Article by Alison Burton
A number of years ago I read a little newspaper article that I wish I had saved. I can’t tell you the name of the town and the exact details now, but it was about a small town in America. The youth crime rate was out of control. The Mayor asked every adult in the town to learn the names of at least three youths that were standing around on street corners and in the shopping mall. Within a very short time the crime rate dropped significantly! Why? The article didn’t give an explanation, but my belief is that we all have a powerful and basic need to belong. Once someone cares enough to ask your name, and remember it, you feel a connection to them. A relationship has started and you have a sense that your behaviour affects them. What you do is no longer anonymous and you are accountable for your actions.
This story is a reminder that, whether we realise it or not, we ARE all connected, and that a community has a collective energy to which we all contribute in one way or another. By isolating ourselves and not interacting with others we have an impact on the world. I believe that human connection nourishes the soul, helps us to feel that we belong and makes the world a safer place.
Ever since my children were little I have objected to the idea that you “Don’t talk to strangers.”I taught my children to be friendly and helpful. In the days before mobile phones I found it impossible to drive past a stranded motorist, or someone who seemed to need help. I would chat to the person behind me in the supermarket queue, or speak supportively to someone with a trantrumming toddler. I taught my children that not only was it safe to talk to strangers but that it was the polite thing to do. I remember being shocked when I was in a shop in Canada a few years ago, looking at some very cute toys. I commented on them to a little girl standing next me. I said something like, “They’re adorable aren’t they?” Maybe it was just my weird Aussie accent, but she looked at me as if I was an axe murderer and went and hid behind her mother. Even the mum gave me a dirty look that I would dare speak to her child. It was really sad. Now before you tell me how irresponsible it is to encourage children to talk to strangers, let me reassure you that I certainly taught my children never to go anywhere with a stranger. That’s a whole different rule.
Maybe I felt this way because I am a country girl at heart. I grew up on the outskirts of Ballarat. We knew all our neighbours and left cars and doors unlocked, day and night. I grew up in a very connected community and so when I moved to Melbourne and had my babies, I really missed that support network of extended family, neighbours and friends. I remember being at home one day, feeling quite isolated when the doorbell rang. It was a young woman with a child about the same age as my son. She was selling Avon. I had no interest in Avon, but was desperate for adult conversation so I invited her in for a coffee. We chatted for hours as the kids played happily. That was the start of my support network.
Along with a couple of other neighbours we discovered who had young children, we formed a babysitting club. We swapped points for babysitting hours. We got to know each other’s children. We shared the ups and downs of parenting. We went to each other’s houses for after-school play and coffee. Friday nights became regular gatherings including that 6 o’clock glass of wine and the dads arriving with fish and chips for dinner. The dads became mates. They even formed a basketball team. Those women are still among my best friends and those families are a huge part of my support network to this day.
One of the most valuable things about regularly getting together with this group of people is that each of the children had at least 10 adults in their lives who knew their name. These adults had an interest in their lives. The adults cared if any of the kids went off the rails as teenagers, and called them on it if their behaviour was out of line. The children also knew that they could call on any one of those adults if they needed help at any time. They felt connected, they belonged, and they were safe. As parents we learned from each other about how to parent. If our behaviour was out of line, someone would say something. We didn’t always agree, but we took care of each other, and each other’s children.
Raising kids in isolation is so much more dangerous than talking to strangers. As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. If you don’t have an extended family, or a village, to help you raise your child then it’s up to you to create one. Connect with other families, join a playgroup, and talk to strangers. Call your Council Children’s Services and find out about support and resources in your area. Give your child a community that cares about them.