Dear Neighbor Who Scolded My Children For Playing Outside

by Tricia Van Vliet
Originally Published: 
Two young sisters in white dresses playing outside with pillow feathers

You called to me from your side of the fence that borders our backyards. Although at the time my family had lived in our house for over a year, I wouldn’t have recognized your face at the market. You never welcomed us to the neighborhood or asked my children’s names. We had one brief conversation, during which you informed me that some mulch in my gardens would do wonders for the weeds. Gee, thanks.

And now, our second meeting. You asked me to quiet down my kids. Told me that you and your husband couldn’t enjoy your wine together and were forced to take your drinks inside. I was horrified; I quickly apologized and herded my children inside. On a perfect, sunny May day at 5 p.m. At once, they all broke out into sobs.

My instincts kicked in and I knew I had messed up.

I stormed outside, Mama Bear-style, and told you how my kids had reacted to your demands. I explained, with a red face and my ponytail slowly coming loose, that no, I would not tell my kids to quiet down. You informed me that their noise was annoying, to which I said, “but they’re kids.”

You set down the final judgment, Mommy to Mommy, when you told me that years ago, when your own children got “out of hand,” you’d just put your finger to your lips and “shush” them. Why couldn’t I simply do the same? “Children need to learn how to behave,” you informed me.

I explained to you that my kids can behave at restaurants. That they can sit through Mass on Sundays and even got through the entire reading of the Passion of the Christ without so much as a whimper. I described to you how they are kind, respectful and sensitive people at school. You narrowed your eyes at me, in disbelief that my wild things could ever behave appropriately. It’s the truth, neighbor. They are amazing, thoughtful people. But here’s the thing. They’re not mini-adults. They’re kids. And part of nurturing their blooming spirits is allowing them to be loud, to get muddy, to be wild. To be free.

But my reasoning meant little to you, so we remained on different sides of the fence.

During the days that followed our encounter, I found myself on edge. I worried frequently about the noise level of my children, and my kids began questioning themselves. We all felt sad.

But I watched them play. I listened to their games and songs and conversations. Here’s what you missed out on, neighbor, when the sounds of their voices pushed you inside your home:

1. They discovered a bumblebee making a nest inside of our swing set. They screamed for me because even though all three are afraid of bees, they were worried that the bee was stuck and dying. It was a crucial moment in their world, and they needed help.

2. Totally relieved that the bee was safe, they pumped up and down on the swings, singing together about the life of a bumblebee. All three, joyfully in rhythm. They interspersed facts they knew about bees, and my daughter, aware of the bee shortage, came up with a chorus which she repeated over and over: “Don’t pick the dandelions.”

3. My 4-year-old cried. She was mad because she wanted candy and I said no. I hugged her and did my best to empathize, but she was really mad. I let her work through it, and eventually, she did.

4. Along with their 6-year-old buddy, they used the swing set for an operations base… in a self-created game of “Whales,” in which they re-enacted Operation Breakthrough, a real international rescue mission that freed gray whales from the ice in Alaska in 1988. It grew heated and intense when our 150-pound St. Bernard lumbered out to spotlight as the Bull Shark.

5. My middle child sang for a good 15 minutes while swinging. She’s finding her confidence more and more these days, and although she was totally off-key, she was on stage.

6. We assembled goodie bags on the picnic table. The kids tooted some plastic flutes, happily trilling away as they helped forward our assembly line. It was not the Philharmonic Orchestra.

We’ve got noise rules. I don’t allow them to be outside too early in the morning. Trust me, they want to be out there at 6 a.m., but I have respect for you. If they start fighting or shrieking at each other and can’t work through it, I bring them inside to have some peace time. I don’t expect you to listen to their sometimes endless arguments. But I do expect that they’re allowed to be free in their own backyard. I do expect that you respect them.

When you asked my kids to be quiet and told them they were annoying, their spirits were hurt. Because you asked them to stop singing, to stop laughing, to stop yelling. To stop being kids. And for a moment, I was on your side.

I’m sorry, neighbor, that you can’t enjoy your wine the way you’d like to. Perhaps it’s time you consider whether a family-filled cul-de-sac is the best spot for you. Because childhood is messy and loud and perfectly imperfect, and that does not make me a bad mother. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In a world where the news is full of school shootings, bullying and assault rifles in Target, you better believe that I will encourage them to be little as long as I possibly can.

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