Care and Feeding

A Gang of Neighborhood Kids Is Holding Me Hostage in My Own Home

They love visiting my puppy, but I really need them to get off my lawn!

A dog sits behind a picket fence.
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? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 30-year-old woman with no kids, and I honestly don’t have a lot of experience with children. I’ve never been “good” with them. Recently, my husband and I moved out of the city and into a more suburban neighborhood … where there are a lot of children. We have a small, gated front yard and a very cute puppy that I obviously have to take outside multiple times a day to go to the bathroom. The problem is the kids in my neighborhood have taken quite a liking to my dog and often run over whenever I bring him out. On top of this, they hop over my fence and into my yard to play with my dog without asking. My dog has some aggression issues and so I am always out there with him—but I feel like this is really pushing some boundaries for me.

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I work from home and I really don’t have the time/knowledge/energy to make sure a bunch of kids who are in my yard are safe, and it causes me quite a bit of stress. I’d also like to be able to do other things with my time than babysit a bunch of children in my yard. They even ring my doorbell when I am not outside and ask to play with my dog—which often interrupts me when I am in the middle of something else. I am not sure how normal this is for children to behave this way, but it can get quite annoying, and it is making me feel like I can’t bring my dog outside to go to the bathroom without starting an entire fiasco. How can I make this stop? Should I talk to the children? Their parents? Move?! Help please!

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—Puppy Problems

Dear Puppy Problems,

I love a neighborhood gang of kids. I do not love this scenario, where you are a hostage in your own home. I don’t know how old these children are, but it seems like they must be at least in the 6 or 7 range, since they’re running in a parentless 1970s-style pack like this. If that’s the case, can you try talking to them directly first? It might feel hard to do, since this intrusion has become a habit, but you could address the two things (fence hopping, doorbell ringing) in two separate ways.

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To stop the hopping, you could tell them that you are working with an obedience specialist to train your dog, and that this trainer has said that having a bunch of people around makes the training hard to do, and so they need to stop coming into the yard when you two are there. That way you have referred the problem outward to another, unknown authority, and you don’t have to sound as “mean”—though, to be clear, I don’t think this request is unreasonable!

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When it comes to ringing the doorbell, you may have to just own it and ask them not to ring, because it’s messing up your ability to work. As children of COVID, they may understand the etiquette of Zoom a bit better than you’d think.

All of this hopeful advice assumes you are dealing with children who are reasonable and will respond to boundaries when they’re set. If you say all this to them twice or three times and they still come back, then you should talk to their parents. I’d be mortified to know that my child was bugging a neighbor like this, and I’d want to fix it! Hopefully your neighbors are like me. One additional consideration is that your puppy will—time marching forward in its inexorable groove—grow up, become less cute (relatively!), and lose some of his pull as an attractive nuisance. That’s on your side, at least!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 4-year-old son “Charlie” is very vocal and adamant about the fact that he only likes me and not my husband. I know that children go through phases about preferring one parent over the other, but he has been consistent in his preference since birth. And the thing is … I kind of see his point. More than anything, I want them to connect and have a good relationship, but I feel like when I try to help make that happen, I just end up micromanaging their interactions.

Charlie has a very big energy, is very intense in the way he expresses both positive and negative emotions, is stubborn as hell, and is just generally A LOT. Maybe it’s because Charlie and I share a similar intensity along with some other personality traits, but on the whole, I am usually pretty decent at anticipating how he will respond to situations, and I modify my approach accordingly. On the other hand, my husband is much more low-key, and when he gives a direction or enforces a completely reasonable boundary (“It’s time to get in the car and drive to school,” “No, you may not have a bowl of ice cream now because we’re eating dinner in 10 minutes,” etc.), their interaction ends with Charlie having a tantrum with screaming and tears. My husband isn’t unkind or harsh, and he tries to do all the good parenting stuff like showing empathy and understanding toward Charlie and his feelings and collaborating with Charlie on ways to solve the issue, but he never seems to say quite the right thing.

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It’s so frustrating for my husband to feel like he can never quite get a handle on how to interact with Charlie, and it’s frustrating for me to watch, because while I feel like I could probably think of a better way to approach a situation, I just want them to figure this out on their own. Plus, it becomes a cycle because then Charlie only wants to do activities with me. My husband and I both love Charlie for all that he is, but I am worried that their inability to get on the same level now will just get worse as Charlie gets older. We also have a 7-year-old who is less demonstrative and has a personality more similar to my husband’s, and the two of them share a much more organic relationship that was never quite like this. I know it’s not really up to me, but is there anything I can do help them figure out their relationship? Should I step in more to help my husband out? What happens if they never get on the same page?

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—Parenting a Spirited Kid

Dear Spirited Kid,

You say the right things, like you want them to figure it out on their own, and you know it’s not up to you, but then you wonder if there’s anything you can do. The answer: Get out of the house, whenever that is possible, and leave it alone. Take your 7-year-old somewhere, and leave Charlie and your husband to muddle along. I wouldn’t advocate this, necessarily, if your husband was reacting to Charlie’s intensity with authoritarian demands to Obey Your Parent, This Minute!!! (That would do no good at all, as I know you know.) But he seems to have a grip on the basics—empathy, collaboration—even if he hasn’t quite found his voice with Charlie yet.

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I sense, from reading your answer, that perhaps you’ve read your Raising Your Spirited Child and The Explosive Child—has your husband? If he hasn’t, would he be willing to? He might get some strategies there. But it seems like what he needs most is practice, away from your supervision, at being in charge of Charlie.

This will have a few advantages that will compound as time goes on. When it comes to your husband’s handling of the routine requests (like “time to get in the car”) that might end in a tantrum, you won’t have to see what happens—so you will be spared wondering if you should intervene, stressing about it later, and so on. As for the fun stuff, if you are not available to do those activities that Charlie prefers to do with you, then he and your husband will have to figure out their own dynamic—one that can grow by itself, organically, as you say.

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One more thing: Someone once said to me that I should “parent the child in front of me,” rather than worrying so much about how some practice or choice might result in an undesirable outcome at age 10, 20, or 30. If you can bring yourself to apply this advice to your own perceptions of your husband’s relationship with Charlie, and stop catastrophizing about what might happen between them down the road, I think you might be happier, and the atmosphere of your home might lighten up, just a little.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 11-month-old won’t stop throwing food on the floor at mealtimes. He has always been a fussy eater: He had a tough time staying still long enough to breastfeed for more than four months, and he struggled to finish bottles of formula because he was more interested in moving and looking around. Solids have generally been easier and more interesting for him, especially now that he’s able to eat finger foods. But he’s in a phase of flinging his food everywhere instead of eating it. Sometimes it seems like he throws food as a cue that he’s full, but other times he throws food after one or no bites at all. I’m just worried that he is not eating enough, as he has always been slightly underweight. Sweeping up scattered pieces of food is getting old and depressing, and it’s making me feel like I’m doing something wrong here and fundamentally misunderstanding my child. How can I make sure the food I prepare for him actually makes its way into his mouth?

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—Brought a Wipe to a Food Fight

Dear Brought a Wipe,

I remember this phase, where I wondered how in the world my child would ever be able to eat without requiring a bib with a bucket at the bottom and an aggressive post-meal wipe-down of her face and arms. The advice that worked for me came out of Ellyn Satter’s “division of responsibility” paradigm. There’s a lot more on that here, but basically Satter teaches that you, as the parent, control when the food is given and what’s served, but you cannot control whether they eat and how much.

Satter-aligned dietitians (here’s one) will say that food-throwing in older babies and toddlers, which is normal (if extremely annoying), should be handled in the following way: Explain to him before eating starts that food needs to stay on the table or on the highchair tray. (I know, he’s only 11 months old, but I swear they understand more than we think!) Then, when he first throws food, give one warning: “I see you’re throwing food. If you throw again, I’ll know you’re done!” Then, if he throws again, clear away the food. You have to do it in a nice way, not punitively, because this shouldn’t become a power struggle. Take the juice out of it, but be very consistent. This (plus just the simple fact of getting older and more civilized) is how my child learned.

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I predict you may have trouble with this advice, because you say you are worried about how much he eats. Toddlers eat more inconsistently, and sometimes less, than babies, so this thing where he sometimes tries only one bite per meal may be your new reality. Is your pediatrician concerned? If they’re not, then your job is to squash down the part of your mind that insists that “getting him” to eat is your responsibility. Trying to “get” a kid to eat leads to all kinds of shenanigans, and cleaning up thrown food five times a day will only be the beginning! The more you can do to change your mindset now, the better.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My brother and SIL are expecting their first child. It’s the first baby in our family, and we are all thrilled! My question is: Do you have any recommendations for baby clothes shops that are ethical, sustainable, and cute? I don’t really have a familiarity with baby shopping, and I’m finding all the mommy blogs to be a bit overwhelming to find good information (mostly it seems like they promote their friends, which I get, but I would like a nonbiased opinion). Also, how much is too much? And how much should I buy in each size? I don’t want to give them just newborn clothes because babies grow out of them so fast (depending on the baby, I suppose!). I don’t have any friends with babies, so I’m in unfamiliar territory.

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—Aunt to Be!

Dear Aunt to Be,

This is a fun one! Let’s see. The old favorite Hanna Andersson is the best when it comes to styling (bright, cute prints), uses organic cotton (and has for years), makes hardy clothes that really can be handed down from kid to kid, and has a ton of sales. Primary, a relative newcomer with a multifaceted sustainability plan, makes nice basics and has recently branched out from selling mostly solid-colored pieces into stripes, rainbows, stars, and the like (they also try hard to be gender-neutral in styling and look, which is nice). Pact, a clothing company you may have seen in your Instagram feed, has some of the more inexpensive organic options for kids basics. We were given a few onesies and rompers from the brand KicKee Pants, which makes its clothes from organic bamboo. They are super soft and nice—we pulled them out of the box and went “ohhhhh, feel this!”—and pricey enough to be something it’s nice to get as a gift, rather than pay for yourself.

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As for sizes and how much to buy, I will say that the first year of a baby’s life—in my experience and the experience of my friends—is FULL of little clothes. Managing my baby’s drawers between the ages of 0 and 18 months felt like a part-time job, between her fast growth and all the gifts and hand-me-downs we got. I didn’t go so far as to do the math on which size she’d be using in which season, so some of the cute things I registered for I used only a few times. (When I realized it was too hot for this cute bear fleece, and by the time it got cold again, she’d be too big? The sadness!) Then, as she got older and slowed down in growth, we stopped getting as many gifts, and the hand-me-downs went from a river to a stream—because nobody else’s older kids have as many clothes in their drawers either. Around age 2, I started having to buy things for her myself.

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All of which is to say that there’s an imbalance here: Clothes purchased for an infant may be less useful, over a child’s life, than clothes purchased later on for an older kid. But most people would rather buy the infant stuff, since you can see pictures of the lil’ baby in it right away—and the stuff is so gosh-darn cute it’s understandable! But as an eager aunt with cash to burn on this fortunate nibling, you may consider the idea of buying a few pieces in a baby size, a few things in size 12–18 months, a few in 18–24, and so on. Just do the math on the seasons, unlike poor me.

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—Rebecca

More Advice From Slate

I have been with my partner for just about a year now, and she is truly lovely. She is a very loving, patient, considerate partner, with one caveat: She is a freelancer and her job always trumps any long-term plans we have. For example, we have planned to take several trips together and she has bailed on half of them because of her work. In theory this is understandable, but I think it’s the fact that she assumes my schedule is just as flexible and carefree as hers. It’s not, so when our vacations together get canceled at the last minute, it hurts my feelings and also leaves me without a much-needed vacation. This problem bleeds into other elements of our life together also when it comes to making longer-term plans around moving and/or planning for the future. She just doesn’t seem to be capable of being “pinned down,” if you will. Her free-spirit attitude is largely why I love her, but am I being ridiculous feeling like I’d like to be considered?

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