Home of Neighbour Day

It takes a village to raise a child – [thanks to the African proverb]

20 March 2018
by  Alison Brook, National Executive Officer Relationships Australia

My guess is that it hasn’t been too long since you had a conversation in which someone referred to ‘the good old days’ when they played outside with neighbours’ children, coming home when the street lights came on.

In conversations over the years it has become clear that many adults reminisce fondly about a bygone era in which children exercised greater freedoms, played outside with others unsupervised and for long periods, a time when no computer games were in sight.  The point of these discussions has been, invariably, to compare a child’s upbringing today as being poorer in many respects to children being raised in bygone times.

We know that children thrive in an environment of supporting, caring relationships – and that having a whole community of care enables its members to truly flourish, most particularly its children.

While not all children are currently kept safe, one explanation for many children being raised largely indoors or in enclosed spaces, is of over protective parenting – a risk-averse approach to raising children.

So what has changed that has made parents reluctant to let children out of their sight?  There are several explanations.

First, in many families both parents are in paid employment, leaving little time for adults to get to know and trust others who live around them.  Child care is outsourced to professionals, often located away from the family home and neighbourhood.

Second, families are presently less likely to live near grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, or even close family friends – in an age where professional mobility and independence are so jealously guarded.

If a childhood spent safely exploring the environment near home is to be valued, what can a neighbourhood do to provide a safe, child-friendly place where children are truly welcome and free to imagine, play, learn, navigate, negotiate, explore and create?

Each child’s parents and neighbours of families with children can:

  • Become an active part of the community and know who lives in the streets around them. We know that the better you know those who live around you, the greater the trust in them.
  • Involve themselves in local community organisations for children, such as Scouts and sporting clubs.
  • Be friendly and welcoming to children, by for example learning children’s names and the names of their parents.
  • Have open conversations in the street with other adults and children about how the street can together support, challenge and care for children, and give them opportunities for a start in life that is active, adventurous, contributing, social and gleeful.
  • Set up areas in public spaces (front garden, verges, parks, for example) that lend themselves to piquing a child’s imagination, and welcoming children to play there.
  • Pool resources – such as taking turns with neighbours to drop the kids to school or sporting venues.

There is much that a neighbourhood can do to value its children and demonstrate it by creating a place in which children can play with others and thrive.

Small kindnesses from many

by Alison Brook

There have been many times in the past couple of years when I have been asked why Relationships Australia decided in 2013 to take on the annual Neighbour Day campaign.  My response has been that Neighbour Day is about the importance of healthy relationships within communities, and about the promotion of good mental health.

Healthy relationships and good mental health are principal aims of Relationships Australia.

I have had an opportunity to reflect on changes to our way of life over decades, changes that mean good community relationships are less likely to occur organically in modern Australia. I reflected on the life of my own family as an illustration of the broader community – because if I have learned anything in this job, it is that people’s stories are powerful metaphors.

My grandmother lived in south-west Victoria all her life.  She was one of thirteen children and herself bore eight. Her life revolved around keeping hungry mouths fed, bodies clothed and caring for her extended family as well as others in the town when they needed nourishment and other help. My grandfather served in World War II and came back with what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. His capacity to earn a good income was limited. Today we would label the family as disadvantaged, and living under the poverty line.

Yet, when I think about my grandmother, I recall a real richness about her – her capacity to love many and the reciprocated love many had for her. That love was expressed in small kindnesses. A casserole wrapped in a towel and left on a doorstep. A batch of scones for a parish morning tea. Caring for a child when his parents were unable.

I recall her funeral. The church was packed. The whole town turned out to honour and farewell a marvellous life well lived. After her burial we were ushered into the church hall to find the local CWA had prepared a truly appropriate send-off: trestle table after trestle table groaning under platters of mouth-watering treats. Scones, cakes, lamingtons, slices, biscuits, pastries and pies – small kindnesses from many.

Small kindnesses from many. Is this a definition of healthy community?

I also reflect on the communities in which I have lived. I found almost no connection in an inner-city apartment, where residents felt a greater need for privacy than connection; suburban living where there was some connection and less privacy, and in a rural area where connection is strong, practical kindnesses many.

Inevitably, things have changed since my grandmother was a young woman raising a family. These include living and employment arrangements in many families where all adults are working for income outside the home, and where child care is provided by paid carers. Adults return at the end of each day tired and depleted. This leaves whole streets with most homes empty during daylight hours. Those who remain are often carers, people with disability, and the elderly. The elderly still living in their homes are left to their own devices except when social services visit, with sometimes lengthy periods between family visits. While this scenario is not the rule, it is common, and illustrates that a need for community connection is likely high and unmet.

In decades past, the local church was a community hub, a place from where social life emanated and social services coordinated. It was a place where children were welcomed into Sunday school, where teenagers met their partners, where adults married, aged and died. We know that attendance at Christian churches has declined in recent decades and that regular churchgoers are, in many instances, from an ageing demographic.

It is important to acknowledge and honour that we all live on land traditionally owned by the First Peoples of Australia, but it is the plethora of recently arrived cultures and religions that is a major change from my grandmother’s day. Reaching out to a neighbour from a different culture or who speaks a different language can be cause for extra shyness, reserve or even suspicion, and deter people from connecting with others in their neighbourhoods. In some communities, this very diversity has been embraced with dividends for all. One of Neighbour Day’s Very Neighbourly Organisations, the Welcome Dinner Project, brings families recently arrived to Australia into the homes of people who would like to extend a welcome but need a helping hand. Whichever way the hand of friendship is extended, through a wave, a smile, cake, an offer of help, a lift to the shop – it is the kindness that is universal and which may be transformational.

People living in neighbourhoods that are highly connected enjoy, overall, higher levels of physical and mental health, with the converse also true. 55% of people who ring Lifeline’s help line have been found to live alone and feel socially isolated and lonely. beyondblue’s research shows that lonely people are more likely to report symptoms of depression, are admitted to hospital more frequently, have higher blood pressure and are at a greater risk of heart attack than others. There has been much research into this – and a list of references to recent research can be found at the end of this blog.  While a friendly neighbour may not be the panacea, they may make a significant difference to someone’s wellbeing and appetite for life.

Relationships Australia, committed to the promotion of good relationships and excellent mental health, sees Neighbour Day as an ongoing opportunity to remind people about the importance of community connection in their lives as well as their individual responsibility to create a well-connected neighbourhood. Small kindnesses from many.

This website contains resources and guidance to start connecting to your neighbourhood.  If you have other good ideas, or would like to feed into our understanding of community connection, please provide us with that feedback, and your story. It is the stories about real human connection at the local neighbourhood level that inspire all of us to rise above our reserve and knock on the door of the person down the road whose burden may be lightened, or even life transformed by that small kindness.

Alison Brook
National Executive Officer, Relationships Australia
And big fan of Neighbour Day

Link to research