Care and Feeding

My Neighbor Constantly Screams at Her Kids. Should I Confront Her?

Everyone in our apartment complex is a chicken, but I want to help these kids.

Photo illustration of a woman wearing glasses and looking very frustrated while sitting on a couch.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I live in a small building—26 units—with some young families and other singles. It’s an expensive building, as is most every place in L.A. We mostly get along very well—except for a family with two small children, a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. They live across the courtyard from me and the children are always crying and screaming; the mother is always yelling at them, inside their apartment and elsewhere. My next-door neighbor hears the worst of it: The other day, the mother put the girl outside the door and closed it because the child was screaming! She screamed louder! Then the mother took her inside and put her in her room and slammed the door and the child screamed some more. I don’t hear any of it; my neighbor shares a wall, so she does.

The neighbors who know about this hate what’s happening but don’t want to get involved; I think someone has to step up to help these children from being mistreated! I’ve had family members who were terribly abused and know lots of people who were abused as children, as well. As adults, they have said if only someone had said something when they were growing up, how different their lives may have been! 

The father travels a lot for business and isn’t home a lot. He’s pretty passive, from what I can see. The mother is the screamer and he tries to calm her down. She doesn’t talk to anyone in the building and is an awful driver, too. She’s always on her cellphone—surprise!—even when the kids stuck their heads through the garage gate and almost got beheaded when another neighbor was pulling into the garage! We’re hoping the family moves out when their lease expires, but that won’t end the abuse/mistreatment.

Everyone else is a big fat chicken and I want to help the kids.

Thank you.

—Nosy Neighbor?

Dear NN,

It is my duty to inform you that while abuse is terrible, there is an alternate explanation for everything in this letter. It’s called Being a Parent of Little Kids When Your Co-Parent Is Never Around. Here’s something you may not know about kids: They scream like they are being abused and mistreated even when they’re not being abused or mistreated. Four-year-olds tantrum, and they can tantrum for a very long time over anything, including and not limited to: not having the right cup, being forced into the snowman pajamas because the lion pajamas are dirty, the end of dinner, the beginning of dinner. A television show. A headache. A nap. No nap. Nail clippers. A magnet. Just, like, a tree. Once my kid threw an entire tantrum over a tree.

Mom closing the door on the 4-year-old sounds like a low moment in parenting but doesn’t necessarily require the introduction of CPS. Mom yelling at the children is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination but also does not require CPS. Living in an “expensive” building doesn’t mean that you don’t have to hear kids screaming, or witness the lives of other people. If there are kids around there is going to be screaming, both the happy and the sad variety.

What I’m hearing here is a story about a mom who needs help rather than one about children who need county intervention, or for their housing to be threatened in a city where finding housing as a family is nearly impossible. If I were in your position, that would at least be my first operating hypothesis. I know that what you’re hearing makes you uncomfortable, but be careful not to interpret your discomfort as evidence of another person’s bad action. That’s a good way to cause a great deal of unintentional harm.

If you genuinely care about the kids, you should get to know the family. You mention that she “doesn’t talk to anyone in the building.” But would you talk to people in a building if you were a bedraggled and exhausted mother of two toddlers at the most tantrum-y ages, and all your neighbors were single childless people who talked about you behind your back? If I were her, I would spend a lot of time on my phone too, probably texting with mom friends or people who can understand. So maybe get to know the kids. Make small talk with them, and with the mom if you can. Ask her how she’s doing. Bring her some cookies. You know, be a neighbor. This way you can find out if there is more going on that you need to be concerned about. But you may find out that what you’re really looking at is a nuclear family no better or worse than any other.

I’m not ruling out that there may be a problem, but I am suggesting that you may need to take a few deep breaths before knowing what it is and how you can be the most helpful.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are finally at the point, emotionally and financially, to think seriously about having kids. To us it seems ideal to have one kid, but are we dooming this kid to the only child curse?

On the one hand, we have several friends who grew up as only children, and they are great people, but they have expressed frustration at not having any siblings, mostly because of loneliness as a child and caring for aging parents. On the other hand, my own siblings have been a big source of frustration and pain over the years.

We have finally just established our careers in our 30s, and I worry about being able to retire, at some point; having one kid instead of two or more would make a big difference. Maybe we are being overly cautious and selling ourselves short, but we think we are prepared, emotionally and financially, to have one kid, and we feel less confident when we imagine having more.

—One and Done?

Dear O&D,

I am delighted to inform you that you should have exactly the amount of kids you would like to have. There is no universally better way to grow up. Being an only child sucks in some ways. Being a sibling sucks in other ways. Forget what people wish they had. I wish my parents had gotten rich and famous and raised me in a mansion with a steam train that I could ride around inside the house. But they didn’t, and I’ve managed to have a perfectly fine life anyway. And I’m sure your only child will manage to live a perfectly fine life also.

I hereby declare you free to do whatever you want. Now go forth, be tolerably fruitful, and multiply only to the precise extent to which you are comfortable.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Over Thanksgiving, we visited lots of relatives, and that involves a lot of relatives offering hugs for my toddler. I mentioned a few times to my 3-year-old that it’s his body and he can hug or not hug whoever—his choice. I told this to him again when my mom (Grammie) was going to blow a raspberry on his tummy.

Next day, I get an outraged call from her telling me how hurtful I am, how she feels I’m critical of everything she says to him, that I was accusing her of being a molester, etc.

So I totally see how telling a 3-year-old in the middle of a fun interaction that he can decline a physical interaction can be weird. But I’m struggling with how to address bodily autonomy (like, he should feel comfortable setting boundaries for anyone, Grammie included) without hurting feelings.

Also, I wish my mom could handle misunderstandings without hurting MY feelings, but that’s like an additional 10,000 words chronicling 36 years of slights.

—His Body His Choice?

Dear HBHC,

Oh, buddy.

I can see what you were trying to do, and it’s really great. But I think you know now that your approach was a little clumsy. My guess is that it has to do with one key factor, which is that Grandma is not a predator. She’s just a raspberry-giver.

It’s absolutely right to teach your kids about boundaries and body autonomy. That is and should be a conversation that goes on in small, lighthearted, and casual increments in all kinds of places and spaces. At dinner, at bedtime, during walks to the park, while watching TV. The one time it’s probably not ideal is in the middle of Grandma giving a raspberry, because she will think (and it’s not a ridiculous assumption) you are implying that she is someone your kid should be protecting himself from. And given all the complicated feelings that grandparents frequently have, it’s almost impossible for this not to touch a nerve.

So the only time you should take the step of intervening and telling your kid they can say no to someone who is standing right there is if you feel like that person in particular poses an immediate threat. And I don’t think, from your letter, that Grammie falls into that category.

Of course, you have issues with your mother. That’s called having a mother.
Wait until your toddler is grown up and writing to Care and Feeding, Space Edition from his Brainwave Emailer about how annoying you have been for his whole life. I think it would be helpful for you to take some time to listen to the issues she’s raising, issues about feeling left out and judged and at a loss as for how to interact with you. That’s got to be painful for her and very difficult. Sure, some the stuff she’s saying may be silly. But it’s highly unlikely that all of it is. Good luck.