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Dear Care and Feeding,
Is there a polite way to tell a neighbor you don’t want your kids to have play dates? We are two queer women with a preschool-age son. We moved to a new neighborhood in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. Our neighbors on one side are a man and woman (let’s call them Bonnie and Clyde) with a son who is close in age to ours. While the neighborhood overall seems fairly friendly and safe, we have personally experienced and also have been told by other neighbors about incidents related to Clyde’s bad/disruptive behavior (e.g., racing cars and motorcycles at unsafe speed up and down the block, yelling at other neighbors to “come out and fight him,” etc.). It appears that Clyde is involved in some kind of unlawful activity: He was taken into custody by U.S. Marshals a few weeks ago (though he is now back at home). Bonnie’s behavior isn’t as extreme as Clyde’s, but it can be disruptive as well. And recently the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services has come by asking about the safety of Bonnie and Clyde’s son.
Bonnie noticed pretty much as soon as we moved in that our sons are close in age and on more than one occasion has suggested a play date. My general policy with neighbors is to “keep it cordial” but not become overly involved. So the first few times she asked (before we were aware of everything described above), I answered with a noncommittal, “Yeah, maybe sometime.” Of course I feel bad for their little boy—his parents’ bad behavior is not his fault—but now that we have a fuller picture of the situation next door, we’re feeling fearful of Clyde and want to keep as much distance as possible from the family. They have lived here for many years and we plan to live here for the foreseeable future, so I imagine suggestions that our sons play together will keep coming up. I’m wondering what the best way to handle this situation is. Do I continue with my “Yeah, maybe sometime” line for the foreseeable future, or is there a polite way for me to respectfully communicate that we aren’t interested in play dates or any type of closer relationship with them?
—Boundaries are Beautiful
No, there is no polite way to do that. If you didn’t live next door, I might suggest otherwise, but vague avoidance is the best policy here. This should at least get you through this period of the children being young enough for arranged play dates to be necessary. But that isn’t likely to last much longer: A time is likely to come when they’ll discover each other on their own, and you will have to make some hard choices if the kids take a liking to each other, especially if your son falls hard for the very conveniently located kid his own age next door. (As you probably know, it’s pretty common for kids who live very close to each other to become close; for kids, proximity often equals friendship.)
It is awful to punish a child for their parents’ crimes (or noncriminal misbehavior), as you concede. You may decide that you’re OK with the kids playing at your house—or outdoors—but to firmly hold the line at your son playing at Bonnie and Clyde’s. When my daughter was in elementary school, she had a couple of friends she adored whose homes I didn’t feel great about allowing her to play in—so I didn’t let her, and instead had the kid over to our place, or I took the kids, together, to a playground myself. I’m not saying you have to do that—and of course it’s possible the kids won’t hit it off and this will never come up—but I think you are going to have to face the fact that once children are in the picture, immediate neighbors who have kids sometimes do become a part of our lives, even when they aren’t people we want to associate with.
And who knows? You might be a godsend for Bonnie and Clyde’s kid. In any case, if you are going to be their next-door neighbor for many years to come, your child and theirs will be growing up alongside each other. And at some point—say, a dozen years from now?—you will have little to no control over your kid’s choice of friends. So be prepared.
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