During most of the time I was growing up, there was a very nice Air Force couple from Virginia living next door to us. This post explains exactly how the mom behaved. I liked her and her family a lot.
The problem was, there was a very basic culture clash between my mom and her (although again, I know they liked each other). You couldn’t go to the neighbor lady’s yard without being offered cold drinks, anymore than you could visit inside our house without being offered drinks and snacks. But my mom had been raised that kids never went inside other people’s houses to play (unless it was a pre-arranged visit or dinner invitation or slumber party or the like) and never accepted food or drink while playing. Man… there’s a social dilemma. Offend or sadden the nice neighbor lady (even though she’ll act like she’s not offended or saddened), or listen to your mom lecture you later on presuming on people’s hospitality? (Because of course your mom sees everything you do in the neighbor’s yard.)
Eeeeeeih, still makes my head hurt. Eventually a modus vivendi was achieved between the moms, but I don’t think they ever quite reconciled to each other’s concept of proper kid behavior.
I suspect my mom’s rule is because her generation’s Irish and German moms were a bit insecure of how their houses looked, unless they had time to prepare and make the place spotless. Also, because Mom grew up in neighborhoods where people’s financial status may not have been something they wanted to advertise, or should have strained by kids descending upon them. It may also have been to prevent setting off the Irish impulse to make people drink tea to the flood point, and the German impulse to make guests fill up their tummies and spoil their dinners, and all the other cultural preoccupations of ethnic folks in the neighborhood from all sorts of places.
It may also be an artifact of her growing up under rationing during WWII. Her family was lucky enough to have an extra ration card because her grandfather lived with them; other families weren’t so lucky. Meanwhile, my mom was feeding us a lot of grilled cheese and pinching pennies to make ends meet, when we were kids; so it may have set off memories; or fears that the neighbor kids would need hospitality she couldn’t afford. It’s a safety precaution too, of course, but only with people you don’t know; and really, the primary feeling was that you might be taking the bread out of people’s mouths. (This didn’t apply logically to our neighbors, because the dad was a fairly high up officer and made more money than my dad. But customs aren’t about logic.)
But yeah, since a lot of people’s hospitality customs make them feed a guest with the last crumb rather than themselves, or stuff you and then starve the rest of the week, there really is a place for insisting that you’re not hungry, that you can’t stop, and that maybe you’ll be able to do it some other time (but not letting yourself be pinned down). There’s also a place for remembering that, if you accept hospitality, you’re going to have to reciprocate. Can you reciprocate? Do you have room to reciprocate? Can you hold a picnic or something? Always the calculations in one part of your brain, while the other part is always trying to stop the calculations from spoiling other people’s fun.
But of course Southern people also come from a history of starvation and poverty. So what’s the difference? Tenements versus shacks? The certain knowledge that it always gets cold enough in the winter to kill you? Shrug.
Most kids in my class had slightly younger parents, and their attitudes toward hospitality were a lot looser. Most kids ran in and out of other people’s houses, and that kept increasing until the pedophile scare created playdates. Still, I know for a fact that my aunt (about ten years younger than my mom — she married my mom’s youngest brother) had other people’s kids at her table at least half the time, without previous warning by her sons that they were bringing anyone home. (But she hailed from Long Island, so that may be still another culture; and she came from the German school that you cooked for an army and made people waddle away from the table. And yes, she and my mom have culture clashes too.)
Anyway, a lot of people in the northern US have been raised this way, and it’s hard to get over. Hopefully other people will bear with us, as we struggle between enjoying their hospitality and accepting the risk of making them or us starve to death later.