Help! We’re the Neighborhood Hangout!
In the early days of our marriage, I entertained very idealistic notions about what I would accomplish as a parent. I wouldn’t just be a great mother to my children; I would mother all the lost souls in the neighbourhood! I pictured a saintly version of myself, hovering around the kitchen table with milk and cookies, listening sympathetically as my children’s friends poured out their hopes, dreams and fears.
This vision was shattered the day that little Denyse* followed my 6-year-old home from school. Instead of peaceful moments of shared confidences, my family life was turned upside down. Denyse and her sister Sandy are usually scraggly, often rude, and they never go home! As soon as the school bus arrives, our doorbell rings. Sometimes other kids join them, and I often feel like my house is a refuge to every local stray.
Yet somehow the chaos seems worth it. Denyse’s face lights up as I listen to her stories, and sometimes I think she comes to see me as much as my daughters. Many of my friends who come from difficult backgrounds tell me that their salvation was a kind neighbor who offered them love. Perhaps by opening our doors, our house can be that refuge for Denyse.
Why Open Your Doors?
Rescuing lost lambs, though, is not the only benefit of an open home. Allowing other children to play at your house means that your children will also be at your house. Marilyn Jones, a mother of three, finds that her home is often bustling with other people’s kids, especially in the summer when they all clamour to invade her pool. She doesn’t mind, though, because it gives her a chance to get to know her children’s friends. And that’s not the only benefit. "When my kids are at friends’ houses, I don’t know what they’re doing, whether they’re supervised, or what they’re watching on TV," she explains. "When they’re here, I do."
Who Will Come?
If you and your children are friendly, other children will usually seek you out. But if children aren’t lining up to ring your doorbell, here are some suggestions:
- Invite them
Sometimes all you need to do is ask. If your child is introverted and has difficulty making friends, taking the initiative yourself can help your child forge friendships and develop confidence.
- Be Kid-Friendly
Being kid-friendly does not mean you need the latest computer games or a wide screen television. Kids don’t need technology; most have more than enough at home. What they do need is a chance to play. Make sure your children have imaginative toys, such as dolls, trucks, dress-up clothes, or building blocks. The number of toys is not as important as the environment. If your house is bright, relatively tidy, and looks friendly, children will want to stay.
- Feed Them
- Be Kid-Friendly
If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to a child’s heart is through Mr. FreezesTM. Kids love snacks, even if it’s just slices of apples and cheese. And they especially enjoy the attention while they’re being served. It’s a great opportunity to talk to them, something that is more difficult to do while they’re playing Batman or constructing a fort out of pillows.
How Do We Avoid Messy Situations?
Though the benefits of being the neighbourhood hangout are many, you shouldn’t overlook the common pitfalls. The first danger is that children may not want to leave. We have to force Denyse out the door at 6:00 for dinner, and she often calls by 6:25 wanting to come back over again. We’ve had to establish guidelines with her so she doesn’t monopolize all our family’s time.
Another problem can emerge if the types of games that the children want to play clash substantially from your values. You may need to stay within earshot to monitor what they’re doing. Once a visiting friend wanted my children to pretend that they were all Spice Girls trying to catch boyfriends by dancing sexy. This turned out to be a good opportunity to share with everybody about how nobody needs a boyfriend when they’re six.
You may also find that all the things you’ve painstakingly taught your children about sharing, conflict resolution, and fairness go out the window when children who are not taught such things invade your space. Your children find their normal ways of coping aren’t working, so they fight back. Again, the only solution is to stay within earshot, explain the house rules carefully, and referee any disagreements. If you stand firm, you’ll find that most kids will soon adjust to your rules.