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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors


Though it will seem like perhaps I am adding some drama or color to the story I’m about to tell you, I promise, it’s all true.

Allow me to set the stage…When my oldest son, Nolan, was eleven months old, we had lived in our first house for almost five years. Though our house was in a neighborhood with postage-sized yards, I loved our home. We spent those five years not just personalizing and updating the inside, but also the outside with a beautiful fence in the backyard and landscaping we did ourselves. 

While I was pregnant with Nolan, the family next door sold their house and a single man moved in. By the time Nolan was almost a year old, his girlfriend and her two children had moved in. Honestly, I was so busy with Nolan, work, and school, that I didn’t really spend much time in our front yard so I didn’t really meet or interact with any of them.

Buffalo, New York area where I live, is famous for our snowy winters. In fact, that winter began in October when Buffalo had a snowstorm called, “The October Surprise,” which included thundersnow (yes, this is a real thing) that caused power outages for days resulting from, among other things, trees collapsing due to the weight of leaves and snow. Fast forward to late April, when snow is still possible, and my husband went outside on a Saturday to mow the lawn for what might have been the first time that season. At some point, he came inside and said, “Um, you might want to go talk to the neighbors. They rototilled our flower bed on that side of the house and have rearranged the brick border.”

“Wait. What?!” was the only response I could muster. Howard repeated what he told me. I didn’t know what to say or do. The flowerbed they invaded was literally directly next to our house, not theirs. I couldn’t fathom how they might have been confused about whose land it was. My head was spinning. He said, “You can take a look for yourself.” I didn’t want to go outside because that would be too conspicuous, so we went to our bedroom, opened the window, and I looked down and saw what they did with my own eyes.

Howard’s best friend from college is a lawyer and so is his wife. We are very close to them and so I thought calling them would help me to know what to say or do. The husband, Dave, answered and I told him what happened. He started to explain property law to me and said something about the land not transferring to the neighbors based on this single event but if they continued to do it over the course of several years (I can’t recall how many), it would transfer to them–or something like that. Truthfully, the land rights were not something that even crossed my mind; I wanted advice on how to tell them they needed to stay out of my garden. 

Though I wanted Howard to go speak with them since he was the person who saw what they had done, he told me, “It’s your flower bed. If you want them to stay out of it, you need to go talk with them yourself.” Ugh.

Eventually, I decided the best thing to do was grab Nolan and go speak with them. I figured people were not going to get into a fight if there was a baby on someone’s hip. So, with Nolan, I walked over and knocked on their side door–the door that faced the flowerbed (you can see the door on the left of the tree in this photo of the house).

“Hello! My name is Heather and this is my son Nolan. I think you’ve seen my husband Howard. We live next door.”

“Hello!” the woman said enthusiastically. “Nice to meet you. I’m [I can’t remember her name]. I didn’t even know you lived there.” That last comment felt like an unnecessary jab. I’d lived in my house for five years. The house she was in wasn’t even hers!

“Yes. Life is so busy with work, school, and being a mom. I see that you rototilled my flowerbed. Thank you. That wasn’t necessary.” I hoped this was enough of a hint so no more explanation was required.

“Oh yes. We look out of this window every day and see that garden so we were going to plant some flowers there,” she declared with no regard for the fact that it was not her property and she didn’t ask. 

Unfortunately, I was not prepared for this level of disregard for something as basic as permission or consent. Rather than say something like, “That won’t be happening,” I instead said, “Okay” and left. Really.

Despite being so upset by the situation that I went over to speak with my neighbor, I was also scared that I would say something rude to her. My fear of being rude overrode my ability to communicate my concerns and set appropriate boundaries.

When I got back home, Howard asked me how it went. When I told him what had just happened, I was once again beside myself because I just gave her permission to take over my flowerbed. This was the exact opposite of what I intended. Howard said, “Well if you’re going to fix this, it’s now or never.” He was right.

I marched back over and said, “Thank you for generously offering to plant flowers in our flower bed. Actually, there is no need to do that. It was our plan to do it over Mother’s Day weekend so we’re all set.” She offered again to do it for us and I said, “That’s okay. We’ve got it,” and went home.

The good news was that after my first failed attempt to set an appropriate boundary, I did ultimately get it right. The bad news is that it shouldn’t be hard to set boundaries–but it was. If I’m being honest, it still can be. This is probably why I was attracted to Melissa Urban’s The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits that Will Set You Free. Known as “That Boundary Lady,” Urban’s book explains both the importance of boundaries and how to set them for yourself. 

I think what I loved best about the book were the scripts on how to communicate boundaries to others. Quoting Brene Brown, Urban emphasizes that our boundaries should be “clear and kind” so that lying, avoiding the conversation, and/or over-explaining reasoning is unnecessary. Urban summarizes how to communicate boundaries in her post, “How to Set Boundaries – And Truly Make Them Stick.” 

In The Book of Boundaries, I offer scripts organized into three categories: Green, Yellow, and Red. The three-part color-coded system represents the level of threat that stems from the boundary crossing you’re facing. If someone continues this behavior, is your mental health going to suffer? Are your health commitments at risk? Is it putting you in the way of physical or emotional harm? 

If that threat is minimal at this point — their behavior is not okay, but it’s the first time it’s happened, or it’s not hugely harmful — you’re still in Green territory, and the language you use to establish or reinforce the boundary should acknowledge that. But if the threat to your relationship is imminent — as in, “If you mention my weight one more time, I’m walking out the door” — you’re in the Red, and your boundary language and the consequences should reflect that, too. 

GREEN: Low risk, and the gentlest language. Assumes the other person wasn’t aware they were overstepping and wants to respect your limits. Your boundary language is clear, generous, and very kind. Leaves any potential consequences unsaid in the spirit of good faith. 

YELLOW: Elevated risk, and firmer language. Used as a follow-up if your Green boundary isn’t respected, or if historical interactions with this person indicate the threat is higher. Yellow may also include an intended consequence, if appropriate. 

RED: Severe risk, and your most direct language. At this point, your health, safety, and/or the relationship are in jeopardy, and your language must reflect the severity of the situation. It’s still kind, but this is their last reminder, and makes it clear that you are prepared to hold your limits. State the consequence plainly here and be ready to enforce it.

Here is just one example of what that would look like in action from that same post:

Setting a Boundary With a Friend

Issue: “I have a friend who bails on me constantly. I understand that things happen, but more often than not, we make plans and then my friend will cancel last-minute, always with a weak excuse. What should I do?”

GREEN: (on Friday) “Hey! Confirming the movie on Saturday at 7 p.m. still works for you? It’s been hard to get together lately so before I buy the tickets, I wanted to check in.” 

YELLOW: (if they cancel) “This is the third time in a row that you’ve canceled last-minute. I don’t want to keep making plans if you’re not able to stick to them.” 

RED: (if they reach back out to reschedule) “You’ve canceled so often, I’d rather not make plans like this again. If you want to stop by one night this week to talk, I’ll be home.” 

The Red boundary puts the ball in their court — if they show up, great. If they don’t, you’re not put out one bit, and you can probably call this friendship over.

I was fortunate. With my neighbor who decided to take over my garden, I only needed to say something once and I was able to use a green boundary to stop any further invasion. Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I am always good at or comfortable with boundary setting. Perhaps it’s because I’m human, but I also think being a woman might exacerbate the situation since I worry about not wanting to be seen as a bitch, a diva, or even just mean. It’s silly to think that in an instance where someone else was clearly in the wrong, anyone would have to consider how speaking up for themselves would reflect negatively on them, but this is often the case. This is probably why I appreciated Urban’s book so much. In reading her scripts, the green and yellow categories are clear and kind without any hint of a lack of regard for others. Even the red-level scripts, which are direct, are appropriately direct. 

This all reminds me of training I attended years ago where the speaker said something like, “No one wants to be seen as aggressive, but we should all be comfortable with being assertive. Being aggressive is to say something and be mean. Being assertive is to mean what you say without being mean when you say it.” It feels sometimes like that is a hard needle to thread, yet I think the more you do it, the easier it will become. As well, because you will be creating and keeping boundaries, the more you do it, the healthier and happier you will be.


P.S. Do you have people in your life who you can’t believe you know because they are so amazing? That’s how I feel about Angela Stockman, my Catch of the Week. Angela Stockman spent 12 years teaching at the elementary, middle, and high school levels before becoming a professional learning facilitator. Currently, she continues to support thousands of literacy teachers in K-12 schools throughout the United States and Canada. In her role as the Executive Director of Distance Education at Daemen University, she also enjoys working beside higher education faculty and staff to create and facilitate quality learning experiences for undergraduate students. She continues to teach and document her learning there. I want to let you know she is the author of several books, most recently, The Writing Teacher’s Guide to Pedagogical Documentation: Rethinking How We Assess Learners and Learning. Angela is not just someone who talks about writing, she is someone who inspires students of all ages to be critical thinkers and producers of writing. I know my oldest two children benefited from her creation of the WNY Young Writer’s Studio and I will be forever grateful for her influence on them and me!

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