Ban the backyard
There is a common myth in America that what a happy family needs most is a Big Backyard. (This is similar to the myth that happiness increases in direct proportion to square footage, but that’s a post for another time). Those who do not live in homes at all, or live in homes with little or no yard, envision the big American backyard as some idyllic paradise where romping and ball tossing and having friends over for the annual margaritafest will elevate ordinary familial relationships to a level of almost scripted delight. This is not only not true, but is the opposite of true: Backyards do not breed happiness. They breed isolation.
Ask any kid where he wants to play and he’ll pick the front yard. Why? Cause other kids are there, or might be soon if he starts riding or skating or drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. And once the kids come out to play, the parents are likely to follow. Parents who would otherwise be sitting alone watching their only child on a jungle gym big enough for a class of preschoolers now find, in the front yard, companionship. I have experienced this firsthand in two totally different neighborhoods. The first was a busy little cut-thru street near the Venice canals. We had our son Graham there and Lon and I spent a lot of time walking him up and down the street. We got to know all our neighbors. We enjoyed the company. They seemed to, as well, developing an easy routine of grabbing lawn chairs and plopping down in our patch of sidewalk where Graham shot hoops in his Little Tikes basket. There was a matriarch on the street who organized potluck b-b-ques on all the summer holidays—— and always on her front lawn. A Japanese tourist came across our gathering one 4th of July, and for the next five years, returned as a member of “the family,” setting up his tripod and capturing our growing group of neighbors and friends.
It might be easy to write off our years of joy on Beach Avenue as an anomaly had it not been for our new neighborhood family here on our cul-de-sac. We’ve lived her almost 15 years now and have watched as something quite remarkable has transpired: neighbors who actually know and love and care about each other, who watch each others’ kids, who share each others’ leftovers, who “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Every single day, we practice the art of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, not because we’re saints— far from it— but because we’re human. And human beings need community a lot more than we need privacy.
Community takes place out front. Where the people are. Where the life is. Where those who rise up weary from their laptops or their fussy infant’s crib can find a friendly face and a break from isolation. So pull up a chair. Better yet, pull up a half dozen. And let the miracle of community begin.