I’m not one for reality shows, gossip and the like. However I do have a thing for advice columns. I love reading about the banal (and not so) problems of fellow citizens and find good advice fascinating and useful. In fact I think I try to give it out too, in my own goofy, story telling way.
My favorite advice column is Dear Prudence, a weekly column in my absolute favorite online magazine, Slate www.slate.com. I find the author ‘Prudie’ to be very wise and to usually give sound, practical, well-thought out advice. Yet this week’s column had a letter writer who was asking for advice on what to do with what she thought were the sounds of abusive parents drifting into her windows from next door. She started by saying they had moved into their home six months earlier, and since the warm weather had everybody’s windows open, they could hear much of what was going on in their next door neighbor’s home. She described that it was a multi generational home with a one year old. An adult in the home was constantly yelling at the baby to shut up, calling it names like crybaby and stupid, and mocking it’s cries, usually just causing the baby to cry louder. She also said the adults in the house argued often and aren’t friendly enough to approach. To my dismay, Prudie’s sole advice was to call a child welfare hotline in order to find out how to possibly get social services to intervene.
I think this behavior on the part of the letter writer’s neighbors is horrible and that poor, poor baby, but… if that were a reportable offense, I’d be reporting someone every day that I see on the bus, train, walking in the streets, in the playgrounds, my son’s school, etc. I’m not saying that makes the behavior right, I’m just saying that in some of America’s communities and cultures, that behavior is extremely prevalent and reporting every one of them to social welfare authorities would be an exercise in futility. It also made me think of the nuances of cultures mixing in neighborhoods like Bed Stuy for the first time. If you’re a New Yorker you’re aware of the alarming rate of gentrification going on in many traditionally black Brooklyn neighborhoods. What you might not be aware of is the level of surprise cultural differences between new neighbors might generate. I have a very unique take on this – I am black and white and have been exposed to different types of people my entire life. What is taken as a given in one American sub-culture can be very shocking to another, even in the same Brooklyn neighborhood.
I guess what bothered me about the advice to just ‘make a call to a social welfare agency’ was the lack of information given in the letter to be able to give that advice in the first place. Even with that lack, my first advice would have been for the letter writer to be a little more creative in reaching out. After all these are her next door neighbors! Saying they ‘don’t seem very friendly’ is so vague, how hard has she really reached out if that’s what she thinks of them? I’m guessing they are from different cultural backgrounds and some effort could be made to find out more about the situation than what you randomly hear through your open windows.
Yelling at a baby to shut up isn’t a crime, no matter how often it’s done or how angry the tone. The baby would be better helped by the letter writer reaching out. Invite them over with the baby. Say she’s cute, bring her over to play at my house, do you like (insert food here). Or say something like, hey it must be tough taking care of a crying toddler how do you handle it? Get into a discussion that’s non-accusatory. Throw out suggestions like, when my niece is screaming so much and we can’t figure out why, we do (insert clapping game or other suggestion here.) Calling a number seems like a very impersonal thing to do in this situation where not a lot of info on the actual home life of the baby is had. The letter writer would have to work harder but if it meant that much to her… she might be able to share elements of parenting from her background while exploring those elements of theirs that she finds abusive. That’s one way she could affect positive change while getting to know the people she now lives next door to. Or she could skip all that, shut her windows and just make a phone call.