It's important to keep up neighborly relationships, but setting boundaries firmly and kindly will help teach your child to do the same, making an uncomfortable situation now a lesson to last a lifetime.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
April 23, 2021
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An illustration of a mom watching kids play outside.
Credit: Illustration: Kailey Whitman.

First of all, I have three of my own children, and that often feels like too many, so having four extra kids at your house is understandably overwhelming! Although it seems fair to have them over because of the time your daughter spends at their house, we can all do the math. Adding four is not the same as adding one. That can be a lot to supervise, and even more intensive depending on ages and personalities.

I hear a few issues to tackle beyond unequal numbers: bridging differences in parenting style, balancing community and privacy, and preserving family time. You are correct that setting boundaries is essential, and the key is finding a way to do it while maintaining neighborly relationships. The gift in this awkward situation, however, is the opportunity to teach and model for your daughter enforcing healthy boundaries.

Bridging Different Parenting Styles

Your neighbors may have a more laid-back parenting approach, including not really thinking about what it's like for you to have so many children at your house (they are used to it, obviously). They may also celebrate their own empty house without giving much thought to the over-crowded state of yours. If you want to keep good neighbor vibes going, though, it will not work to let their laid-back style take over because that means so will your annoyance.

I wonder if their parenting style involves fewer rules and less structure in general, which may work for them, but right now affects your household and family. Children generally benefit greatly from clear structure and limits, so one way to start setting boundaries is to ask the parents what rules you should know about when their children are at your house, and you can share your own rules for your daughter. For example, you can say your daughter always needs to ask permission to play, and that she has to return home by a certain time. This communicates that rules and structure are important to your family, and you may learn more about where it fits for their family.

Balancing Community versus Privacy

Harmonious neighborhoods and tight-knit communities bestow many benefits on families. In this era of many of us living far from grandparents, for example, having a village to help raise a child becomes a necessity. We hope our children form long-lasting friendships with neighborhood kids, not just for convenience but because of trust, since we are more likely to know the parents and everyone is keeping an eye on everyone else. But obviously, there can be too much of a good thing, and preferences for privacy differ by family.

Coexisting well in neighborhoods requires understanding and respecting this range of preferences. Some may see sitting outside as an open invitation for company, while others wait for an actual invitation to play. Since your neighbors appear to see an open invitation, they need some explicit guidance around your family's privacy needs, which deserve priority.

Tips for Setting Boundaries

I myself tend toward people-pleasing, and I want to avoid hurting people's feelings, so I know the act of setting boundaries can be uncomfortable. But as with many anxiety-provoking acts, once we do it, we realize it's not that bad. In my experience, you can combine kindness with firmness. One strategy is to say no with a plan for the future: "We are having family time right now, so it's not a good time, but tomorrow afternoon would work."

If the other family continues to struggle to respect your boundary-setting attempts, you may need to level up your efforts and resort to a schedule. Think about how to do this that works for your family, such as deciding certain days that are "neighbor-play days," or "open house" times of the day such as a couple hours before dinner. It may seem strange at first after a more free-wheeling approach, but the free-wheeling is not working for you, and a schedule helps everyone know what to expect.

Modeling for Our Children

One lesson my children have learned from the slowing down of pandemic life is how much they need downtime. For the first time in their lives, they have been able to say "I don't feel like playing with friends today." When daily life moved at a more accelerated pace, it's like their brains became accustomed to constant stimulation, and losing that pace helped them know what it feels like to truly relax. And sometimes, that involves saying "no" to other people.

Setting boundaries is a life skill that cannot start too young because it takes practice! If your daughter sees you saying "no" in appropriate and respectful ways, this helps her learn not only that it's okay, but how to do it. As much as we may value being thoughtful and considerate of others' feelings, we need to balance this with prioritizing our own needs, which is a key part of psychological well-being.

The Bottom Line

As tempting as it can be to avoid potential neighbor conflict, that might mean years of living with a setup that doesn't work for your family. It's worth it to address the problem now, by knowing your boundaries and communicating that to your neighbors clearly and kindly. Not only does this preserve more harmony over time, it also shows your daughter that your family time is valuable, as is enforcing healthy boundaries now and in her future.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.