Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Nosy neighbors and involved communities

So here's a bone I want to pick from one of the Thinking Housewife's posts. The basic gist is that a woman wrote in talking about her experience with a neighbor ringing the doorbell and inquiring why she'd been hearing a child crying/screaming for the past hour. For context I'll add that this particular mom had decided, after making sure this wasn't a tired/hungry issue, to let her son work out his toddler tantrum alone in his room hoping that he'd cool down with a little space. During this process a neighbor rang her doorbell, expressed concern, and offered to help. This is part of the resulting conversation -starting the with mom quizzing her neighbor in turn.

“Do you tell parents it’s okay to let infants cry to sleep in their cribs? Because that’s NOT okay!” I spit that out fast.

“No, I don’t. How old is she?” (The fact that she automatically assumed it was a girl further annoyed me.)

“He is a boy, and he’s 18 months.”

“Well, I am a psychologist and I would like to come help you.”

“NO!” I was so annoyed.

“I am a mother,” I declared.

She smiled at me, as if she was thinking, “Oh, you’re so sweet; you think that matters!” But at the time, I thought maybe I had made some headway with my confident assertion.

“This is my second child. I did the same with my first, and he is a very obedient, well-mannered little boy.”

“But you may not want them to be obedient and well-mannered — (my face said, huh??) – you might want them to have free spirits.”

I laughed. I said, “You know, that’s the trouble with parents today is that they’re listening to that ridiculous advice. Pride is the root of all sin! I want my boys to be humble!”

“Can I come in to help?”

“NOOOO!” I was shocked that she was asking again. What nerve!

“Well, fine. But if I hear it again, I’ll call the police.”

“Go ahead!” I yelled, as she stomped down my driveway.

First, this neighbor was clearly off base with regards to threatening to call the police and how parents should discipline their kids. The former is a serious threat, and I really don't think people should be able to make anonymous "tips" about people like that. It's way too easy for disgruntled neighbors or people who just differ from you to wreck havoc. However, I was slightly baffled by the whole "atta girl" response to this post.

Here are my problems:

1. There was no call to be accusatory ("Do you tell people...?")

2. Assertions about peoples motives are highly problematic.

3. She didn't have to justify her parenting methods.

4. There were zero reasons for this mom to be offended in the first place.

Let me start with my last point. In the sort of communities in which people say they'd like to live I can easily imagine adults checking in when something seems to be a problem. You hear of cases where kids were terribly abused and people wonder where all the other adults were. Probably minding their own business. This is my default as well. But imagine a community where people did knock on each other's doors? I'd say the default for this should be "Hi, Mrs. Davies, I heard little Davies hollering for the past hour, so I thought I'd just step over and make sure no one was hurt." At which point Mrs. Davies calmly explains that her son is working out a little temper, was just told he couldn't visit his grandparents this weekend, in time-out for coloring on his sister's doll, etc. Everything looks good, and the neighbor walks away. But imagine the mom comes to the door drunk, or there's a new babysitter who hit the oldest, or the dad fell down the stairs and is hurt. In all those cases everyone would be better off for having a neighbor (and a neighborhood) where people knock on doors. The assumption should be that everything is ok, but when things do go wrong you've got eyes to see. While I agree that this neighbor sounds pretty out of touch (and potentially dangerous) I disagree that this sort of behavior is innately offensive.

The other points are mostly secondary. If I were the neighbor in question and the mom started acting all huffy and defensive I'd probably get a little nosier myself. If I ask you a parenting question (even if it's just "can I help you") and you return with baseless accusations, that doesn't exactly reflect the model of calm, competent motherhood that sets bystanders at ease. I'm guessing this mom felt judged ("Is she classing me with those people") and instantly made a defensive jab. Understandable and completely non-helpful. If someone asks you about your child all you know about that person (barring past history and perhaps extremely keen insight) is that they're asking about your kid. Now obviously I don't have kids, but I have had people question (and even shun) me over important decisions I've made. Bearing people's judgement isn't easy (ask me, I still do it all the time), but eventually you just have to smile and let things roll off your back.

How do I think this mom should have handled this? Like I said before, with as gracious a smile as she could muster and a "Thanks for checking on us, but Jason's just working off his toddler angst." If you feel inclined to go further you might mention that you thought letting him have a private tantrum in his room the best way to deal with it and ask whether your neighbor has any tips for dealing with bewildering toddler moods. Take the good advice, and just smile if you get a bunch of pc parenting light. It's really not that big a deal. If we're going to live in and cultivate the kind of communities where people have each other's backs then you'll have to deal with people actually asking if things are ok. When my pastor asks how my marriage is going I don't assume he saw Allen out to dinner with a tarted up skirt. I do assume he cares about us and wants to make sure small problems don't become larger ones. That's what a community does.

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