Why we need neighborhood squares. Part 3: Socializing children

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

How do children and youth learn the behavior, the attitudes, the skills that transform them into competent, responsible adults capable of, and interested in participating in the life of their community? A neighborhood square offers them an unparalleled learning environment.

Shaping a child into a socially adept member of the community begins when the baby is brought into the square to be introduced, passed from arm to arm, spoken to and admired. The toddler on the square with his father, playing ball for the first time, is learning not only to walk and to catch a ball, but also to give the ball to the man his father is talking to, and to respond to an elder who pauses to address him.

Primarily, children learn by repeated observation, participation and practice in relating to a range of adults. Family, school and religious settings offer some contexts, but perhaps more far-reaching are those observations and experiences made in the public realm where children are exposed to a “human landscape” (to use Walter Benjamin’s term) that includes a diversity of persons who are known, familiar and unknown. This learning opportunity is richest in the neighborhood square. Here, children and youth daily observe and engage in a wide range of social encounters involving parents and children, friends and lovers, familiars and strangers.

What do they see that they can learn from? For example, they learn how parents express affection towards children by holding, touching, stroking, or patting; how adults show interest and attention towards each other and towards children; how couples express tenderness towards each other; how differences of opinion may be vehemently expressed without the participants coming to blows; and how, as a general rule, persons acknowledge and confirm each other's presence. If they are fortunate, they also sense the pleasure persons experience being with, meeting and talking to each other. These social skills become invaluable in adult life.

The public realm turns every adult into a potential role model, a teacher who instructs and prescribes, more often than not without intending to do so. This observation was made with great force by Jane Jacobs, who objected to reliance on professionals in the supervision and care of children: “Planners do not seem to realize how high a ratio of adults is needed to raise children… and assimilate them into civilized society.”

Though Jacob’s insights are based on her observation of social life on the streets of Greenwich Village, her understanding of adult role models in socializing children is equally relevant to public life on the neighborhood square. Here, adults frequently take responsibility for other people’s children in addition to their own. Adults often take responsibility for those who have difficulty or are disabled, and they monitor, advise, and negotiate among children and youth when problems arise. “In real life”, Jacobs noted, “only from the ordinary adults of the city do children learn – if they learn at all, the fundamentals of successful city life: people must take a modicum of responsibility for each other…”

All of this social learning takes place while children are playing. They may seem to be focused on playing with water, climbing a sculpture, chalking art on the pavement, or laughing and talking with friends, but the significant context of which they are also acutely aware is the human setting of the adults around them.

Children must learn the skills of making friends, and of maintaining friendships. They must learn how to interact with people very different from themselves – involving the ability to understand a person’s character, and to distinguish between “friend” and “foe”. As pediatrician Stanley Greenspan observes, “The more varied and reciprocal these interactions, the richer will be the individual’s self-image and the more comprehensive her consciousness”.

“Hanging out” is an important developmental task for teenagers. They need to observe and evaluate possible role models outside their immediate family circle, learn how to evaluate those they observe, try out a new identity, and practice interacting with strangers. The neighborhood square provides a safe setting for this, ensuring the presence of some familiar adults who keep an eye on events and informally monitor behavior in the square.

The teenager meeting his girlfriend on the square is already highly attuned to the complex social matrix of family and community relationships. He has seen frequent expressions of tenderness and love, acts of concern and responsibility to himself and others, and is able to express the same feelings to his girlfriend.

Peter Benson, author of All Children Are Our Children insisted that children need to be embedded “in webs of sustained adult relationships”. Instead, “we segregate them from the wisdom and experience of adults, … and deny them meaningful roles in community and civic life.” He called for society to “alter the course of socialization for American youth, … to reconstruct our towns and cities as intergenerational communities. Cross-generational contacts would be frequent and natural.” What better place for this to happen than on the neighborhood square?

For more about the needs of children in cities, please read The Forgotten Child, available on the IMCL website here. To read an excerpt please click here

Turn to Part 4: Preventing loneliness