Good playdates can happen organically. Sometimes kids just get along. But, in truth, that’s fairly rare. Though school-age kids seem more independent and socialized than toddlers, they are still impulsive and largely incapable of risk-benefit analysis, specifically in a social setting. Because they struggle with little kid peer pressure and approval-seeking, even naturally level-headed children do dumb stuff at playdates. So it’s on parents to set kids up for success by creating ground rules for children. This is always a bit of a negotiation but doesn’t need to be too hard if parents don’t overthink it.
“There are just some very basic and obvious things parents need talk about, but just because they are basic and obvious doesn’t mean we always remember to do them,” advises David Hill, M.D., author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro, an official spokesperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Having a clear conversation with the host family if you’re visiting – or the visiting family, if you’re the host – should establish what their expectations are.”
Logistically, parents need to be able to get ahold of each other. If there’s an emergency with the host family, and the play date needs to be called off, or there is a medical emergency with the visiting child, parents need to be able to phone a number that will be answered. If plans for the playdate change, or the pick-up is going to be late, parents need to outline what they expect from each other: Is a voice mail sufficient? Should a parent keep calling until direct contact is made? Parents shouldn’t assume that they agree on these procedures; they should explicitly outline them. Parents should also establish if there are special plans for the play date – kids might wear very different things on a hike along a muddy trail than they would to a restaurant.
Families differ on the style of dining, the propriety of certain language, and even if shoes are allowed on in the house. Parents should ask what the household rules are and prime kids to obey. All families are different and kids need to know the rules if they are going to follow them. Parents need to understand each other as well. Assumptions make asses out of all concerned.
“You would think it would be obvious to all parents that movies should be age appropriate, but talking to people about this all day every day, it’s more obvious to some than others,” warns Hill. “I know parents will show R-rated or violent movies to children.”
Sometimes social discomfort leads to questions being left unasked. That’s not good for anyone. It’s best, ultimately, to just have the conversation — even if it’s awkward. For example, it’s fair to ask if parents have firearms in the home and if they are secured. If the answer to both questions is yes, most parents are likely to accept that. In accepting that, they are understanding the rules of someone else’s home. So, yes, a bit fraught but absolutely worthwhile.
“In different households tolerate different levels of activity,” says Hill. “Water hazards, guns, video games, and rules of the house – these are all good things to know before you drive away.”
How to Set Rules for a Little Kid Playdate
- Talk Numbers: What time the playdate is over, and what number parents can call to speak with each other. Parents shouldn’t assume — it’s okay to explicitly ask.
- Media and Manners: It’s okay for parents to discuss their expectations with each other — what kids are allowed to watch and what not, as well as what the house rules are.
- Firearms: If firearms aren’t properly secured from children, it can be a disaster waiting to happen. Kids are clever, curious, sneaky, and have a way of edging each other toward bad decisions.
- Water: Ask if there is a pool, a pond, a lake, or a creek. If there isn’t a way to keep a curious kid out of the water, an adult needs to supervise their play.
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