Q. I absolutely can’t stand our neighbors. They drink, fight loudly night and day, and haggle with us over petty things like property lines. Their elementary schoolers also run wild and act out — and as the weather gets nicer, they’ll be outside playing and my kids will want to join. How can I separate them?
Kara: Have you considered signing up for a reality show? Sadly, you can’t actually ban your children from playing with the neighborhood menaces. For one thing, this will only irritate their parents, and it sounds as if they’re easily provoked. Secondly, the more you tell elementary schoolers not to do something, the more they’ll want to do it. The town terrors will become all the more alluring, and you certainly don’t want that. Lastly, separating them will be pretty hard to enforce. It sounds like the kids’ social interactions happen organically, playing outside, so unless you’re watching from the window and ready to pounce whenever the Naughties roll by on their skateboards, you’re out of luck.
On a happier note, it’s terrific that your kids are actually playing outside and enjoying unstructured time — something that’s rare in this overscheduled era. Unless these kids are actually dangerous or violent, consider this outdoor playtime as a character-building experience as in days of yore. Your children might have to stick up for themselves and set boundaries, but that’s how kids learn. Bonus: If the neighborhood kids are annoying enough, your kids will get tired of playing with them eventually. As my mom used to say, “Water seeks its own level.” And it’s true: If your kids have nothing in common with the neighbors, they’ll naturally drift apart. You won’t need to step in at all. Hooray!
David: Even if they do stick together, I don’t think you have much to fear from the neighbors’ children as long as they’re in elementary school. I assume “running wild and acting out” is a polite way of saying they annoy you, not that they seem to have severe behavioral issues. I recommend you just treat them like they’re any other kids and not talk badly about the them in front of your own. They may actually get along quite well. Who knows? Maybe your (assuredly darling, well-mannered) children will rub off on their friends. Nobody ever fixates on the positive end of peer pressure.
Kara: Badmouthing them to your kids is definitely a poor idea. That said, let’s not discount your concern over the trainwreck parents themselves. Be cautious about letting your kids visit the neighbor’s house lest you find yourself in a David Sedaris essay. (It sounds like you’re already on guard about this.) If the parents are drinking and fighting, you don’t want your kids in the middle of it. I know, I know — but you don’t want to start trouble or seem rude. So invite the kids to your house, so it’s clear to the neighbors that you’re not icing them completely. If your kids are invited to their house, a couple of white lies — We’re off to go grocery shopping! Gee, we’re about to eat dinner! — should suffice. If the family’s as dysfunctional as it sounds, they probably aren’t eager to host more kids anyway.
David: Depending on how old your kids are, you could also just be honest with them about the situation. I very clearly remember such a situation from my own childhood. My parents were rightly worried about the parents of one of my friends, and they just leveled with me: They said they had nothing against my friend, that he was welcome, but they didn’t trust his parents and didn’t think his house was safe. If you believe your children are old enough to understand that and careful enough to not discuss it with their friends (it could be hurtful or get back to the neighbors), it might help a lot.
You could also move. It’s a seller’s market. The property line will get real clear then. But really, you’re not leaving over this, right? My advice: Draw boundaries for your kids, and beyond that, pretend to be politely indifferent to the neighbors. Practice makes perfect. Eventually you’ll just tune them out. Or they’ll move (and take their kids with them).
David Mogolov is a dad, a comedian, and a playwright. His parenting comedy is forthcoming as a collection titled “I Should Have Done That Differently.” Kara Baskin is a mom, a journalist, and author of “Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know.” With a mix of expert insight and first-person reassurance, they tackle your parenting worries and woes. Send parenting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.