Playdates can be opportunities for conflict, particularly for younger children who don’t know how to treat each other decently yet or who prefer to play by themselves. That’s not such a big deal because parents are usually nearby to referee. Bigger problems tend to arise with slightly older kids, who, left to their own devices, stir up conflict and fight over Legos. The key for parents eager to facilitate relationships is understanding that childhood friendships aren’t always organic and that structure may be necessary to make it work — if it’s going to work at all.
Bad Playdates Happen to Everyone
“Sometimes parents just think their kids will just play together, and it’s easy because they play at school, but remember – there’s quite a bit of structure at school,” says Dr. Roseanne Lesack, director of the child psychology clinic at Nova Southeastern University. “Teachers have quite a bit of oversight into those social interactions, and parents might assume that it occurs naturally, but sometimes it doesn’t.”
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According to Lesack, it all comes down to pre-planning. A lot of problems can be avoided by clear communication between parents. No parent should walk into a playdate unprepared. Are they kindred spirits? Is one kid wild and the other a calming influence? Do they actually have similar interests? If parents want a playdate to go well, sometimes that means planning and leading creative activities.
But even when plans are made and things get strained it’s important to note the source of the problem. Are inviolable house rules being gleefully broken? Are they simple disagreements over when to eat and what to play? Those are easy to mediate. Negotiate a compromise, or switch to a cooling down activity so that kids can talk about what they want to do next. As a host, parents need to be flexible.
“It’s okay to have rules you expect all children to follow. There’s no hitting and no throwing toys. Those are some basic ground rules,” advices Lesack. “But then be ready to be flexible on some other things. If it’s not time for your child to have a snack, but the other child wants a snack, okay, be flexible on that one. You need to figure out what your ground rules are and how you can be accommodating.”
What To Do When Playdates Go Bad
- Plan ahead of time – having a cool down activity ready for when playmates get frustrated can help give kids space to think about what they want and how to ask for it.
- House rules are necessary – any repeated violation of them is sufficient to end the playdate. Other issues, such as disagreements or minor frustrations? Be flexible.
- Don’t judge and don’t punish – every child can have an off day. One playdate doesn’t determine a child’s character. And ending the playdate is an obvious consequence of behavior.
- When problem crop up, learn – If there were behavior problems at a previous playdate, incorporate them into planning for the next time.
Being an accommodating host isn’t just good manners. A rigid, controlling parent can be disastrous for a kid’s social life, so parents should strive to go with the flow. However, those basic house rules? Those are a different story.
“If you really do see some problem behavior, you can just be firm and clear,” says Lesack. “Something like ‘We don’t hit here, if you hit again I may need to ask your mom or dad to come get you because it doesn’t seem like it’s a good day for a playdate.’ You are not going to put someone else’s child in timeout, but you can be very clear what the parameters are.”
What to do When You Can’t Get a Playdate Back on Track
If the behavior doesn’t improve, it’s best for host parents to end the playdate in a straightforward manner. Calling the other child’s parent, offering to drop the child off and giving an honest but non-judgmental assessment of the interaction is fine. Criticism isn’t going to go over well. The ending of the playdate is a natural consequence of breaking the rules, so additional recriminations aren’t necessary. And a bad playdate doesn’t mean the friendship is fractured. Someday it may, but kids are pretty flexible.
“It might be an off day for this child. So it’s important not to just judge this child off of one poor interaction one time,” says Lesack. “It’s okay to try another day.”
If one’s own child is acting out – grandstanding or trying to show off for their friend, or perhaps just emboldened to defiance – the same action is appropriate. End the playdate, call the other parent, offer to drive home. Then, before the next one, take time to set ground rules and expectations to remind the child to play well – essentially, stream that experience into planning for the next time. And unless the kids really can’t stand each other, there should be a next time.