Parenting


I need some old people. My 5 ½ year old talks so much, has so much to say, that we have long ago reached the limit of what we can listen to on a daily basis.  But he keeps going.   He is smart, insightful, creative, comedic, and if my definition is correct, an extrovert.  Or maybe it is just part of being 5 ½.  He seems to process most of his thoughts out loud.  He loves to challenge me with his ‘tricky’ word puzzles and he wants math problems.  He likes to play twenty questions.  Constantly.  All day.  Every day.  Non-stop.  See where I’m going with this?  Car rides can be mentally exhausting.  I take naps now.

When I was a kid, we had lots of older neighbors.  The Steinacker’s lived right next door.  Willie and Katie never had children so they became like grandparents to me.  According to my mom, I would go over there almost every day…either knock on the door or press my nose up against the back screen door to see into the kitchen or join Katie while she was gardening in the back yard, hanging up laundry to dry or sitting on the back step dipping her arthritic hands into a coffee can full of hot paraffin wax.  We talked.  We hung out, really. 

On the other side of our house was Lizzy.  She lived alone. But I would go over to her house and knock on the door.  She always had a full candy dish on her dining room table.  That may have been my excuse for going over to hang out with her.  Otherwise, we would sit at the kitchen table and talk, while she drank her coffee.  I remember she would fill a tea cup full of coffee, then put cream in it so that it overflowed onto the saucer.  She would stir it so that more would spill on the saucer.  Then she would remove the cup and drink from the saucer, since the temperature of the coffee in the saucer was cooler.  I loved watching her do that.  I would hang out with her while she worked her flower garden.  She grew huge orange and black poppies and enormous peonies.  I can’t remember what we would talk about.  Just chatting I guess.  I didn’t have the kind of childhood where I experienced any trauma and needed someone to talk to about being sad.  I guess I just liked to hang out with people.  And these people were right next door, they were home and they didn’t send me away.

On the other side of Lizzy’s house lived the other Steinacker’s.  Geraldine and Les were brother and sister and I spent a lot of time with them as well.  Geraldine always greeted me in German.  “Guten Tag!”  I had my very own special little drawer in one of the pieces of furniture in their dining room.  Geraldine would put stickers or anything interesting she received in her junk mail in “my drawer”.  So I would knock on their door and when I went in, my first stop would be my drawer.  And then we would just chat.  I liked to rock in the rocking chair in their living room.  Or eat Saltines and Fresca  with Geraldine while her other brother Norm sat at the kitchen table on Sundays doing the crossword puzzle. 

So, it seems a big part of my daily life as a child consisted of dropping in on my elderly neighbors and hanging out with them.  And since reconnecting with childhood friends via Facebook over the last year, it seems they, too, spent their childhoods doing the same thing.  We have been sharing stories about what a huge impact our older neighbors have had on who we are today. 

And I can’t help but think…this is what my 5 ½ year old needs.  I could see him confidently walking door to door, visiting, chatting, wondering aloud about infinity and war and growing watermelon and how hot the sun is and  playing twenty questions. 

This idea of kids needing or being enriched by the attention of seniors in their neighborhood connects to bigger issues in urban planning, housing and community building.  But for now, I will keep it at the simplest level.  I need some old people.

So, how would I do this?  It’s not like signing him up for camp or gymnastics class…I guess I have to go knock on my 90-year old neighbor’s door and schedule a “play date”.

But maybe not in the way you were thinking…

He walked to work.  When he entered the house, he changed his shoes and put on a cardigan…a ritual to symbolize he was about to begin something special. 

He connected learning and growing to being a part of a community.

He visited friends in the neighborhood to learn new things and meet new people.  Friends stopped by to drop off interesting things that he asked to borrow or they thought he would like. 

He frequented the local bakery, music shop and other neighborhood businesses and turned those visits into learning opportunities.  Those business owners often hosted special events in their stores to feature other local artists.

His “educational” visits weren’t so kid-centric that they involved the over the top silliness that we seem to think kids require these days like dancing characters or goofy high energy songs.  Mr. Rogers introduced jazz and cake decorating and ballet and violins…all through the people in his neighborhood. 

He asked questions.  He modeled how to ask people about themselves and their work.  A page right out of Dale Carnegie and still the best way to engage others and learn. 

He held the role of neighbor up as something special.  It meant kindness, respect, sharing resources.  Granted, some of his “neighbors” were a little unsual.  Hyperactive Mr. McFeely comes to mind.  Just like in the real world, our neighborhoods have their “characters”. Even characters play an important role in a neighborhood, helping to ad to its identity and flavor.

Mr. Rogers sat on the front porch or front steps and waved to passers by.  He played games on the sidewalk.  People walked by with their dogs or rode by on bikes.

Maybe that’s why many in my generation are drawn more and more to walkable urban neighborhoods with coffee shops and other shops. While we were watching TV in the 70’s, the grownups were building suburban neighborhoods that were more conducive to driving a car to the store or playing with other kids just like us in our own cul de sac.  Not too many characters here. 

But we have a longing to be somebody’s neighbor… to wander into Joe Negri’s music store and hear an impromptu jazz session…to be recognized by the store clerks and to be waved to on the street…to be taken care of at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.  We have that familiarity of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood buried somewhere in our childhood brain cells and it feels right. 

Mr. Roger’s fictional neighborhood held a richness of daily life that some of us get to experience today and some of us don’t.  As a whole, we have become more and more fearful of people we don’t know which make it more difficult for us to participate in a “neighborhood”.  That fear creates isolation.

Mr. Rogers’ modeled interacting with people.  We can model the same for our children. 

When children are known to others, it feels good.  They walk a little taller.  The world is a little friendlier.  People notice when you’ve lost a tooth or that you got a new bike.  There are friendly faces when you have a school fundraiser and have to test your salesmanship skills or just get up enough courage to get words out of your mouth. 

The impact of our “neighborhood” or lack thereof  goes so deeply into how we feel and how our children feel about themselves.  And it really comes down to the physical forms that we as planners and developers have created. 

So, I don’t know if Mr. Rogers really thought about all of this when he was creating his show and its fictional setting.  But I suspect he did.  He had the gift of distilling things down to their basic elements…in the way he spoke to children about feelings and the songs he wrote…in his intentionality of his daily rituals…in the way he asked others questions.  I think he completely understood the immense learning opportunities presented by a diverse and walkable neighborhood.  And he was decades ahead of planners in the 70’s who were busy designing something much different. 

 

One day I will not be as quick to figure the tip in a restaurant.  One day it will take you more time to cross the street than the pedestrian signal allows.  One day I will fall asleep in a chair in the middle of a family gathering, mouth wide open, snoring.  One day no one will ask us what we want to do but tell us what we should be doing.  One day they will make fun of your clothes and comfortable shoes.  One day I will smell funny.  One day, someone else will decide where you live.  One day we will wait for visitors.

In other cultures,  older adults are respected for their wisdom.  In our culture, we tend to ignore them as they age, not see them.  Maybe they scare us.  Maybe they remind us that we will be old and hard of hearing and move slowly one day.  Maybe we just don’t want to go to that place in our minds.  It is inevitable. 

One day we will be invisible or maybe even forgotten sometimes.

Invisibility.  This idea keeps showing up. 

When homeless people talk about their experiences, they attribute some of their pain to becoming invisible to other human beings.  Vietnam veteran’s talk about the pain of being forgotten.  Troubled and abused children talk about being invisible to the adults around them. 

I remember one severely obese person describe how, because of the way she looked, no one would make eye contact with her.  They would look past her.  Maneuver around her and go out of their way so as not to have to make eye contact.

We’ve all done it.  We probably do it hundreds of times each day.  You kind of blur your vision, turn off the focus as you look in the direction of someone you really don’t want to see.  Why?  Does eye contact  have power?  What happens when we connect with someone else’s eyes? 

Not making eye contact certainly seems to have power.  Maybe not on one or two instances with people we don’t know, but judging from the emotions it stirs from on going “invisibility”, it seems to have the power to send people into depression and lonliness.  But why?  What happens when two human beings make eye contact?  Is there information that is exchanged in that instant, a split second?  And if we withhold eye contact, we seem to be withholding something important.  So the information exchanged through eye contact must be important.  It must contain something  fundamentally human. 

Researchers who study infant development stress the importance of eye contact between baby and mother.  Meeting a baby’s gaze, and if you have experienced this you know, is magical.  Something happens.  It may be a smile.  You may hold his gaze for a while.  Some kind of information is being exchanged.   Eye contact is essential for a connection between mother and baby.  Without it, the baby’s development is affected. 

So eye contact seems to be some kind of human need.   Does it have something to do with energy…or information?  Is there a biochemistry to eye contact?

And if it is essential to human health and well being, why do we withhold it from other human beings?  If we are all at risk of being invisible one day, can we make a decision to give it more freely?.. And teach our children to do the same.