The Neighborhood

The other day, my wife and I were discussing the change in neighborhood social structure over the past 30+ years. Heather said she missed the days when neighborhoods were environments where kids grew up playing together, neighbors watched out for each other, and people didn’t have to lock their doors at night.

Here are some of my thoughts.

Change in the family structure

50 years ago, the neighborhood family structure was predominantly “traditional American”. The family consisted of stay-at-home moms, working fathers, and some number of children. Now, the predominant structure consists of two (hopefully) working parents and children that have gone to daycare.

The impact this change has had on the neighborhood is huge. A single example illustrates this.

Before I got married, I knew a few of my neighbors, but only one of them very well (and that was because I knew them from church, not because they lived next to me). After I got married, Heather moved in and got a job, so for the first year of married life, the neighborhood structure (or at least, how we fit into it) did not change.

When we had our first daughter, Heather and I had both decided that we wanted a stay-at-home mother raising our children, not daycare. So, when our daughter was born, Heather quit her job and stayed home.

I didn’t notice much change until our daughter was old enough to walk at least a bit, but at that point, Heather would take her out for little walks around the neighborhood. She got to know all of the close neighbors, and over the next couple years, got to be friends with many of them. Although I don’t know them as well as her, I now see them on a regular basis through her.

Heather visits with our neighbors on a regular basis. They often bring over cookies or muffins or some other thing they cooked, and Heather does the same for them. A couple of them bring small gifts to our daughter on a regular basis.

It’s only a small niche… and it mainly involves older retired people, because the younger ones are at work during the day, but I can easily imagine how that neighborhood would exapand if there were a stay-at-home mom in most of those homes, many of them natural networkers (as women tend to be anyway, and women who are raising kids are even more inclined to be if only to get a little adult interaction for a few minutes).

I’m not going to go into any detail (at least not now) of the reasons why this change in family structure occurred, either to criticize it or justify it. There were very valid reasons for some of the changes, and some very poor reasons for others. It’s unfortunate that it has had such a huge impact on the neighborhood.

Change in children’s entertainment

Probably the second most important change has been in the forms of entertainment available to children. 30 years ago, much of the entertainment was outside. Neighborhood children played with each other, either outside, or at each others’ homes, and it was inevitable that this would bring the neighborhood together. Even with the significantly reduced adult network, the network of children would still hold the neighborhood together, at least to some extent.

The neighborhood has almost always provided organized events for children (little league, 4-H, scouts, etc.), many of which were run by working parents.

These programs still exist of course, but more and more entertainment is coming from forms that A) involve less interaction between children and B) involve less work for parents.

It’s so much easier to buy the latest Nintendo/Wii/XBox than to organize a little league soccer team. When soccer is played on the game box, rather than the field, the neighborhood loses an essential component which could keep it alive.

Massive online communities now provide environments where people can interact with each other in ways that was never before possible. Although not necessarily a bad thing, the new definition of the neighborhood has come at the expense of the old neighborhood. It would be much better if the new definition could supplement the old one.

Change in communication

I just read about a “texting competition” in the news. A 15 year old girl won a contest because she was able to text messages. Earlier this year, there were stories of teenagers who would send tens of thousands of messages each month… often at a rate of one or more per minute every waking minute of every day.

Even without these extremes, for many people, the amount of communication done face-to-face is less than that done in some other way (phone, texting, email, etc.).

When the face-to-face is gone, the physical neighborhood no longer has any meaning.


I have some ideas which would help to reestablish the local neighborhood… but it’s a lot of work and social reengineering. Still, I’ve seen a change in my family due to Heather being at home… it’s not the establishment of a complete 1950’s neighborhood, but it’s more of a neighborhood than was there before, so I know that at least some improvement is possible.

We need to make family and neighborhood a priority. If parents are unwilling or uninterested in being part of a neighborhood, nothing else matters. You can stop reading, because nothing else I can say will make any difference.

I’m very glad that my wife has helped to create a little bit of neighborhood in our life.

We need to include some “old-fashioned” forms of entertainment and communication in our lives. I’m not advocating that we discard the new forms entirely… but we do need to recognize the value of the other ways too.

We need to make sure that at least some of our entertainment and communication is not on the computer/phone/gamestation. It’s not even that hard to do. Like my wife, most people look back fondly at that simpler way of life. Just like we did, our children will enjoy the types of activities that can occur outside in the neighborhood, provided they are exposed to them. If a small number of people get together in a neighborhood and organize just one or two small actities, it can rekindle the neighborhood concept.

I really think that we need to investigate the structure of the family. So many people think that the family structure is “expendable”. That it’s better to have two incomes than two interested parents.

That is not to say that a complete return to the traditional family structure is the only solution. There are several alternative family structures available which preserve the strength of the family and the neighborhood which may better serve the needs of those families.

One alternative that I really admire is a traditional oriental family structure. In that structure, grandparents often raise the children. Parents both work and support both their children and their parents, who live with them. While they work, the grandparents raise the children.

I really like that solution as it expands the concept of family by including an extra generation into it in a way which could potentially strengthen the traditional family structure rather than weaken or replace it.

I also like a more communal family setting. This has been used in many different societies. Children are rasied by a neighborhood instead of by a single set of parents. Some of parents (or even older children) watch the younger children while other parents are working.

I work with two people who practically co-raise each other’s children. At least a couple times a week, the children spend time at the other family’s house, to the extent that practically any event that involves one of the two families involves the other one too.

Heather and I are trying to do this with some other couples that we know, and it’s been a really rewarding experience. The children are becoming quite close to each other after only a short time, and the adults are closer too. We get to share the load of parenting, without ever losing the primary responsibility for our own children. It’s a very nice system that I want to continue.

Anyway, there’s lots more that I could say, but I think that’s enough for now.