Comedian Buddy Hackett once quipped, "My parents were too poor to have children, so the neighbors had me." For many of the kids around us, there is much truth in that statement. Their parents may or may not be poor, but they are often absent, nonetheless. Can we help?
I remember a warm, sunny day when I had just finished mowing the lawn. As I knelt down to clean off my mower, I heard a little voice from out of nowhere: "Whatcha doin'?" (It was too feeble to be the voice of God, so I was more startled than afraid.) As I turned around, I faced a little boy about six years old, kneeling down beside me, taking a look at my cleaning efforts.
"Well, I've just finished mowing the lawn, and now I'm cleaning up my lawn mower."
"Need any help?"
"Uh, I think I can finish this up by myself."
Next thing I knew he was gone. Vanished into thin air.
A week went by, and I was into my lawn mowing routine once again, almost at the exact moment of cleaning up my lawn mower when, once again I heard: "Whatcha doin'?" I turned around, and it was the same little neighbor boy. Well, this time I asked him what his name was, and he told me. He again asked me if he could help, and this time I told him, "Sure."
I directed him over to a leaf bag and told him to put some of the grass clippings in it. As he was helping me, we began to talk. I asked him where he lived, and he said he lived a number of blocks away with his mother. Then, quite matter of factly, he stopped and looked at me and said, "But my daddy doesn't live with us anymore."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
But then he thought for a second and he looked at me with those big eyes and said, "That's okay. My daddy isn't a very nice man."
My heart went out to that little boy. I have wondered since, how many other children are in this neighborhood in the same condition? Maybe the single mother is working full-time, trying her best to provide. Maybe a relative is repeat parenting but finding too few hours in the day. Maybe the dad—or the mom—just isn't very nice.
That day I tried to become a "sidewalk parent."
A sidewalk parent is a person who befriends and cares about the children in his neighborhood. It's akin to the caring and availability I spoke of earlier, but it goes a step further--by taking steps out the front door.
We realize that this is a very difficult type of parent to become. You see, we're living in a day and age in which sometimes a good-hearted stranger's interest in children is misunderstood. And sadly, some strangers are not good-hearted; we've all heard the stories of abuse. So we must operate with a bit of caution as a sidewalk parent. But one of the greatest things we can do for kids in our neighborhoods is to be out there on the sidewalks with them.
A number of months ago, my wife and I were on a little walk, as we like to do in the evenings. As we wandered a few blocks from our house, we saw a couple of kids playing in a front yard. As it typical, they were ignoring us, and in the past we would have tended to ignore them. But this time, we kind of turned around and said, "Hi" and asked what they were doing. They didn't say much, just said they were playing, and as we strolled another twenty yards down the road, one of them stood up and called, "Hey! Did you know there are snakes in the neighborhood?"
We turned around and said, "No, we didn't know there were any snakes around here." He said, "Well, we saw one in our yard today, so you better be careful." We thanked him for his insight and caution and then went on our way again.
That was the start of something. Yes, a small start. But how many times do we walk through a mall, and as we come to a group of kids, walk the other way? Suppose we were to just look at them, eye to eye, and say, "Hello. How are you doing today?" Would not that, of its own, communicate value to them?
I don't know what is the right way or the best way to communicate to children today. But we do know that a great number of children are hurting. They don't feel safe in their schools, they may not even feel safe in their homes. But when a loving Christian adult acknowledges their existence, develops a conversation (which may or may not lead to a teachable moment), and shows concern that is what sidewalk parenting is all about.