Child Caring

Little boy's visits raise a big issue: what are the rules for being a good neighbor?

My next door neighbor has a 6-year old child who is about the same age as our kids. We are tired of his frequent "pop over" visits. Our doorbell rings and there he is, asking if he can come over to play. My whole family has come to dread the sound of the doorbell because he watches our house and as soon as there is any sign of activity, he's at the door. When we say, "No, this is not a convenient time," he then asks if he can come over later or tomorrow. He is a sweet child, but I find it inconvenient to have these unscheduled playdates--especially when our kids are inside and he then asks to go upstairs, comes into my wife and my bedroom looking for toys, and asks for snacks. Our kids are getting tired of it, too, and now they say they don't want to play outside because he might see them and come over.

He is a sweet boy; there is no issue with him doing anything bad, but my kids are starting to be kind of little jerks: ignoring him, refusing to play, and reading a book or playing a game that he can't play with them. We feel bad for him because he is alone (sort of watched by elderly grandparent) for much of the day and clearly needs other kids to play with. I feel like when he comes over, I have to "watch" them all, instead of just letting my kids play on their own, so it adds a burden to me as well and I find myself telling my kids to be nice to him when they ignore him. His parent needs to step up and find something for him to do and not just dump him on us.

I don't know how to have that conversation with his mother or grandparents. I feel like I don't have a "reason" other than my own selfish inconvenience as to why I don't want him coming over so often. We have told them to ask in advance, but they live next door, so that just leads to them yelling at him as to whether he has asked to come over or not and him yelling back. They called us a few times, but again, you can just look out your window and see each other, so it is kind of silly.

Nobody's getting the hint. They don't see it the same way we do. We probably feel a bit of guilt, too, as we have a lot of advantages and he's over there with his struggling single mom who has to work all the time, and poor grandparents who are just making ends meet. They are nice people in general and except for this issue, great neighbors. When we have sent him home or said our kids could not play, they ask what he did wrong, and they chastise him about trivial things which makes us a little concerned that he will be blamed or punished if we say "the wrong thing." We have found, in other discussions with the grandparents, it is easy to be misunderstood, and I just know if we tell them what we really feel, it is going to be hurtful, so we kind of just let this continue.

I'm embarrassed to submit this letter because it is so pathetic to allow a 6-year old so much power, but I've love to hear how others deal with this kind of situation. Many people would probably just reach out and be kind, but I guess I'm not. And now, I feel like I'm setting a bad example for my kids--and starting to conclude that maybe it would be better to be a jerk than a doormat.

From: SurrogateBabySitter, Boston

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Dear SurrogateBabySitter,

Back in the day -- before play became playdates -- this is how the world of childhood operated and no one thought there was anything bad about saying, "Sorry, kiddo, not a good time." Practice saying that without feeling guilty. I give you permission.

At the same time, honesty (also more widely practiced back in the day) is still the best policy, especially since you raise the issue of what you are modelling to your kids (for which I applaud you). Start with them: "I know you like to play with Tim sometimes but not other times. That's OK, you're entitled to not be in the mood to play. But other times, it would be nice to include him. What activities are fun to do with him?" Make a list. "OK, so you like to play Sorry with him. How about if we invite him for a game on Saturday afternoon?"

Now go to the adults next door. Tell them the truth: "Tim is a great kid but my kids are the kind of kids who sometimes like to be by themselves. So I want you to know that there will be times when he rings the bell and we will tell him it's not a good time and ask him to go home. It's not because he's done anything wrong."

Also, talk to the boy: "Sometimes when you ring our bell, it's not a good time for you to visit. The kids aren't in the mood to play. It's not because they don't like you or because you did something wrong, it's just not a good time. So that's what I'll tell you." Or: "How about if we set a rule? You can ring the bell once a day/five times a week/only after 5 pm." If he rings at different times, remind him what the rule was: "Remember our deal?"

If you want to go a step further, tell your kids that you'd like to help out his mom and grandma and make a regular/semi-regular playdate. Then offer that to the adults: "I'd like to help you out two hours a week," and negotiate around that.

No matter what you do, this is a situation that isn't going to go away, so you need to find some way to be comfortable with it. Readers, what would you do?