July 18, 2024

Rural Towns Must Nurture Sense Of Community

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Any of us of a certain age recall, a time before cellphones, computers, and TVs in every room, when a neighborhood was a place of close friends, not just for the kids but for the adults as well.

In the evenings, a bell or the six-o-clock siren signaled that it was time to go home from wherever we were playing with friends during the warmer days between late spring and fall.

After supper, the family would gather on the front porch or backyard, talking with neighbors while the children would run out to play.

A neighborhood’s demise is closely related to electronic entertainment, starting with the radio. At first, with just one radio in the house and then just one black and white TV, families gathered to listen to the news or entertainment programs. News programs were discussed with children who were getting an education in civics.  A family sat inside together in the early evening hours, watching entertainment programs and laughing at the antics and jokes.

All these experiences created a strong sense of family, neighborhood, and community. They nurtured an environment of mutual aid, of one of families looking out for another. 

But the continual advancement of electronic entertainment technology, its increasing sophistication, and intentionally addictive programming stole away the time people spent with neighbors, friends, and even family members.

“They saw their neighbors less and, therefore, came to know them and rely upon them less,” Zach Rausch and Jon Haidt write in their introduction to a piece by Seth Kaplan. Kaplan is an expert on fragile states, societies, and communities and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University.

“Kaplan’s work is important for understanding the decline of community and, ultimately, the rise of adolescent mental illness, which is greater in weaker communities.  He is helping us think more critically and creatively about how to revive local communities, from neighborhood schools to redesigned libraries to backyard camps,” they write.

Kaplan believes that children must first be disconnected from their cell phones to recreate the neighborhood experiences of youth from a simple, but more connected and supportive time. He recognizes that it is a challenging task.

“If parents don’t replace screen time with real-world experiences involving friends and independent activity, then banning devices will feel like deprivation, not the opening up of a world of opportunities,” Haidt writes.

Kaplan gives some insight into the challenge of disconnecting kids from their devices, as seen from a big-city perspective. It highlights the benefits of living in a small town.

“At home on the city block, parents who encourage their kids to have unsupervised fun face resistance from many directions,” Kaplan writes. “A neighbor told me that her 11-year-old was denied access to the rides at a nearby public park, because he was unsupervised. And a friend recently told me that she worries about “stranger anxiety” when out with her kids in public spaces. 

“She adds, ‘I am not concerned an adult would kidnap or harm my children. I am anxious someone will report me to the police if my kids appear to be out of my sight.’ She feels she has to constantly look over her shoulder to ensure a bystander won’t reprimand or report her for letting her children wander about,” Kaplan writes.

It’s a reality for those living in metropolitan areas of the country that seems hard to fathom in our small rural communities where children have far more freedom to roam.

In Elbow Lake last week, a group of young boys and girls were riding around in residential neighborhoods and downtown, just hanging out together. The same scene is repeated in Morris and Benson during the summer.

Kids who are involved in summer recreation programs make new friends who are easily connected with because of the smallness of our towns. Kids bike across town to the swimming pool or gather at the lake beach, playing mostly unsupervised. No commute is needed unless, of course, your new friend lives in the country. But that provides opportunities of its own as city kids get the chance to spend some time on a farm where they play and explore unsupervised.

In many other ways, our sense of neighborhood and community faded as the social connections of bowling and softball leagues, card clubs, social organizations, and church attendance all began to decline.

“We are less likely to have personal connections with neighbors on our street, teachers in our kids’ schools, our local pastor or rabbi, or leaders in our community,” Kaplan writes. “Classmates don’t visit each other’s homes as much as they used to (and) there are no places or activities where we can develop relationships spontaneously.”

While small towns also see children spending far too much time with electronic devices, and many parents are guilty as well, classmates do see each other often in our small towns, and we run into friends and acquaintances more often because there are very few gathering places or places to shop.

Online relationships have replaced the close-knit personal friendships that we developed while playing together.

“Many kids may have hundreds of shallow online relationships, but no real friends within walking distance,” Kaplan writes. This may be true for a big city, but not as much so for a small rural town.

Kaplan says we must first reestablish an environment where kids can play unsupervised to restore a sense of community and neighborhood. Where we can explore, learn, and experience life together. Again, we see far more of this already in our rural communities.

Perhaps one of the keys to restoring children’s mental health is having more children experience growing up in a rural community. Getting kids involved in programs like 4-H, summer recreation, and local library programs brings them together.

Kaplan writes that we must “re-envision” our communities to create a deeper sense of community built around nurturing opportunities for children to gather and play.

While not intending to, Kaplan is promoting what already exists in a small rural town. We need to nurture those places in our communities that bring kids together.

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