he lives in Menlo Park, California so it isn’t as if the concern is unwarranted. But as Lanza patiently explains, he’s pretty sure that if he knows the parents and they know him, no one will call a lawyer. So far he’s been right.

The benefit of getting to know your neighbors and creating a physical community around your family isn’t all about preventing a nanny-state intrusion, such as Ms. Roy experienced, however. The real benefit is that we humans are actually happier and feel safer when we have a clan, a tribe, a place. It takes time, effort, and energy and you may not end up loving everyone on your block. There are no guarantees of paradise. But you might just be able to let your kids take a walk, or play in the yard.

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