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April 17, 2014
The Real Issue
Playing with Neighborhood Kids
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


We just moved to a new neighborhood, and for the first time, we live near another family with children. These other children seem to run wild all over the neighborhood, and I’m not sure they’d be a good influence. But my children are excited to have playmates.

How do I know if I should let my children go to their home to play?


It is fun to have neighborhood friends. Playing at different houses, running around, riding bikes and playing ball are all fun. And not the kind of pre-arranged fun that is set up by adults. Real, spontaneous fun, where the children get to decide what to do and how to do it. Where, as long as they follow certain basic rules of behavior, they are not being bossed around or tightly supervised by adults.

But, as you have observed, you can’t just let your children go anywhere.

Your job as the parent is to sense whether you feel comfortable with your children playing at another person’s home. Also, to detect any strangeness, creepiness or danger signs that would prevent you from allowing this other family to supervise your children.

So the first thing you should do is walk over to your neighbor’s house and knock on the door. You don’t have to take cookies or anything. Just comb your hair and put on a smile.

Introduce yourself. “Hi. I’m Tilly Wintergarden. We just moved in two houses down, in the red house. I’ve seen your children outside playing, and I wanted to introduce myself.”

Your neighbor will probably introduce himself, and then you can tell each other your childrens’ names and ages and where they go to school and other pleasantries. Make sure to trade phone numbers so you can text each other.

From then on, when you see your neighbors, say hello. When you are both outside with the children, strike up a conversation. If you build a good relationship with them, it will be easier to approach them if there is ever a problem.

This is an ongoing responsibility. No matter how long you have known someone, you should always be attentive to the effect they have on your children. Pay attention to what your children say about them and their home, and to how they behave after they have spent time with them.

If you become concerned about a bad influence or another problem, address it quickly. You cannot be afraid to ban your child from being in a home or around an adult that makes you distinctly uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, honey, but I have a bad feeling about you being around them,” is a good enough explanation.

Assuming you feel comfortable with this other family, you can begin to build a good, neighborly friendship. There are three basic areas you need to think about.

First, reciprocity. It will not do if your children always play at this other family’s home and are always being supervised by those other parents. These people are your neighbors, not your nanny. So don’t wear out your welcome. Make sure the children play at your house about half the time. If the other family does you a favor, be sure to reciprocate.

Likewise, your house is not a day care. You can send home any child at any time.

Second, rules. Your children should be trained in how you expect them to behave when you are not around. Review these rules with them often. Practice with them ways to say “no” when their friends encourage them to break the rules, or when other parents unwittingly tell them it’s okay to break your family rules.

Family rules must include safety measures. You don’t want your children to be unduly fearful, but you do want them to know how to identify and respond to dangerous situations.

Children should be instructed to come home and tell you immediately when certain things happen. For example, discussing, touching, texting or photographing private body parts; looking at guns; seeing or reading any form of pornography (which you must clearly define for your children — the Church website can help you with this); drinking alcohol, smoking anything or taking any kind of drug (again, you must teach them how to identify these substances); watching certain TV shows or movies; playing certain games; and swimming without close adult supervision.

If they are not within walking distance, they should be instructed to call you. Give them permission to insist if another parent does not respond to their request to call or leave.

When children come home and tell you that any of these things has happened, stay calm. Praise them for being trustworthy and have any necessary follow-up conversations. Then, calmly and promptly let the other parents know what happened. A phone call is probably better than a text.

Be sure to treat the other parents the way you would want to be treated if you were in their place. But your principal duty is to your children, not your neighbors. So even as you fortify your children’s ability to respond wisely to dangerous situations, do not hesitate to declare a certain house off-limits.

Family rules should also include how often to check in, when to come home, and a prohibition on going anywhere else without telling you first. You should also teach them that they can come home any time they are uncomfortable with an activity, even if you’ve never told them not to engage in it.

If you are unsure about another family’s rules, you can text the parents and ask. “Brighton would like to watch an episode of Wild Kratts. Is that okay with you?”

You should also establish your house rules. Children who are in your home or yard under your supervision can be required to follow your rules. Language, access to snacks, proper use of toys and equipment, shoes on or off, off-limits areas of the house, sharing and TV or game ratings are examples of rules you can establish.

“My mom lets me do that,” can be answered with, “That’s fine. But at our house we don’t.”

My favorite rule is “Everybody Plays.” Under this rule, three boys cannot run off and leave a fourth behind. Two girls cannot have a secret club that excludes a third. If three children are taking turns on a scooter, a fourth child can take turns, too. If four are playing catch, five can play catch.

This rule does not mean that you have to be equally close friends with everyone or do every activity with every friend you have. Instead, it means that when you are playing with a group of children, each child must be included.

One child cannot be singled out and excluded from a group or a game. Children should be trained to be attentive hosts, which includes the responsibility of ensuring that all of their guests are having a good time.

Third, supervision. The amount of supervision required depends on the ages, proclivities and personalities of the children being supervised. It depends on how well you know the children. Also, it depends on the physical safety of your location. But ideally, the children, especially older children, will have the opportunity to play with only light supervision.

However, if one child consistently breaks house rules or causes strife, closer supervision is justified. If you have such a child playing in your yard, get your gardening gloves and pull some weeds while you keep an eye on things.

Also, there are limits to letting children work out their own problems. When you notice that a child, especially a younger or weaker child, is being taken advantage of, you can intervene. You don’t need to chew out the offender. A simple, “Kurt, give Arthur’s squirt gun back to him. And don’t take it again,” will do. It’s fine for the older children to know that you will stick up for the younger ones.

Finally, when you have neighbor children playing in your home and yard, you will occasionally have to be mean. You will have to send home a misbehaving child, or enforce rules, or tell a child that you know he is lying because you saw what happened and heard what he said.

So be nice as often as you can. Greet the children with a smile, tell them you’re glad to see them, and help them keep track of the clock so they can be home on time. Make sure they know that you like them.

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