I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a community. (In the upcoming issue of Soul Gardening, I have an article about one unexpected aspect of my life as an urban dweller. Tune in for that!) Of course we have the community of believers, and we have the community (be it ever so fluid) of family. But what about the literal, physical community in our neighborhoods? How has that changed over time? I think we could all agree that it has changed drastically. Not least of the reasons being due to global connectivity and the greater access to social networks which have the counter-intuitive effect of actually isolating us more. Despite being more connected than ever, our communities seem to be more withdrawn than ever… not from other communities necessarily, but from the individual. Having the security of their families and friends on their online network, families often close in on themselves away from the neighborhood around them.
Something else that I also think has had a large effect on community is what I personally see as an overblown concept of “stranger danger.” All parents can share stories of what things were like when they were kids—being allowed to roam the woods all the live long day, riding bikes across town at the age of seven, being able to eat homemade candies from strangers etc. While there were certainly “bad guys” back then, the dangers children faced certain seem to be far fewer than they are now. Today, we parents are fiercely protective. All Halloween candy gets inspected. Children are not allowed to talk to strangers. They are not allowed out of our eye sight in public places. They are most certainly not allowed to roam the live long day in the woods! Don’t they know there are drunken predators lurking in there just waiting for innocent children to come along!!! And while I don’t want to trivialize the very real gravity of childhood abduction or sexual exploitation that does exist and that does seem to make all the news headlines, it needs to be put in its proper place.
The polarities are frigid, extreme places to dwell after all. While there is a grave danger of being a helicopter parent—hovering constantly over your children to protect them from every physical and emotional danger, it’s similarly dangerous to just abandon your kids to be formed by whatever influences they find in the streets also. Where is the happy medium? I believe with all my heart that the happy medium is not in trying to control our environments so much as it is in trying to control ourselves and our relationships with our kids. Statistically speaking, children who have loving, healthy relationships with their parents are much less likely to fall victim to predators. The ‘bad guys’ know this too; a child who is likely to tell mom and dad everything, who is secure in who they are and where they come from, will be a lot harder to abuse than kids from damaged homes where the parents are either absent, negligent or abusive themselves. Sadly those homes are far too common in society but we can only do our part to shape what we can.
I don’t really believe there are more bad guys looking to steal our kids now than there were in the 1950s (or even 80s). But what can we do to stay properly vigilant without becoming paranoid parents?! Forbidding children to talk to strangers or to go out alone in their neighborhoods inherently means they know their neighbors less, their communities less. And this will perhaps develop into a whole generation of individuals that do not have any sort of vested interest in protecting and nurturing their communities. Our children will grow up as people who have a very carefully guarded network of acceptable acquaintances and indirectly taught to view everyone else with either disinterest or suspicion. The consequences of what this means for us as a nation can’t be understated. How can we expect our little birds to grow their wings and fly when we are constantly forbidding them to fall from the nest?
They have to be proactively taught awareness (not fear) and how to handle situations that they may face. We’ve had uncomfortable conversations with our children starting at a very young age about “What to do if…” situations. They weren’t fun to talk about and it hurt me to even think about someone trying to abuse or abduct my children, but I am confident that our children will know what to do if God-forbid a situation like that arises. We live in an urban area. There are some seedy characters in our neighborhood. Crime happens here. Sometimes we even put the children on house arrest while an incident is taking place outside. Some people I know raise eyebrows that I let my 8 year old walk to the church alone even though it’s only one block away and within sight of our house. I also let the boys ride their bikes around our neighborhood and play with children in the park that I don’t know. And as I type this, my boys are sleeping in a homemade teepee right there in my yard where the derelicts could find them if they wanted to. God have mercy.
“Pray. Hope. And don’t worry.” Therein lies our solution. But the solution won’t look the same for all of us. We have to be at peace, not live in fear and trust our instincts. Every parent has to decide for themselves just what temperature of ‘free range’ they’re willing to allow. Like homeschooling or vaccinating or gluten-free eating, this is not a faith issue… and we need to remember that. It’s a parenting issue and we ought to do our best to give people the benefit of the doubt that they want what’s best for their children and are doing the best they can. That said, however, I do hope to see some deliberate efforts made to refocus on the concept of community living be it in a rural, urban or suburban setting. Being local and sustainable and community oriented isn’t just for the progressive, hipster demographics. We all need to have a vested interest in the people around us and in the place we live… not just to teach good stewardship of our community, but to foster real and meaningful relationships with people of all ages, sizes and colors in face-to-face encounters. That’s how we plumb the depths of the human experience; that’s how we can know the many faces of God.