Dear Dr. Debbie,

School is just out and already I feel resentment building for the neighbors who assume that since I’m home with my children (I’m a teacher) I am fair game for taking in theirs. My 5- and 8-year-old and I enjoy our friendships with these children, who are sometimes on their own all day.

Friends are welcome to walk with us to the community beach for the morning and to pull up a chair in our kitchen for lunch. A rainy afternoon might draw as many as eight children around our TV for a movie. Mostly, they are all great playmates and respect my rules for safety and civility, but I don’t appreciate the doorbell ringing at 7 a.m. So how do I nicely set some limits so my children and I can enjoy the freedom we have before school schedules reclaim our time?

(Too) Nice Neighbor

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Dear NN,

Your desire to be friendly but not be taken advantage of is commendable. You are clearly benefiting the families around you by providing that essential adult role of making sure the children are looked after. When parents are unavailable, or as sometimes is the case, clueless, this responsibility must be shared.

Spending time with friends is an essential part of childhood. That you live in a neighborhood where children are free to roam and gather indicates a sense of comfort that not every neighborhood has. The assumption naturally made is that your authority as a benevolent adult can suffice in the absence of a parent. That’s the neighborhood I remember from childhood.
It appears, however, that some of your neighbors assume that you are able and willing to provide unlimited coverage with no advance registration required.

Setting welcome signs

A good way to alert friends that you are not ready for visitors is to have a clear signal. For Halloween, you know to turn porch lights off to dissuade trick-or-treaters after your family has gone to bed. For a daytime message, keep the front curtains closed or turn the door mat over until such time as your family is ready for company. Explain the signal to your children so they can explain it to their playmates. The job of announcing that you are “Open for Business” can be shared by your children. If the day’s plans exclude their friends, the signal does not appear.

While it’s wonderful to bring a friend along for an outing, you can use a big kitchen calendar to clearly mark the trips that friends are welcome on (and work out arrangements with their parents for timing and lunches), and those that are just for you and your own children. Let the mat, curtains or calendar speak for you.

Keep parent contacts

Any child who enters your home or car becomes your legal responsibility. It’s best if you have a name and phone number, if not a working relationship with each friend’s legal guardian in case of trouble. Allergic reactions to foods or insect bites, for example, can appear out of nowhere. You have four minutes to unblock a swollen airway before brain damage can occur from a lack of oxygen. Swap cell phone numbers with the parents of any child who comes to play at your house and, as a requisite for letting them travel with you, even by foot, have that verbal okay. You should also enforce the rule that a child call his or her parents if they go inside a friend’s house so their parent is aware of where they are and under whose authority. Get on the line to introduce yourself if this is the first time a child has visited.

Village roles vary

There are advantages for everyone when the village raises the children, because adults are often occupied with other jobs to keep the village running. Those neighbor parents may be at the pharmacy, the auto repair shop, an accounting office or countless other worksites needed to weave together a community. Stay-at-home parents as well as those who work at day camps, recreation centers, the public library and other youth-serving community resources fill in nicely to provide supervision and a wide variety of enriching experiences. Likewise, be sure to avail yourself of your neighbors’ skills, expertise and borrowable tools when you need a helping hand. They may welcome the chance to be nice neighbors, too!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]