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My neighbours won't control their brat - what do I do?

The question

Now that spring is upon us, the kids on the street - most between 5 and 7 - are coming out to play. One of our neighbours never takes a turn supervising. And their kid has behaviour-management issues, to put it politely. Last summer, he broke another kid's toy at the park and refused to own up to it, even though I told him he wasn't in any trouble. He finally said, in a tone that sounded creepily practised, "It was an accident." Then, on the way home, he threw a rock at me, hitting me in the chin. Again, he said, "It was an accident." My wife talked me out of telling his parents. But I've heard them say - as they sip cocktails on their porch - that they're so glad their kids are getting to an age when they can basically roam free. How do I approach them?

The answer

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First of all, I think you're being way too soft on this naughty little nipper.

I realize it's a ticklish transaction when it's someone else's kid in your care.

But this kid seems out of control. And when he is in your care, you are responsible not only for his well-being but his behaviour. You are in loco parentis, which IMHO authorizes you to exercise a certain measure of authority over his actions.

He breaks someone else's toy and he's "not in trouble." Why not? At the very least, he should apologize to the other kid for his "accident" - and, I would say, offer some restitution.

But the bigger surprise to me was: He hits you in the face with a rock and your only response is to ask why he did it?

Man. Maybe I was born in the wrong time. And I know everyone has his/her own "parenting style" and there are as many philosophies about parenting as there are parents.

But in your boots I wouldn't be nearly as kindly and mild and inquiring.

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Kids (not just mine, but their friends too) fear and respect me - and I like it.

It's partly because I'm willing to hunker down to their level. Children, I'm convinced, view us as a species of dimwitted, heavy-footed dinosaur. While they scamper about in the underbrush, we clomp around cluelessly, munching on treetops.

So it's a shock when the dinosaur suddenly brings his head out of the clouds, gazes at them with a basketball-sized eye, and says: "I know what you're up to. And I don't like it."

If some kid chucked a rock that hit me on my chin, I'd get down on my haunches, hold him by the shoulders, bring my huge, mean, stubbled face close to his, gaze into his shifty little eyes with my beady, bloodshot ones, and say: "Don't you dare ever do anything remotely like that to me again, or I will come down on you like darkness. Do you hear me? Now I want you to apologize and say you'll never do it again and you better sound sincere."

And only when he did so to my satisfaction would I release him and allow him to return to all the urgent adventures and errands of his buttock-level world.

Now, I respect your wife's input, as I respect the input of all wives. But the kid threw a rock at you! How is that an accident? He tripped and the rock flew out of his hand?

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I would most certainly inform the parents of the incident. But I wouldn't stop there: It's time to school the parents as well.

I'm afraid you can't say anything about your opinion of their kids' behaviour. That is pushing the bad dad/bad mom button, and it sounds like you aren't close enough to them to go there.

But you don't have to look after their hell spawn if you don't feel like it, either. If they come over uninvited and attempt to fob their kids off on you, just say you're busy, it's not a good time, or whatever.

As for fobbing your kids off on them - are you sure you really want to do that? I understand it takes a village, and it might be nice to have a break, but really, your neighbours sound like the village idiots. (Or maybe the village geniuses, for wrangling all this free babysitting out of you.) I'm the first to celebrate laid-back parenting. As their father and erstwhile stay-at-home dad, I tell people that my own three boys have been "raised in an atmosphere of benign neglect - and I only say 'benign' to make it sound good."

But even I would be leery of putting my kids in the care of a cocktail-swilling couple who think five-to-seven-year-olds should be allowed to "basically roam free."

In any case, we all teach others how to treat us. You have to establish some boundaries and ground rules vis-à-vis this couple and their kid. You have to teach them to stop treating you like a doormat and your domicile like a daycare - and teach their kid to stop using your face for target practice.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change, Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad and Damage Control, the book, now in paperback.

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