In the early days of our marriage, when my husband and I were full of excitement about our unknown future, I entertained plenty of idealistic dreams about my life as a parent. I wouldn't just be a great mother to my children; I would mother all the lost souls in the neighborhood! I pictured a saintly version of myself, hovering around the kitchen table with milk and cookies, listening sympathetically as my children's friends poured out their hopes, dreams, and fears. I would be the mom that every kid turned to in times of trouble, the one adult who loved kids no matter what.
This vision was shattered the day little Denise* followed my 6-year-old home from school. Before long, Denise's sister, Sandy, started tagging along, and on occasion, a few other kids I'd never seen joined them. Denise and Sandy were usually scraggly, often rude, and they never went home! Instead of peaceful moments of shared confidences, my family life was turned upside down by these two little intruders. I often felt like my house was a refuge for every local stray.
Yet somehow, over time, I began to believe that the chaos was worth it. There are moments when Denise's face lights up as I listen to her stories. I can tell she's hungry for adult attention and thrives when she's fed even a little bit. Now she's talking about God, and beginning to understand that he loves her.
Educator B.G. Markstad told Reader's Digest that neighborhood families often provide the support struggling families need to succeed. These families, she says, serve as "anchor homes" to which children, desperate for stability and affection, can turn. Even at 6, Denise sensed something comforting at our house and couldn't get enough of it.
It doesn't take much to be such a home in your neighborhood. If we are loving and relatively available for our own children, then other children will likely flock to us with very little effort on our part. But the real challenge for us as parents comes when we choose to open our hearts to children who might be very different from our own.
Open the Door
My pre-parenthood ideals of welcoming every kid in town into my home were based on great intentions. Once my kids became old enough to socialize, my desires became much more practical. When my children play elsewhere, I don't know what they're doing, what they're eating, what they're watching, or whether they're even being supervised. At my house, I can control all of these factors, and that's a good feeling.
But opening our hearts to other children and making them feel genuinely welcomed involves moving beyond what's practical and taking some risks. Marilyn Jones, a mother of three, finds that her home is often bustling with other people's kids, especially in the summer when they all clamor to invade her pool. She doesn't mind, though, because it gives her a chance to get to know her children's friends. "My older kids are reaching the age when they are so easily influenced by other children. I want to know who they're hanging out with, and make sure the influence is going in the right direction."
Becoming an "anchor home" also allows you to make an eternal impact on someone else's child. Ephesians 5:16 exhorts us to "make the most of every opportunity." Childhood provides a spiritual window of opportunity not found at any other stage in life. Child Evangelism Fellowship reports that 86 percent of people who come to Christ do so before the age of 15. What better chance to share your faith than with a child who is eager to be with you?
And they will be eager for your attention, since many children have so little from their own parents. TV Free America reports that, on average, children ages 2-11 spend 20 hours watching television each week, compared with just over an hour in meaningful conversation with their parents. No matter where you live, many of your young neighbors have yet to meet an adult who will accept them, spend time with them, and show them God's love. When we open our doors to neighborhood children, we can change lives.
Put out the Welcome Mat
If you and your children are friendly, other children will usually seek you out. But if children aren't lining up to ring your doorbell, here are some ideas for making children of any age feel welcome.
Invite them. Sometimes all you need to do is ask. If your child is introverted and has difficulty making friends, taking the initiative yourself can help your child forge friendships and develop confidence. Invitations may also be necessary in rural areas, or in neighborhoods where parents are wary of allowing their children to venture out by themselves.
Talk to the parents of your children's friends from dance class, from karate class, from school, or from the neighborhood, and arrange for a play date. If a parent seems wary, invite her to join you for coffee while your kids hang out. (If your contact is with a child's father, he might enjoy catching a ball game on TV with your husband while the kids play.) When the parent feels comfortable in your home, she is more likely to allow her child to play at your house without her in the future.
Be kid-friendly. Being kid-friendly does not mean you need the latest play station, the best computer games, a wide screen television with a satellite dish, or even a television at all. We have a small television in the basement that gets only one channel. Kids don't need technology; most have more than enough at home. What they do need is a chance to play.
The amount of time kids spend playing imaginative games is decreasing. Too often, their leisure time is squandered watching television, surfing the Web, or hunting for Pokémon. Kids are left craving the play that comes most naturally to childhood.
If you provide a comfortable place where children can make believe, they will yearn to play at your house because it's a new kind of fun. Make sure your children have imaginative toys, such as dolls, trucks, dress-up clothes, or building blocks. For older kids, keep simple props around, like cardboard boxes that can become castles, or old notepads that can be used to take orders in a "restaurant." Keep in mind that the number of toys is not as important as the environment. If your house is bright, relatively tidy, and it looks friendly, children will want to stay.
Perhaps the exception is backyard toys. In summer, as Marilyn Jones found in her own backyard, children will naturally gravitate to the house with the pool. Yet often a good sprinkler, an inflatable pool, or water balloons can tip the balance in your favor. Trampolines, swing sets, and other climbing equipment can also quickly make your home the hub of the neighborhood. With any outdoor activity, especially those that involve water, make sure there's always an adult nearby to supervise.
When Michelle Willows was young, her house had one of the first trampolines in town. Even though they lived out in the country, kids would arrive at their door, ready to jump. Michelle made sure she had a trampoline for her own children, hoping it could be used for neighborhood ministry. Soon she found her house had a revolving door; as soon as one child left, another arrived. "They came for the trampoline," says Michelle, "but they stayed for the love."
Feed them. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then the way to a child's heart is through Mr. Freezes. Kids love snacks, even if it's just slices of apples and cheese. And they especially enjoy the attention while they're being served. It's a great opportunity to talk to them, something that is more difficult to do while they're playing Batman or constructing a fort out of pillows and blankets. So feed them, and they will come.
Pay attention. An obvious benefit of having kids over is that your own children are occupied, so they're not hounding you for attention. It means you have time to yourself to get housework done, read a book, or just relax.
But if you want to have maximum impact on these children, try to spend some time with them. Play Monopoly or Candyland. Get out the Uno deck. Construct a Lego city together. Join in their games and be willing to get a little silly with them.
At the very least, involve them in your family's regular activities. This is their chance to see a Christian family up close, so don't hide your faith. Say grace before the meal, just like you do when they aren't there. Read them stories, or talk about how beautiful God's world is. Once you know them better, invite the children to Sunday school or another church activity. You'd be surprised how open parents can be to sending their child off to church with another family. Many parents want their kids to get a spiritual education, but they don't know how to do it themselves. And once the children start attending church, the parents often follow.
Clean Up the Minor Messes
Though the benefits of being the neighborhood hangout are many, you shouldn't overlook the common pitfalls. The first danger is that children may not want to leave. We often have to force Denise out the door at 6:00 for dinner, only to have her call by 6:25 wanting to come back over again. We've had to establish guidelines with her so she doesn't monopolize all our family's time.
Another problem can emerge if the types of games that the children want to play clash substantially from your values. When you're not participating in their games, you may still need to stay within earshot to monitor what the kids are doing. Once a visiting friend wanted my children to pretend that they were all witches casting black magic spells. This turned out to be a good opportunity to share our values, as I explained that we like to play about things that God likes.
You may also find that all the lessons you've painstakingly taught your children about sharing, conflict resolution, and fairness go out the window when children who are not taught such things come calling. Your children may find that their normal ways of coping aren't working, so they fight back. Again, the only solution is to stay within earshot, explain the house rules carefully, and referee any disagreements. Don't be afraid to let the kids play independently or even send a child home to diffuse a sticky situation.
Finally, you may face the day when your children are issued a reciprocal invitation to play at a child's house you wouldn't dream of allowing your child to enter. When Roger and Heather Heidt's children were young, they reminded them constantly that they were different from other families. "We let them know that because they loved God, that made them different. They knew not all families were like that, and that it was our job as their parents to protect them. So they would understand when we said no." This can make the relationship with friends awkward, but you need to protect your own child's emotional, spiritual, and physical safety first.
Being the neighborhood hangout is an adventure, but it can be a life-changing one for the kids who seek refuge at your home. When Michelle Willows runs into friends from childhood, they say the thing they remember most is spending happy hours being accepted and welcomed at her house. Before you see these end results, though, you may feel like you live in a zoo, and you may wonder why you ever started letting kids come over. But keep telling yourself you've made the right move. Your own children are safely with you, you're influencing their friends in a positive way, and you are giving all of these children a look at God's love in action. I can't think of a better description of a Christian parent than that.
Sheila Wray Gregoire and her family keep their door open in Canada.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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Fall 2002, Vol. 15, No. 1, Page 28