We have lost the art of being neighbors.
Our cars have killed it, keeping us from walking our neighborhoods as we jump into them and speed away without talking to anyone.
Our phones have killed it, keeping us from knocking on doors and asking face-to-face questions of people who are just a few steps away.
Our TVs have killed it, keeping us in our houses for entertainment and relaxation, rather than playing games and having conversations over coffee.
And this lack of neighborliness has grievously impoverished our lives. I know mine has become smaller because of it. So, here are some thoughts on how to relearn neighborliness through small but significant practices that friends and I have been trying out over the past few years.
1. Go for walks. They don’t have to be long, but they do have to be frequent. Just a quick walk around the neighborhood stretches the legs, gets the mind off the phone, encourages prayer, and creates moments where spontaneous conversations with neighbors can happen.
2. Mow the lawn. Beautify the neighborhood by having well-kept and tasteful landscaping. Don’t be like me and let the clover grow in your lawn, leading to a possible infestation of your neighbors’ lawns.
3. Have a front porch. We’ve got a couple small round tables and some chairs that I sit at on occasion for phone calls and other work. Not only is it nice to be outside when the weather is cooperative, but it creates opportunities for conversations with neighbors as they pass by.
4. Give out great Halloween candy. Don’t be the miser who doesn’t buy candy for the local kids. Be generous. Dress up yourself. Be the house kids want to come back to next year. Consider having something like hot beverages for the adults, too.
5. Contribute to fund raisers. It’s pretty nerve-wracking for kids to go door-to-door, selling chocolate bars, magazine subscriptions, coffee, or Christmas wreathes — or whatever it is this year — so be nice and buy whatever it is they’re selling. Be known on the block as the person who always contributes to fund raisers.
6. Borrow and share tools and cooking supplies. No one should be self-sufficient or even try to be. Real neighbors need each other. I have been so glad to borrow snow shoes and chop saws from neighbors and to have them borrow my ladder and other stuff. In fact, a few of us have gone in on a snow blower and an air compressor, both of which are stored at my house right now. I haven’t done it yet, but I want to borrow all of the supplies for making cookies and then deliver cookies to the neighbors who contributed the eggs, flour, sugar, etc.
7. Plan block parties. Our neighborhood does at least two each year. We do a summer one that closes down our street and a winter one where we go from house to house for a progressive meal and end up in one house for desert and a white elephant gift exchange. After years of doing so, our group has gotten huge and no one wants to miss out.
8. Care for each other’s kids and pets. Make it unnecessary for neighbors to hire pet care services or house sitters. Watch over each other’s kids as they ride bikes and learn to drive.
9. Have a neighborhood basketball hoop. We had one, but my kids preferred the one our neighbors have across the street. As with all of these things, I don’t have to be the one with all the stuff or in charge of doing everything, I just have to be a willing participant in the neighborhood.
10. Share stories but kill gossip. Part of being neighborly is knowing what’s going on in one another’s lives. And that means talking about ourselves and hearing what’s going on with others. But it’s always a two-edged blade, so keep the talk positive.
11. Help out the elderly couple and the single mom. My parents are the elderly couple on our street and my family and I do most of what they need to have done. But there are times when we’re not available, and it’s been so cool to have neighbors step in and help out in urgent moments. But beyond the urgent, there are gutters to be cleaned and hedges to be trimmed that some households just can’t get to.
12. Do stuff for free. Real neighborhoods are like extended families. So, do all these little things and more for no cost. But when someone does something for you, bake a loaf of banana bread or take a growler of beer or whatever. Match good deeds with good deeds, but in our overly monetized culture, try to keep money out of it.
13. Make a neighborhood chart. Remembering neighbor’s names can be difficult in the beginning. And it can keep me from wanting to talk with a neighbor if I forget his name. So, in one neighborhood we lived in, my wife made a little chart with all the houses on the block and we filled in names and other info as we learned it. Some have taken this to a next level and made neighborhood directories, with phone numbers, birthdays, and even hobbies listed in them.
14. Make extra food. Bake an extra loaf of zucchini bread and give it away. A neighbor just called and said she got way too many potatoes and wondered if we wanted any. Sharing is caring!
15. Simply help out. We had an especially big snow storm this past year, and there’d often be several of us dads out front, shoveling snow together and going from house to house as we did so. When one neighbor was getting ready to replace the flooring in their house, a bunch of us got together and tore out the old flooring. When a neighbor had a baby, my wife cooked a meal and brought it with a large package of diapers — this was also our free pass to seeing the cute little one.
16. Watch movies and sports events together. A friend hosts regular movie nights in his home theater and includes neighbors. A neighbor has invited a bunch of us over for football games and I’ve hosted a large Super Bowl party for our neighborhood.
17. Do holidays together. Often times, neighbors are on the road for holidays and we end up watching each other’s houses. But on occasion, we’ll find ourselves and others at home and we’ll do holidays together. We’ve hosted some massive Easter egg hunts (making very sure we’d cleaned up after the dogs first!).
There are so many more ways to foster neighborliness. But they all have a few things in common:
Attentiveness to what’s going on in the lives around you. A willingness to rely on others and a matching willingness to be inconvenienced by others who rely on you. A generous heart. A schedule that isn’t overly full — without margins of time around the fixtures in our schedules, we really don’t have time for anyone. And simple kindness.