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The question

We've had the same neighbours for six years. Initially, we got on very well. Lately, however, they've started to lean on us heavily for everything from rides to activities for their kids to food to cook for supper. Now, don't get me wrong – we ask for favours, too. But things have gotten out of hand. They planted a tree without permission in our small suburban backyard. They placed giant braces for their fence (also built on our property) in our backyard. They expect free child care since I am a stay-at-home mom. One week, they made no plans for child care for their eldest daughter. Guess who wound up watching her? I'm all for lending a couple of eggs, but they have specifically asked for vegetables and meat to cook for their supper. (Their income is roughly three times ours.) How do I start saying no without starting a feud?

The answer

Wow, it's like you've got a whole family of Kramers living next door. Pretty soon they'll be walking into your house and wordlessly leaving with loaves of bread, sausages, tennis racquets and/or your DVD player tucked under their arms.

They're treating you like doormats that they barely bother to wipe their feet on before barging in to rob you blind.

But, pardon my bluntness, you're clearly complicit in your own chumpery. They planted a tree in your backyard without your permission? How is that even possible? Did these marauding mooches bungee silently over the fence in the middle of the night in black cat suits and ski masks, trowels and seeds in their tiny ninja packs?

Maybe it's different in the 'burbs. I live downtown, the DMZ. My neighbours and I battle over every inch of our precious turf.

Take my neighbour to the north: On the surface, a sweet little old widow who pops by sometimes with Ziploc baggies of her homemade peanut brittle for my boys. But if so much as a leaf or twig peeks over the fence into her backyard? Snip! And if I cross her in too many ways? "Uh, boys, maybe don't eat that peanut brittle."

Seriously, we rebuilt our garage recently and neighbours came over with measuring tape. I didn't mind. I've got my eye on their garages, too.

I'm sure you've heard the saying, "Good fences make good neighbours." It refers not only to physical fences, like the one with the brace in your backyard. It's also a state of mind. You have to build a psychological fence against this family of cadgers.

"How do I start saying no?" you ask. Well, first press your tongue against your upper palate, then vibrate your tonsils, almost like humming. Then form your lips into a circle and expel air from your lungs, to complete the syllable.

Sorry, I'm being facetious. As I see it, there are two ways you can go from here.

Me, I like things out in the open, in the sunshine. If someone is bugging me, I let them have it with a Three-Stooges-style verbal eye-fork – proink! – right in the peepers: "Hey, you know, what you said last night was really rude …"

It can be messy, and my ultra-commonsensical wife Pam usually doesn't approve.

But in the end, those who need to apologize – funny how often it turns out to be me – do so, the air clears, and at least everyone knows where I stand.

But I realize this approach isn't for everyone. I'm a WASP, so I am also trained in the tradition of the Waspy Unexplained Freeze Out, or the WUFO.

In a WUFO, when someone's bugging someone, an invisible hand reaches out and turns the dial on an invisible thermostat governing the relationship's temperature, lowering it a few degrees.

To do your own WUFO, you have to master the art of keeping your true thoughts inscrutable and wrapping your statements in a pleasant, dry-ice-like fog of meaningless, empty statements.

If your neighbours ask for eggs, just smile and politely say, "Sorry, I can't right now, I'm saving them for pancakes," or something equally gibberlicious.

Also, you must wrestle your guilt and urge to please to the ground – especially when it comes to the child-care component of your problem. If the neighbour's kid rings your doorbell, say: "Oh, my kids can't play right now, they're doing homework." And don't feel guilty.

Your neighbours may rear up on hind legs, nostrils flaring, and paw the air with their hooves during the transition. But you and your husband have to grow a pair of … backbones, and start setting boundaries with these presumptuous pilferers, prontissimo.

Otherwise, they'll keep expanding their territory bit by bit until soon they're siphoning gas from your car, your husband's picking up their dog's poo in the park, and their teenage daughter's having keg parties in your backyard.

And you'll be holed up in your bedroom, peeking out the window, too timid to say anything, wondering: "How did it come to this?"

David Eddie is an author and the co-creator of the HBO Canada television series The Yard.

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