6 Harsh Truths About Playdates All Parents Should Know

Playing with other kids is crucial for a child to be socialized and learn how to interact with others appropriately, but playdates aren’t always playful or easy.

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Children holding hands and running in park, laughing.
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Once in the not so distant past, kids organized their own playdates. That is, if they were outside and spotted another kid, they would probably team up and play until someone’s mother called them home. For better or worse, play no longer happens as organically and parents are on the hook for making sure their children have opportunities to play with other kids. It’s an incredibly important task because play is crucial for child development. But manufacturing the playdates that once happened naturally comes with some increased difficulty.

The harsh truth about playdates is that since we’ve taken the responsibility of pairing up our children, adults have become a serious part of the equation. Much of navigating a playdate isn’t about the kids getting along, it’s about the parents being able to communicate. But with some thought and patience, the harshest realities of playdates can be mitigated.

1. You Won’t Always Like the Other Playdate Parent

In a perfect world, every playdate happens with friends. But just because your kid likes another kid does not mean that you will like that kid’s parent. Sadly, in the early years, that means some awkward and forced conversations. And there’s no real solution there except for doing all you can to keep the conversation focused on the kids and their shared interests.

If you really need the motivation to stay civil, consider that more than anything, young kids need time to play with other kids their age. It’s important for socialization, the development of empathy, and learning to cooperate. By swallowing your pride, you’re giving the kid something precious. And besides, in a couple of years, you’ll be dropping them off with a host and spending a blissful hour or two alone.

2. Parents Need to Be Very Clear About Playdate Rules

Whether you’re hosting a playdate or dropping your kid off at a playdate, communication is absolutely critical. It’s not just about setting the drop-off and pick-up time either. It should be about rules and expectations too.

In general, you should ask about (and prepare your child to obey) any specific house rules of the host family. You’d want the same thing if you were hosting. There are some exemptions, obviously. For instance, you can’t force a guest child in your home to put on a colander and pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster before lunch if they are not also Pastafarians.

At the same time, you can ask that the host abides by any boundaries that you may have set for your own child. For instance, if they are not allowed to watch PG-13 movies, say so. If there are religious, ethical or medical dietary restrictions, please make sure they are known and understood.

3. Parents Need to Ask About Firearms Before Playdates

Asking about firearms might seem to be the same as communicating about playdate rules. It’s not. This should be a very specific and straightforward question: “Are there guns in the home and how are they stored?”

If anyone answers in the affirmative to the first question, the next answer should be some riff on “locked in a gun safe” or “completely unloaded, out of reach with a trigger lock.” If there is any hemming or hawing to the answer, you have every right to put your kid’s safety ahead of the playdate. Too many kids have lost their lives to firearms in family homes. Many of those lives are lost innocently at the hands of another child. It is simply not worth the risk.

4. Some Playdates Go Bad and That’s Okay

Sometimes, kids who claimed to be the best of best friends might have a falling out. Sometimes that falling out can be bad enough that a playdate needs to end. That’s okay.

Kids are still trying to figure out just exactly how to regulate their emotions. Toddlers can get grabby and older kids can discover deep disagreements over Pokemon cards. If a resolution can’t be reached with some degree of parental mediation then there are couple options. Kids can be directed to separate play spaces, or the other parent can be called for an early pick up. Don’t feel you need to force kids to cooperate and play together if things clearly aren’t working out.

5. Playdates Don’t Always Include Cooperative Play

Playdates with younger kids, in particular, may not include any cooperative play. In the early preschool years, children often opt for what’s known as parallel play. Essentially, this is when kids play beside each other but not actually with each other. Parallel play is part of development and totally normal.

In fact, any expectation that younger kids will get along and play cooperatively with one another is wildly misguided. Children at playdates should be allowed to play together or separately as they see fit. Ultimately the kids will figure it out and learn the important social lessons about negotiating and cooperation on their own. Parents might do best to simply back off and let play unfold naturally.

6. Parents Need to Keep Cool if Someone Else Disciplines Their Kid

Getting defensive about another adult disciplining your child is essentially evolutionarily hardwired into a parent’s mind. But just because a parent feels a strong emotion does not make that emotion right. Just as you should not be expected to allow a child to run amok in your home, you must expect that if your kid is breaking rules they will have consequences.

Here’s the thing: getting up in arms about another parent disciplining your child robs you of what could possibly be very valuable information. Perhaps there was a very good reason for the discipline. Take a beat. Understand the circumstances, there may be something to learn.

That said, another adult should never be allowed to physically punish your child. Be very clear about those rules both with the host parent and your own child. The more communication, the better.

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