Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the International Bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

From the Blog

Being a Good Parent-Neighbor

From another decade. Excerpted from “The Web of Life”

The other day I received a card from some old friends who had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. When I was growing up, Mr. and Mrs. Sebring were a kind of second set of parents to me.

They were the parents of my best friend, Pete. Decades later, I still can’t bring myself to call them by their first names. They sent a photograph with the card. Both are in their 70s. Mrs. Sebring is beaming into the lens; the flash was a little too close, so her face is slightly washed out, but the outline of her smile is comfortingly familiar. Mr. Sebring sits behind her; his hair white and full, his face square and strong. His features seem to be a bit sharper now. He is smiling the smile of a man who has married well and lived to tell about it.

On the back of the photograph, Mrs. Sebring had written, “Waiting for God.” It was a Sebring joke; it was her light way of suggesting that life was winding down and that, perhaps, something remarkable was about to happen.

Turning the photograph in my hand set me to thinking about what it means to be a good parent-neighbor, to be a dependable and available adult, to be there for neighborhood children without being intrusive. This is a skill I am learning. It is not, for me, easy. I am not very patient; noise bothers me. And I have had no training.

Or have I? As I looked at the photograph, I began to wonder what it was about the Sebrings that made them such natural parent-neighbors, what was it that I could learn from them now.

The first thing that comes to mind is food. Like all adolescents, I was hungry all the time but didn’t always admit it. So Mrs. Sebring would often ask, “Hungry?” If I said no, quickly, it meant no. If I hesitated, it meant that she should ask again. If I then answered, “kind of,” she made a sandwich. I’m sure that the Sebrings and I communicated in code about other aspects of life, too.

Another rule that they lived was: Be there, but not too much. One of Pete’s parents, and sometimes both, always seemed to be somewhere in the house.

Mrs. Sebring seemed to live in the bright kitchen, half glasses hanging on a cord around her neck; Mr. Sebring was often in a little sunroom with a portable television, watching sports, or he was out mowing and cursing the bald spots to which his grass transplants never took. The Sebrings didn’t hover over us, but knowing they were around felt like a kind of silent light.

Also, they kept their troubles to themselves. That’s an important guidepost for the good parent-neighbor. Laughter is always better than rumination. The Sebrings laughed at themselves, at their running jokes—at the coined words and awful puns that Mr. Sebring would bring to the table. The only thing I don’t remember him laughing about were those bald spots on the lawn. They found pleasure in their children and in me, in getting to know my running jokes.

And they offered me the kindness of compliments. This was never overdone or gratuitous; I was not complimented for my neatness (that would have been a stretch) nor my conformity, such as it was, but for my uniqueness. When I was 13, I began to write a fishing column for the little community paper. They always read it. Mr. Sebring would repeat lines from it and laugh and tell me that someday I’d write a book.

This was in sharp contrast to one neighborhood mother who, one day while driving a carpool, snapped her head around and told me, “You have a sick sense of humor.” Or the other neighbor who decided I needed saving and carted me off to Sunday school but later disinvited me because I asked too many questions.

Mr. and Mrs. Sebring liked questions more than they liked answers.

On the other hand, they knew not to ask too many questions—and to be appropriately grossed out when the occasion called for it. Children consider grossing out adults to be character building. It was pretty easy to get a rise out of Mrs. Sebring, when I would bring over a snake, or when Pete and I would haul heavy stringers of gasping, muddy carp back from the lake, or when we brought home bottles of leeches from the creek.

I’m sure there are other techniques for being a good parent-neighbor. For example, setting limits, or teaching children that they must be good children-neighbors. And no matter what time a kid shows up at your door, never make a big deal out of it. Even if it’s years later.

At the bottom of the letter, Mr. Sebring added this note: “As part of the family you should plan to stop over next time you come near Kansas City.” I reread that line several times.

Since I received their letter, I’ve been improving as a parent-neighbor. I’m trying to lengthen my fuse, trying to be there but not too much, and so on. Yesterday I came home to find my older son and a neighborhood friend of his hovering over the stove. “Smells good,” I said. “Making dinner?” “Nope,” they said. “Rat wine.”

I was appropriately grossed out and tried not to ask too many questions.


Excerpted from “The Web of Life: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us”

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