Learning to knock: What neighborliness is like for kids these days

Back in our day, we’d etc. etc. It’s a different world now!

On the street in Northern Virginia where I spent much of childhood there was a lot of knocking on doors. Kids would knock to see if each other could come out to play. Kids would knock to borrow roller blades. Kids would know who had the new Nintendo game and invite them outside, knowing they’d probably get invited inside instead.

Games were organized. Kick the can, football, basketball, baseball with a tennis ball to not break windows, spotlight1. The court bordered onto a woods, so there were forts and “wars” and adventures. Nintendo tournaments moved from house to house. Sleep-overs were frequent and it was not uncommon for the kids to be in and out of each other’s houses.

I learned basics of human interaction from the neighborhood. I learned that you don’t knock on some neighbors’ doors before 10:00 AM on Saturday because they sleep in. I learned at other doors to take a step back after ringing the bell so the big dog couldn’t escape and jump on me. I learned what excuses would and wouldn’t work when I wanted to stay inside for some introvert time.

I’m starting to see my little neighborhood get there for my kids. With the spring weather, you can hear where the action is by following the squeally child noises. Kids are riding bikes, running around, making up calvinball-like games. And while our neighborhood isn’t as condensed as the suburban cul-de-sac I grew up on, the kids are starting to get a bit of freedom and autonomy. I’ve even found neighbor children in my house without knowing ahead of time that they would be there.

Most of the time, the kids just have to open the door and listen to figure out who’s outside. Other times, they might want to play with a specific person. In my day, that would’ve involved a walk over to the kid’s house and a knock on the door. In 2016, we find ourselves (the grown-ups) texting.

Texting is nice because you can make sure that people are actually available and that your kid doesn’t knock on a door and wake a baby. It’s also nice because you can give introvert families an easy out because they can just politely pretend that they didn’t get your text until later. And while the kids are littler, it gives a combination of freedom and piece of mind by letting your kid walk over by herself, but having the other parent text you when they get there.

The other day though, we tried things the old fashioned way. The six-year-old wondered if the next-door neighbors could play. Instead of texting, I told my daughter to just go over, knock, and politely ask if they could come out to play. And she did! And they did want to play! It was great!

Except now, I have to teach her boundaries. Now whenever we’re outside she wants to knock on their door. Sometimes, they aren’t home, as evidenced by me having witnessed them leaving, but the six-year-old wants to “just be sure”.

Sometimes, the neighbors are home, but not available to play right now, maybe “later.” So now I also have to explain how time works. Five minutes, my literal six-year-old explains, is later, so why shouldn’t she knock on the door again to see if they’re ready to come out? My daughter refuses to accept that “later” is an indefinite temporal construct. Or that, as always happens, the neighbors will come out on their own when they’re ready without further prompting, because they like playing with you. I’m grateful to my neighbors’ tolerance while we figure it out.

And I’m grateful to have found the little neighborhood that we have. That my kids can explore a small corner of the world with a whole bunch of adults keeping an eye out for them as they run around playing games, having adventures, and making social mistakes that they’ll never ever be able to forget even if they wanted to.

  1. Heathens call it “flashlight tag.”
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Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the father of two daughters (ages five and eight) who lives in Northside Richmond. He and his wife Kat are trying their best to not raise sociopaths.

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