The Humanist Dilemma: My Upstairs Neighbors Drive Me Insane!

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Pitter Patter of Little Feet: My husband and I, who are near retirement and have no children, just moved into a gorgeous co-op apartment after spending a fortune on extensive renovations to make it our dream home. Now that we’ve moved in, we hear incredibly annoying noises from the children who live upstairs—wheels from toys, running and jumping, strange scratching sounds from we don’t know what. We have alerted the managing agent, who says the apartment above is in full compliance with all the rules regarding carpeting, and the noise falls within the hours and “reasonable level” specified in the bylaws. But we can’t even eat lunch without these irritating sound effects!

We are thinking of going directly to the family, probably via a letter slipped under their door, requesting that they restrict their children to two or three hours of playtime a day, during business hours. If they refuse, we will have to sell this apartment and find another, hopefully without children overhead. Should we contact the upstairs neighbors, or do you know of a better way to stop all the racket?

–Like Nails on a Chalkboard


Dear Chalkboard,

No, you should not ask your neighbors to restrict their children to two or three hours of daily play! You are talking about human children in their own home, where they are growing up and doing the things they need to do, including exercising their developing bodies and honing their motor skills.

The co-op bylaws establish what is generally considered acceptable hours and levels for noise, and the people above you have no obligation or incentive to limit their children beyond that. If you asked them, they might comply out of misplaced deference to your needs over their own, which would be unfair to them and their children. Much more likely, they would consider your request ridiculous and you a nuisance, and might even encourage their kids to be particularly energetic during the hours the building permits.

This problem is entirely on you. Although you could petition your board to tighten the restriction on noise levels and hours, you would never succeed in reducing them to the brief window and low levels you require. You could investigate ways to soundproof your apartment, or experiment with white noise machines, playing music that covers the unwelcome sounds, wearing ear plugs—or retrain yourself to cherish the sounds of children playing. Bear in mind that children, and their soundtracks, continuously change. They will probably start spending business hours in school—but then they might devote their after-school and weekend hours to electronic music or tap dancing or dribbling a basketball. Furthermore, once you and your husband retire, you may tend to be at home during the very hours when noise is permitted.

Another alternative, as you suggest, is for you to move. But to avoid the same problem, you would have to find a seriously soundproof building, a unit with no apartment above you (and no noise on the roof), or an isolated house in a quiet neighborhood (but beware of boisterous birds, frogs, crickets, church bells, sirens, etc.).

When my children were small, we got frequent complaints from the couple below us, but we were never in violation of our building’s rules. The complaints about our kids suddenly stopped when the downstairs couple had a baby of their own and the people below them started complaining!

Even if you don’t have a child, I suspect you yourself used to be one, and you probably weren’t always perfectly still and silent. Children are an essential part of life, and they make some noise. You can either attempt to insulate yourself from this facet of life, or accept it. But don’t expect normal childhood behavior to conform to your preferences.