When I locked myself out of my house, my neighbor Lily knew just where she kept our spare key. Then Lily walked with me to say hello to our cat, before returning my key to its peg in her mudroom. Did I mention that Lily just finished kindergarten? Kids make great neighbors.
Teaching our children to love their neighbors is important. Jesus said the entire Bible could be summed up with two commands: Love God, and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). Initially, though, I struggled with how to love my neighbor. I thought, God doesn’t understand how busy my family is.
Besides, how am I supposed to teach my daughter to be kind to the neighbor who cusses at his kids and named his dog Demon? Would our family meals be interrupted by needy knocks on our door? I didn’t understand what living out Jesus' age-old commands might look like.
Meeting the neighbors
When my family and I first moved into our neighborhood, most of the neighbors slid into their attached garages and held their get-togethers behind privacy fences. We didn't have a neighborhood park where the kids played together or a corner grocery store where we ran into people in the produce aisle.
Finding ways to "bump into" our neighbors was a challenge, but eventually my family discovered how to get to know the strangers living all around us. We started by hanging out in the front yard instead of the back. When we met people, we wrote down their names so we’d remember them.
Consider doing this family activity to help make your kids more aware of your neighbors: Use a large piece of poster board to draw a map of your neighborhood with homes, roads and familiar landmarks. Fill in the names of neighbors you know, and include names of their family members, pets, cars and hobbies. Talk about the people you see in your neighborhood during your daily routine, and include your neighbors in your family prayers.
Your "Neighbor Style"
Loving your neighbor is not a one-size-fits-all event. I'm an extrovert, while my husband and daughter are introverts. I love meeting new people and attending large gatherings; they prefer deep conversations with a few close friends. They were happy to set up for our annual neighborhood pizza potluck, but they'd rather help a neighbor fix a gutter or invite over the kids across the street to play Frisbee.
To help extroverted children meet neighbors, consider letting them attend block parties or set up game nights. They can host a Christmas cookie decorating party, run a Fourth of July sidewalk parade, help with a community yard sale or start a dog-walking club. Your social butterflies will thrive on big crowds and high energy.
To help introverted children, let them focus on one neighbor at a time. Encourage them to deliver a handmade card to a neighbor who just had a baby or invite the kids who just moved in to make chalk designs on the sidewalk. Your thoughtful, sensitive, imaginative or quiet introverts may enjoy running errands for an elderly neighbor or helping him with yard work.
More neighborly ideas
There are ways for everyone in the family to naturally and gradually bump into those who live around you. Here are some suggestions:
Don't be afraid of the grump
Almost every neighborhood has one or two unapproachable or reclusive neighbors. My friend Jennifer had one such woman, but she and her daughters were determined to become friends with this unfriendly neighbor who wouldn't return their waves or say hello.
Noticing that this neighbor loved birds, they gave her a small bird feeder for her porch and occasionally dropped off flowers and cookies. A friendship began to blossom. "My kids were the best icebreaker of all," says Jennifer. Through this unapproachable woman, Jennifer’s daughters learned that God can do great things through small acts of kindness.
Greetings and interests
Catherine's children, Sophie and Micah, walk and talk their way through their neighborhood. "We always encourage our kids to greet our neighbors instead of just letting us do the talking," Catherine says. "My kids also love animals, so we have made some special connections with neighbors through their pets. We stop at one house to see the fish and another to pet the puppy."
The family has grown particularly close to a neighbor they call "Granny," who cherishes handmade cards and visits from Sophie and Micah. Granny is now important to the whole family. Catherine says, "We always want to recognize how special she is to us."
"I don't think anyone has ever refused a plate of warm cinnamon rolls held out to them by a cute kid!" says Lisa, the mom of two adorable little boys. Whether you deliver a plate of homemade cookies next door or offer cold bottles of water to a neighbor working in his yard, offerings of food and drink can be a great inroad for meeting neighbors and learning their stories.
Bring it home
Inviting your neighbors to church is a wonderful idea; however they'll be more likely to accept your invitation if you’ve spent time getting to know them as a family and demonstrating that you care about them. Inviting neighbors into your home not only teaches your children about hospitality, but it also allows you to get to know them on a personal level. Your home is a comfortable, casual and convenient place to build relationships.
Go and do likewise
My family learned that loving your neighbor is a lifestyle choice, not a checklist. It wasn't always convenient, but it was always rewarding. We had no idea our neighborhood would become home base for an international ministry called The Neighborhood Café, which helps people share coffee, conversation and Christ with their neighbors. When we started, I had no plans to record our experiences and eventually write my book, How to Love Your Neighbor Without Being Weird. But most importantly, we had no clue about the joy we'd find in loving the people God had placed around us.