Care and Feeding

Free-Range Parenting or Neglect?

Our neighbors’ kids seem largely unparented and are a terrible influence on my kids. What should I do?

Photo illustration of an overwhelmed woman with a child running behind her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tagstock1/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Tharakorn/iStock/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,

There are two children that live across the street from us—aged 6 and 9ish—who have serious boundary issues and we don’t quite know how to deal with them. They walk into our house without knocking, ring the doorbell during the day when my husband is sleeping, ask us for food and drinks (or just help themselves without asking), and ask my kids to give them their toys or money. We are very firm with them, always telling them, “This is not your house; you have to knock,” or “You can’t have our dinner,” or “No, you absolutely cannot have my son’s bike.” We are firm, but they are willful and resistant, often ignoring us when we tell them to leave, trying to grab food from the counter, rooting through my son’s toy box while my son is telling them to stop, trying to grab coins out of our change tray, etc. It’s a constant battle.

The older sister frequently asks my husband if she can spend the night, and we once caught her trying to show our sons (who are 4 and 6) a pornographic video. That is why we don’t allow them in our house (and we don’t ever allow our kids in their house). I told her mother about the incident immediately, but she seemed to think I was lying and implied that my son pulled up the video, even though we saw her do it. These kids are largely unparented; they wander the neighborhood by themselves all day, every day. Once their mother came to my house asking if we’d seen her kids, whom she hadn’t seen in about six hours. Then she acted like we were hiding them, trying to walk past my husband into the house to see for herself, even though our kids were in day care at the time.

The problem is that these kids are friends with my sons. They play together all the time. They are sometimes mean, which doesn’t cause me a lot of concern—they’re kids, it happens—and get into a lot of trouble in class. The girl is already in an alternative school for children with problem behavior, and our son starts acting up when he spends too much time with them.
Initially we tried forbidding him from playing with them, but they walk to school together, they are in the same class together, and they literally live ACROSS THE STREET. There’s no way of avoiding this family short of moving away, and when we attempted to prohibit any contact with them, our son started lying to us because he didn’t want to get in trouble.

Ultimately, I know none of this is the children’s fault. They’re very young and unparented, and maybe if I were a better person I’d step up and try to be a role model for them, but I have three kids of my own (including a baby) and a full-time job, and I have neither the energy nor the inclination to take these two under my wing, especially after the pornography incident. Do you have any advice?

—No Room at the Inn

Dear NRatI,

From what you describe, these kids could be at great risk of harm, whether they enter the home of a startled, armed homeowner or a pedophile, or are struck by an inattentive motorist. Whatever is going on with Mom, it sounds like perhaps she is incapable of and/or disinterested in parenting her children. Something has to give before one of these children dies.

What exactly do you know about this family? Is there an illness or addiction issue that the mother is dealing with? Do the kids appear clean, fed, or cared for? Is this how they move about the neighborhood during the school year, or are they without a place to go for the summer? The fact that the kids run loose makes me suspect that they are a long-time fixture in the area; is there an aunt, grandparent, anyone else that has a direct connection to them or their mother who may be able to help?

“Unparented” is quite a serious charge and if, in fact, that is the case, then you may need to take these issues up with child protective services. This is a drastic measure, but you are implying that these kids are roaming the streets like homeless puppies searching for food and attention. First, speak to other community members and staff at the school to figure out if there’s been any sort of intervention already, or if there are folks who are able to provide some support for the family if it seems that the mother could take better care of the kids with some assistance.

You need to be clear: Are these annoying kids with bad manners, or are they truly left to fend for themselves? Subjecting children to interactions with the system is something I’d typically want to avoid at all costs, but these kids are roaming the neighborhood freely and walking into people’s homes without permission to demand food and cash. Pardon me, but what the entire fuck? My head is spinning. Those poor little babies.

As to how to address these kids when they’re with your children or in your home: Continue to be firm and direct, but sympathetic and kind. Keep your front door locked, so that they must knock, and try your best to establish some boundaries. They are a pain, but they are also children in need. Think of what you’d want for your own kids if, God forbid, some sort of tragedy befell your own family, and they were left without competent, attentive parents.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a recent college graduate with a 3-year-old half-sister, “Alice,” who is brilliant and hilarious but going through an absolutely terrible phase. Her mom, my wonderful stepmother, was recently diagnosed with a chronic illness that gives her severe fatigue, so care for Alice has fallen entirely on my dad, who is at work all day (she’s in day care, so here we’re talking about mornings, evenings, and weekends).

I’m staying with them for six weeks over the summer to help, but we’re running into a lot of roadblocks, primarily with regard to how Alice reacts when things do not go her way. For instance, if she wants my dad and I to wait by the door while she rides her scooter to the elevator, we have to stay there. If we take one step forward, she falls to the ground and starts to scream and cry. Same goes for if she doesn’t want me to sit next to her, or if she doesn’t want that ring to play with, she wants another one, or she wants to take all her clothes off right this second or else. If my stepmom is carrying her (and visibly tired) and I ask Alice if she’s OK with me carrying her instead, the answer is a very emphatic, sobbing “no.” Our options are give in to her demands or leave her where she is (a parking lot, the garage, the apartment, the car) alone. Also, if we try to pick her up and move her, she will hit and kick, which she is not allowed to do and which hurts, if she manages to do it. It’s exhausting and disheartening for everyone. Obviously it’s not my place to parent her on my dad and stepmom’s behalf, but how can I help them out as she goes through this difficult phase? Apparently this has only been happening for a couple of weeks. What is the best way to approach a threenager who refuses to be bargained or compromised with?

—Trying to Help

Dear TtH,

For the life of me, I can’t understand why “the terrible twos” is a widely recognized phenomenon, but you don’t hear much about three outside of child development books, mommy blogs, and chats with parents. Especially considering that 3 is SO MUCH WORSE than 2. Three is the Donald Trump to 2’s George W. Bush; both of them are hell, but one of them is certainly cuddlier.

There’s nothing that can be done to totally change Alice’s behavior, because she is 3, and 3-year olds are absolutely horrible a good percentage of the time. Also, this particular threenager is dealing with (at least) a couple of highly stressful environmental changes: Her mother is ill, her primary caregiver has changed, and you’ve returned home for an extended period of time. She requires an extra helping of grace and understanding.

Do your best to create rituals and stability in her life. Help your dad establish consistent routines for bedtime and breakfast. Create ways for her to spend significant bonding time with her mother that is as relaxing and devoid of physical exertion as possible. Take on some of the things her mom can’t do, such as taking her to the playground or picking her up for giant hugs and piggyback rides. Avoid yelling at her and be as patient as possible during her tantrums. Speak to her like she’s a reasonable person, even when she isn’t behaving like one. Don’t reward her misbehavior (i.e., bribing her with a special dessert if she’ll calm down) and correct it firmly and lovingly when it happens, but understand that this rough stage is a big part of growing up and one that most children go through.

Also, there’s no such thing as a “half-sister.” Alice is your little sister, period. She needs you right now, as do your dad and stepmother, and it sounds like you’re stepping up in a major way in order to be there for them. Be patient and forgiving, not just with Alice, but with yourself as well.

• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 4 years old and still plays with my nipples. Every morning he climbs into bed with us and grabs my nipples. I breastfed both of my sons until they self-weaned at around a year and a half old, and as I am currently pregnant with my third little boy,

I intend to do the same with him. In this context, I do not view my breasts as sexual objects, nor do I want my male children to view women’s bodies as sexual objects. Over the years, I’ve been groped, grabbed, and even raped. I don’t want my sons to grow up to be the type of person who views women’s bodies as objects for their taking.

This all makes my husband incredibly uncomfortable, and he feels like my son is engaging in some major boundary crossing. I do not want him to feel that way, and I also don’t want my sons to grow into boob-crazed maniacs. My 4-year-old actually did try to covertly grab my mother-in-law’s boobs last time she was visiting. She promptly said that that was not something children did and shooed his hand away. He stopped immediately and moved on. What should I do?

—Boobs Are Just Boobs

Dear BAJB,

It seems like your MIL gave you a pretty big hint when she addressed the inappropriate behavior as it happened. Being firm with your son and letting him know that his time with your nipples ended when he stopped breastfeeding isn’t an act of cruelty that will send him down a path of breast obsession or virulent misogyny. It’s time that you establish a boundary here.

He may be missing the ritual of nursing or craving the intense connection he felt between the two of you that he enjoyed during that time period, especially as there’s yet another younger sibling coming who will get to have that with you in the near future. Let him know that you love to be touched by him in other ways and though you can’t breastfeed him anymore, you can still cuddle him and hold him close to your heart. But do not allow this nipple grabbing to happen for even one more day. You don’t want him to feel entitled to women’s bodies, so you’ve got to nip his entitlement to your body in the bud. He’ll get over it, Mama!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 3½-year-old has an imaginary friend, let’s call her “Olivia.” She’s been through lots of metamorphoses in the nine months or so that she’s been with us, but now she seems to pretty consistently be an older teenager or young adult. My son brings her up pretty frequently, often to connect himself to the subject of conversations (i.e., “Oh, Olivia and I did that last week”) though he doesn’t usually act like she’s physically around. However, he does try to use her to his advantage; for example, if we’re out and about and I want him to use a public bathroom, he’ll say, “No, Olivia lives pretty close to here, so I can just use her bathroom when we walk past her house,” or he’ll tell me Olivia already gave him a bath when it’s time for him to get cleaned up.

My concern is about where to draw the line on playing along when it comes to safety. We’ve recently had him begin learning our cellphone numbers after a scary incident that involved getting separated in the park. Whenever we practice the cell number song, he wants to add Olivia’s number, which of course never has seven digits and always changes (though I do think we have him pretty well convinced that he needs to offer Mom’s and Dad’s phone numbers first in case of an emergency).

Recently, we were on a walk when he stopped in a driveway and turned around to tell me something. My mother had to grab him out of the way of a truck backing out. We talk all the time about not stopping in driveways or going in the street without a grown-up because he’s too little for drivers to be able to see. He says, “Oh, it’s OK, because Olivia was standing next to me.” I said that if I can’t see Olivia neither can drivers, and he must always be with an adult who is visible to other adults, and he seemed to take that under consideration. I’m totally fine playing along with Olivia’s existence, but I’m a little concerned that in an emergency he might try to rely on her for help. Is this concern overblown? When it comes down to it 3½-year-olds know the difference between real and imaginary people, right?

—Can’t See the Solution

Dear CStS,

When I was between the ages of 3 and 5, I had a few imaginary friends that would rotate in and out of my life after a few months of companionship. The one that I remember most is Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters II, who was portrayed by a then 35-year-old Bill Murray. I didn’t find him attractive, nor did he remind me of my father or anyone else. I just thought he was hilarious, and I suppose I wanted that sort of energy around me.

I offer that for little other reason than to hopefully make you feel just slightly better by making it plain that “Olivia” is hardly the strangest figment of a young child’s imagination—though it does seem that you’re doing a great job of allowing your little one to enjoy this fantasy friendship without judgment or policing.

Most small children have an imaginary playmate of some sort, with eldest siblings and only children being most likely to dream up such a companion. As this fascinating read from the Globe and Mail points out, while experts once believed these relationships to be the mark of a lonely introvert, there is now research that suggests that kids who have them may be more creative and imaginative.

That creativity and imagination is likely at hand when your son claims that Olivia has his back when he’s not been mindful of his surroundings, or when he explains that she already washed and dressed him for bed. That’s part of the game: She’s his get-out-of-jail-free card. No need to chastise me, Mother Dear—Olivia is already on this! If he were experiencing some sort of delusions regarding his buddy’s existence, they’d show up far more frequently and not just when he thinks he can get out of something (or, in the case of the phone number memorization, when he knows he can get under your skin a little bit).

However, there’s nothing wrong with constantly reminding him of Olivia’s limitations and setting some boundaries about how she exists in your shared world. “If I ask you to do something, ‘Olivia already did that’ is an unacceptable answer.” “When we are talking about your safety, we are not talking about Olivia. Only you can see her, so there isn’t any way that she can protect you when you’re in danger.” Make it clear that homegirl is welcome in your home as long as she—and your son—respect the rules that you’ve made for her presence. You wouldn’t allow him to bring around a human buddy who constantly went against your wishes or served as a partner-in-crime when your kid misbehaves, so let him know that Olivia is subject to the same standard. If he doesn’t want you to get out the proton pack and make her split, then he’ll likely adjust … and even if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t worry about him being out-of-touch with reality until he starts bringing Olivia into all of his human interactions or holds on to her after he’s turned 5. She’ll likely join Invisible Peter Venkman in the Imaginary Friend wing of Shady Pines before he finishes pre-K. Good luck!


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