The Competent Parent: Unruly Neighbors


Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Unruly Neighbors

Dear Dr. Debbie,


We live in a small community where everyone knows everyone. This is usually a good thing, except there is a family down the block whose kids are holy terrors. They are disrespectful to me, didn’t share (the one time they came over to play), and tend to boss my kids. The mom has also said she doles out spankings. I really don’t want them over and don’t want my kids over there. How do I deal with this in this small neighborhood where we will still see each other and need to get along?

Good Fences

Dear Good Fences,

Referencing the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors” in his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wondered what was he walling in or walling out by shoring up the fence between him and his neighbor.

Before you close off a relationship between your and the neighbor’s family, let’s see if we can’t improve the chances of everyone’s getting along. A tight community can reach across fences to strengthen its members’ deficits. It appears there is a family in your midst that is in need of support—some of which can be provided by neighbors. Other support can come from external resources.

Here is the deficit. The “holy terrors” do not have adequate social skills to be welcome among the neighbors. Outside their own household the deficit is observed in the children’s rudeness to you and refusal to share with other children. Imagine how stressful the home environment must be. The mother either believes that spanking is an appropriate response to their undesirable behaviors, or she is at her wits end and resorts to a physical expression of exasperation. As you seem to know, spanking usually correlates with aggressive behavior in children, whether by cause or effect.

The cure for the deficit can, in part, be provided by nurturing families. In some communities this occurs naturally, with children from not-so-nurturing homes being attracted to and welcomed by families with abundant nurturing. Two or more nurturing adults might conspire to provide the needs going unmet in neighbor children. There is discussion and planning, to be sure the otherwise neglected/abused children are being adequately cared for. Each child may become an honorary member of a different family with a buddy close in age. The child is included for meals, chores, and outings, and during all the time he is “in” your family, he is benefiting from the modeling and standards you set for how to treat others. You probably know some appreciative adults who can testify that the kindness of the neighbors was the saving factor of their dysfunctional childhood.

Beyond the neighborhood, there are systems of support for families through faith-based institutions, non-profit organizations, private professional services, and government agencies. What role can you play in hooking the family up with what they may need to lower the stress at home, address children’s underlying issues, and/or improve Mom’s bag of parenting tools? If your children attend the same school, your concern could be expressed to an appropriate staff person there. He or she would then help lead the family toward the changes they need to make.

Be a good neighbor.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. 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]