Many families these days have decided to essentially “blow off” their neighbors. Their members walk out of their houses only to get into their cars, and later they drive their cars home and walk inside their houses. They give zero to their neighborhood and ask for zero in return.
I’m sure you know families like this. Perhaps yours is one of these. Before saying, “No, not us!” ask yourself how many times in the last month you have had a real conversation with a neighbor. Merely waving or saying “hello” doesn’t count.
So, why should you take the time to get to know your neighbors? After all, most, if not all of us despair that we don’t have enough time to do the things we know we enjoy – get together with our friends, play sports we love, read books that interest us, go to events that interest us, etc.I have two different approaches to answering the question, “why talk to your neighbors?” I’ll discuss the first, the investment rationale, in this article. I’ll discuss the other, the mindfulness rationale, in another article.
So how is neighbor relations a rational investment of time? Simply put, close neighbor relations can make your life better, so time you spend on it today should pay off well in the future.
Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is full of examples of how high “social capital” in local communities creates safer communities and extends the lives of inhabitants.
So, there is ample evidence that your kids will be safer and you will live longer if your community has high “social capital” – i.e. a sense of social trust and mutual interconnectedness, which is enhanced over time though positive interaction and collaboration in shared interests.
In addition, while I know of no specific scientific evidence to this effect, I’m absolutely sure that kids who with other neighborhood kids are happier, better socially adjusted, etc.
So, since we are all rational people who want our kids to be safe, happy, and socially adjusted, and since we all want to live longer, we should all be active members of our neighborhoods, right? Well, the fact is that we aren’t. In fact, fewer and fewer people have any real substantive neighborhood relationships.
The problem is that the social capital of an active neighborhood is a “public good” because a neighbor can enjoy the benefits of it without “paying” the costs of organizing the neighborhood. In other words, he or she can be a “free rider.” Economics tells us that there may be a tendency for societies to provide too few public goods (too few from the point of view of overall social welfare).
Years ago, parents and children spent a lot less time cooped up inside their homes than they do today, so having relationships with neighbors was easy. In a previous entry I show a video of my interview with my father, in which he talks about growing up in a day before television, computers, or air conditioning.
These days, for most great neighborhoods, it takes the heroic, selfless hard work of one or a few neighbors to organize their neighborhood into a real community. These neighbors organize block parties, neighborhood watch groups, or frequent playdates between local children (however, when playdates are between just two children, the neighborhood at large hardly benefits).
So, if you’re not one of these “neighborhood organizer” types and you live in a neighborhood where neighbors don’t know each other, what can you use for motivation to get out there and meet your neighbors? Isn’t the rational investment approach – i.e. kids will be happier/safer/more social, and you’ll live longer – enough for you? In the next article, I’ll describe another way to justify getting involved in your neighborhood, the “mindfulness rationale.”