#1331 and #1332: Awkward Neighbor Stuff!

Dear Captain!

I worked for myself/at home even before the pandemic started. I have a friendly hullo-over-the-fence relationship with my middle-aged female neighbor who I think has some grown children? We haven’t had a face to face conversation since before the pandemic, so why did I get a text from her today asking for my email address, and then get a job posting sent to my email with a “I think you’re a graphic designer? Saw this and thought of you!”

Do I need to stop wearing yoga pants so much?! 😂

Hope you’re well!!

Hello, I’m hanging in there, thank you for the question!

This is one of those strange little stories where, your neighbor wants to be kind but is missing necessary information so her actions are grating in a way that you can’t put your finger on. Perhaps her grown children were like, “No more job listings, Mom!” and she had this juicy one Right There and no place to send it. Lucky you!

One very reasonable way to respond is to say, “Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m all set for work as a __________. [What you actually do]/[Your plausible cover story if what you actually do is a Scarecrow & Mrs. King type situation].

I hope you and the family are well! – Your Name” 

Then catch up pleasantly over the fence as you usually would, with no obligation to wear “hard pants” or explain more. May this remain a one time vaguely odd thing!

Next question:

Hi Captain,

I moved in with my girlfriend about six months ago, and for the most part it’s been great – almost all of our neighbors are socially progressive nosy retired ladies, and we’ve had some delightful walks around the area where we stop for half an hour or so to talk gossip and gardening with them, and they know they can call on us to weed their gardens or carry furniture, since we’re the youngest people on the cul-de-sac.

However, recently one of said neighbors was granted custody of her five year old granddaughter, and now it’s perilous to even go outside, because this kid has latched onto us as her new best friends and won’t leave us alone. I feel for her (like I said, almost everyone else here is a retiree), but I didn’t sign up to help co-parent a child.

I have tried to be gentle but firm with her – she keeps demanding to come over for sleepovers (I say that she can’t demand that from friends, she has to wait to be invited), and rings our doorbell randomly to try to get access to our home (we don’t answer) – but nothing dissuades her. The other day, I was spray painting a project in the side yard, and she wouldn’t stop dashing forward to poke the wet paint, even after I told her that she wasn’t welcome and that she should go home.

To top it all off, now she’s asking invasive gender and sexuality questions about me and my girlfriend – “What are you?” and “Well, if you’re dating a girl then you must be a boy!” and etc. I have told her repeatedly that I’m neither a boy nor a girl, and that anyone can date anyone, not just boys and girls, but I also am not here to give this kid the birds and the bees talk!

Her grandma does try to rein her in when she’s around, but evidently this kid just slips out of the house while grandma is showering or sleeping, etc, so I’m not sure what more she can do, especially since she’s only had custody for about two months and is overwhelmed, I’m sure.

But it’s getting to the point where I’m hesitant to go outside because I worry that this kid is going to try to slip through the front door again like she did when I came home from an errand the other day, and I couldn’t shut the door fast enough because I didn’t want to crush her bare feet.

How can I convince this five year old that two thirty-year-old lesbians aren’t her new BFFs, and that part of friendship is respecting boundaries?

Thank you,
Camp Counselor No More

Hello Camp Counselor No More,

You were actually a camp counselor, seems like, so it’s time to revive The Voice. Like “Teacher Voice,” “Camp Counselor Voice” isn’t mean, or yelling, but is louder and firmer than your regular speaking voice, and it expects to be obeyed.

Because you really, really, really can’t have someone else’s five-year-old child chilling out in your yard or letting herself into your house or bossing you around. You and your girlfriend both have gotta find the voice that says “You can’t come in” and “Don’t touch that” and “That sounds like a question for your Grandma!” and the body language where you advance a little bit as you speak until she takes a step back because this is Serious Business.

Work on the Voice, but also call her Grandma to collect her, consistently, every single time she is a nuisance. Grandma’s showering? She should put on a robe. Grandma’s sleeping? She should wake up, because her five-year-old is out of the house bothering the neighbors again, and she’s the one in charge of this kid’s well-being and safety and of knowing where she is at all times, and yes, that’s overwhelming, but you still need to do it.

You can call: “Hello, Neighbor, Kid’s on our porch ringing our doorbell incessantly, can you please collect her and remind her not to do that?” “Hello, Neighbor, Kid’s trying to barge into our house again, we’re really not okay having an unsupervised five-year-old here, can you take her home?” 

You can walk the kid back to her home and knock on the door. “Hello, anybody home? Got someone who needs to stay in her own yard, have a great day!” 

You may get pushback from the little girl, like, “But I thought we were friends!” “I wasn’t doing anything wrong!” “You don’t even like me!” 

And you might get pushback from Grandma, like, “Oh, she just likes you and is curious about you!” or “She doesn’t mean anybody any harm” or “In my day, we all dropped by the neighbors all the time, it’s not such a big deal.” 

About that, I was a little kid in a small town in the 1970s & 1980s, and I’d ride bikes to neighbor’s houses and pet their dogs and farm animals and chit-chat my little face off at the people, and mostly they were very gracious about it (and in the case of the farmers, happy to put me to work collecting eggs or picking blueberries or weeding vegetable patches or shoveling manure). The nearest and dearest neighbors knew I was desperate for adult approval and I that didn’t like my home all the time, and they channeled my energy by giving me stuff to do. Shell these peas. Read aloud to Old Fredna Clark who can’t see so well, and sit with her while I run to the store. Gather up the apples that fell on the ground, you can feed some to the ponies if you get done in time. You can use this but don’t touch that, that’s for grownups. That’s not a topic for little kids, so mind your beeswax. If you can’t do it the right way you shouldn’t do it at all, so, pay attention.

The key is, they didn’t have to do any of it and could have shut it down completely the second they wanted to. There were neighbors who saw my eager face and little Brownie uniform on the porch and were like, “Nope,” and I survived this rejection. For the neighbors who did let me hang out, when it wasn’t a good time for them, or they needed to remind me of a rule, or when I was a shitty little kid testing boundaries, they used The Voice. “Do I have to call your mom to come get you or can I trust you to go home like a big girl?”  “If we don’t answer the door on the first knock, it’s because we’re not home or we don’t want to. Give it a rest.” “I told you once and now it’s twice. Are you going to make me do it three times?” If I wanted to be able to come back, I had to behave myself, so I learned.

It’s not your job in life to never, ever make this little girl feel even a little bit bad about times when she’s clearly annoying you and crossing your boundaries and needs to be told “no.” I don’t believe in purposely shaming kids, but I also believe that feeling embarrassed sometimes when you step out of line and need to be told is part of learning. If you tell her “no” and she cries and gets very upset? She still needs to not be in your house or yard without an invitation. “I’m sorry you’re upset, but I did say you need to stop barging into my house and ringing my doorbell over and over again,.” Walking on eggshells & appeasing her isn’t going to help anyone. Safe adults are ones who can say, “Yeah, we only have sleepovers with grownup friends, and only when we invite them, so that’s a no” and mean it. She is a small child, she doesn’t know how to behave, and she won’t intuit or guess it on her own, so she has to be taught. Since telling her isn’t working, you’re going to have to back up the boundaries with consistent actions, and that’s okay. Walking a five-year-old kid back to her guardian or summoning said guardian isn’t mean. 

It’s also not your job to make up for everything going on with Grandma’s stress levels and her custody situation, though you are responsible – one might even say liable – for what happens to people on your property, and you’re allowed to set limits and expectations. “I know your granddaughter doesn’t mean any harm, but she needs to stay out of our yard.” “We know she’s just a little kid, but we’re not her babysitters, and she can’t just drop by our house and expect to come in.” “I hate to bother you, but until she can learn on her own to stop coming into our yard uninvited, we’re going to have to keep calling you to come get her.” Be very boring and very consistent, until everyone learns that uninvited trespass  = her responsible adult will be summoned immediately to deal with it. The kindergartener is not the boss of all of you and she *will* adapt to whatever structure you create. The more clear, consistent and unambiguous you are, the better that will turn out.

P.S. Oh hey, weird emails about child custody are already here!

It’s so tempting, especially when a child is involved, to want to fix everything and make it perfect. There are probably a lot of things that “should” be happening in this kid’s life, presumably if Grandma has custody then whatever was going on before was worse than it is now. Much like the police, social services are not The Manager that you call every time you want to avoid an awkward conversation with a neighbor.

Grandma probably does need to think harder about door locks when she takes a nap and engage some childcare help, but the Letter Writer can’t really make that happen and neither can we. Brainstorming all the possible ways that the Letter Writer can optimize the childcare and custody situation may feel good to you, like surely there must be more that someone can do, but sometimes having good boundaries requires disengaging from situations, i.e. “Hello, this is yours, thanks!” Calling a neighbor directly to collect her grandchild from your property, or returning the child to her caretaker when she wanders off, isn’t mean, rude, or neglectful of anyone, it’s actually the appropriate level of engagement for a helpful neighbor who isn’t the child’s babysitter, and it sends the “supervise her more” message pretty directly.