Dear Jenny: The Neighbors' Kid Keeps Coming Over
Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I need to know what to do if the neighbor kid really just wants to play/talk to you and not your actual kid, LOL. Our neighbors down the street are good friends — the mom and I are close and my husband and the dad are close. But they have a 7-year-old girl who comes over every single day to play with Gemma, our 6-year-old, and really what ends up happening is Gemma plays alone in a room while the neighbor, Poppy, follows me around asking if she can help me cook or if she can play with Kylie, our 1-year-old, or hold her or feed her, etc. As soon as she walks in, she goes, "Is Kylie napping?" because she really just wants to come over and hover around me and hold the baby. It's cute but also GO PLAY PLEASE. What do I do?
But Seriously Go Play
When I was 10, our next-door neighbors had a pool. Not a fancy pool. I lived in a subdivision outside a small, Mississippi River town where no one had fences, front or back, so all our yards just kind of ran together. Our neighbors had an aboveground pool we could see from our yard, and I was allowed to use it if an adult was there to supervise. One day I walked into their backyard and peered into their living room through the screen to see if they would come out. Someone was in there. I could see the outline of a body on the couch backlit by a window. But no one answered — no one moved — when I called out. I was confused. I could see them. Where they there, or not there?
Eventually, as they'd been praying, I went home (and complained to my mother, who listened sympathetically, then also prayed for me to Go Away).
I still remember this because, somewhere deep inside, I knew my neighbors were ignoring me, and I was embarrassed, because I'd thought I was allowed to use their pool, but apparently I wasn't wanted. I don't remember ever swimming in the pool — but I do remember peering through the screen.
Only a kind person would write a letter like this. Poppy is accepted as a fact of life, and you want some peace without crushing her spirit.
So: Poppy needs a job.
As I've written before, I'm a fan of lying to children. Not lies that actually confuse them, like that babies come from storks, or lies that fuck them up, such as, "Oh, you're not really upset." VALIDATE YOUR CHILDREN'S EMOTIONAL REALITY PLEASE.
But say a shooting happens WHOA THAT GOT SERIOUS FAST. Responding with a shrug and saying, "Yeah, that might happen to you," is not the way to go. Instead, you want to support their well-being by assuring them they're safe, no matter how grim your worldview.
Here's a less intense example: From ages 4 to 9, I lived in a small community in Saudi Arabia called Ras Tanura. It was patrolled by men with machine guns who drove around the compound in pickup trucks. They were known collectively as "security." One night my parents left me and my brother with another couple — George and Diane — whom we loved. Like, LOVED. They were fun, they were cool, they were nice, they were funny. And my brother and I would not shut up and go to bed, because we wanted to play with them. We kept coming out of the room where we were supposed to be sleeping. On what would be our last attempt, George informed us that if we came out again, he would call security.
We did not come out again. And we still love George and Diane, even though we haven't seen them in 35 years.
Trying to make kids with an age difference play together is like trying to get a turtle to play with a nutcracker.
In addition to lying to children, I'm a fan of setting boundaries. Boundaries make everyone feel safe, including children and adults.
So here's my advice:
Whenever Poppy comes over, start with, "Oh, thank goodness you're here. I really need your help."
Have some activities ready for Poppy — making art for Kylie (drawing, gluing, coloring, making a collage), putting your silverware away, folding the baby's clothes — and then tell her if she talks to you before the big hand is on the three, the baby will explode.
OK, don't tell her the baby will explode.
But do tell her it's incredibly important that these tasks be completed, and they need to be completed by a certain time, and she can stay if she does them, and does them quietly. If she chooses not to do them, then she's making the choice not to stay. If she chooses not to do them quietly, then she's making the choice not to stay. (When she tries to talk to you, put your finger to your lips and shake your head. She's 7, and she loves you, so it's likely she'll be more compliant than you expect — for a little while.)
You also can check in with Gemma. As parents know, kids choose their friends based on factors we cannot hope to understand, and trying to force kids to play together doesn't work, or doesn't work for long. (Trying to make kids with an age difference play together is like trying to get a turtle to play with a nutcracker.) Still, ask Gemma: Is there anything she thinks she and Poppy could do together? Does Poppy have any ideas? (If all else fails, Remember the Seventies and just lock them out of the house, preferably near a pond, a highway, or a creepy neighbor.)
It's better for her to get a loving introduction to disappointment than for you to develop any resentment or irritation toward her.
But also, if you need to nap, you need to work, or you just need some rest, it's OK to tell Poppy that. Get down to her level, look her in the eye, tell her you're so happy to see her and that she came by to say hello, but you're very tired, or you're not feeling well, or you have work to do, so you and Kylie and Gemma are not available today. If you're up for it, you can even give her a task: Ask her to make something (at her house) or collect something (outside), and come back the next day (or the next… ) to show you and the baby. Give her a hug. Give her a cookie. Then shut the door.
She'll be disappointed. That's OK. It's better for her to get a loving introduction to disappointment than for you to develop any resentment or irritation toward her (too late?), which you have the power to manage by setting boundaries.
(But if you tell her to come back the next day, answer the door. It would be cruel and unjust to leave a child staring bleakly through a screen.)
KIDS ARE ADORABLE BUT SOMETIMES WE NEED SOME F**KING SPACE. MAKE A PLAN AND SET SOME BOUNDARIES EARLY BEFORE THINGS GO OFF THE RAILS. YOU CAN APPLY THIS ADVICE ACROSS YOUR ENTIRE LIFE. YOU GOT THIS.
Knorr, Caroline. (2019). How to Talk to Kids About Violence, Crime, and War. Common Sense Media, https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-violence-crime-and-war