Q. I have a problem with two little boys who are near the age of our 6-year-old son. They keep coming to our doorstep, asking if our son can come out to play.
I guess life is a lot less structured on their side of the fence. The father and the grandparents are rearing these boys — their mother is out of the picture — and they work long hours. They rarely come over to check on their boys and they don’t even ask if it’s okay for them to play at our house. While I’m glad my son has some playmates and that they have unstructured playtime together, I really don’t like to watch two extra kids every day or think that people are taking advantage of me.
On the weekends, the boys come over almost as soon as they get out of bed. If we have been out and about, they’re here within minutes of our return and if we ask them to leave because we’re about to have dinner, they come back 15 minutes later. Sometimes they even play on our porch while we’re still at the table or they knock at our door when my boy isn’t home and then ask me when he’ll be back.
How can I set some boundaries for these round-the-clock playmates?
A. You might try hanging a cardboard sign in the window, much like the one your great-grandmother used to hang up for the iceman 100 years ago.
It was a square red sign, about a foot across, with a hole in each corner and a number next to each hole: 25, 50, 75 or 100. When the lady of the house knew how much ice she would need that day, she hung this sign in her window, and then the iceman would know whether to put 25, 50, 75 or 100 pounds of ice in her icebox, depending on which number was at the top of the sign.
If you make a red sign for your young neighbors, they’ll soon understand that every family has slightly different rules and that your family, for instance, would rather invite friends to visit them than to have them pop in and out of your house.
To help the boys remember this preference — and to save you from answering so many knocks and giving so many nags — ask them to help you cut an iceman’s sign for your window and poke a hole in each corner. Under each hole write “Welcome” or “Come Back in an Hour” or “Not Today” or “Family Time.” Then tell your constant visitors that you’ll hang this sign in the window. If the top of it says “Come Back in an Hour,” it probably means that you or your son is resting. If “Not Today” is on top, you may be running errands or cooking for company. But if “Family Time” is on top, it means that the family is playing a board game or watching a movie, because sometimes the three of you like to be together, but alone.
If the top of the sign says “Welcome,” the boys should feel free to knock on your door. Please hang out as many Welcomes as you possibly can. It would be churlish to turn these children away too often. Your home, after all, is their haven, their heaven: the place where they’d like to belong. They’re not only looking for a playmate but a chance to bask in your kindness, to feel your steadying influence and to be with at least one adult who has time for them and who cares what they think.
To underscore this point, you might also ask these boys to come over for dinner once a week so they can tell you what they’re doing (and why) and when school starts, ask them to drop by every Friday so they can show you the homework they did and the A’s they got that week and to hear all those good things the teacher said about their work. This will give them the stuffing they need to get through their bad days and to enjoy the good ones even more.
Some people give time or money to their church or their temple. Some help out at the food bank. And some guide little children who might otherwise get lost.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.