The Problem with Playdates

A quiet moment during a recent playdate.
A quiet moment during a recent playdate.

Actually, there is no problem with playdates; in and of themselves, they are wonderful things, providing socialization for children and breaks for parents.

I do have a small problem with the term “playdate,” however. The word has become widely used across geographic boundaries — or, at least, it’s used in both California and Vermont. I never heard the word “playdate” until I started having children of my own, and at first I thought it was absurd; it struck me as pretentious, corporate. Back in my day, we’d say we were “going over to Susie’s house to play,” or “having a friend over.” But I guess in this age of efficiency, everyone’s too busy to use that many words. “Playdate” it is.

Here, based on my own experience, is the evolution of the playdate:

Birth to age 2: These aren’t really playdates; they’re “mommydates.” Mommydates serve a valuable purpose, but let’s not pretend that they’re really for the kids: Mommydates are for the mothers. They are:  1) chances to leave the house and have some adult interaction, and 2) chances to compare your baby to everyone else’s baby and feel either reassured or insecure.

Age 2: The Parallel Playdate. This type of playdate involves two or more children who are playing near each other, but not with each other. A parallel playdate usually requires lots of parental suggestion, as in: “How about you go play with Johnny? Remember your friend Johnny, right over there?”

Age 3: The Contentious Playdate. As children become more aware of other children, they begin to see those other children as adversaries; competitors for the best toys, books, and dress-up clothes. These playdates involve brief moments of peaceful, interactive play, followed by long stretches of conflict resolution.

Age 4: The advent of the Drop-Off Playdate! This is the beginning of the golden age, when you can take your child to a friend’s house and leave them there. Two four-year-olds playing together are reliably housebroken, and will typically be able to entertain each other for long stretches without major, parent-calling conflict.

Age 5 and beyond: Smooth sailing! The harmony and endurance of the four-year-old playdate continue. One added benefit, at least in my house (based on a complicated set of calculations having to do with the nature of our yard, the town in which we live, and the presence of two large dogs) is that by age 5+ I feel confident allowing my children to play outside by themselves. This may occasionally backfire, as it did last month when the girls had two friends over. Everyone played contentedly in the snow for 90 minutes. I checked on them regularly (I was inside with a napping baby and treats baking in the oven), and could see that they’d found their sand pails and shovels in the shed and were busily filling the pails with snow. What ingenuity! I thought. It was only later, when I realized that they’d actually been filling the shed with snow and I had to shovel two inches of snow off the shed’s wooden floor, that I had second thoughts about independent outdoor play.

All the same, playdates are wonderful. But over the years, as we’ve added to our family,  playdates have become a little more complicated for us. Playdates with a family of four children raise some issues, like:

1. It’s scary to invite us over.  The number of playdate invitations we receive decreases each time we add a child. We had four kids in five years, so all of our children are quite close in age. Our first three daughters have  friends in common, which makes it hard to invite one Gong Girl without including one or two others. Not many people are brave enough to invite ALL of our children over to play, and for good reason — we’re overwhelming. And once you invite more than two Gong Girls, it’s pretty much a given that I have to come along, for crowd control. Then you’ve got three children, a mom, and a baby storming your house; you’d better time it well so that you don’t have to feed us! (What’s amazing is that so many generous friends still DO invite our family to playdates!)

2. It’s scary to come over. Most of the families we know have one or two children. When we invite these children over, first I have to convince the parents that REALLY, we want your child to come over! It won’t be too much for me to handle! Additional children actually HELP, because they distract my daughters from me! Once that’s been accomplished and the guest children come through our door, they’re instantly outnumbered. It’s a very special child who’s not completely overwhelmed by the attentions of a six-, four-, and three-year-old (with a host mother who’s distracted by a baby). I understand; it’s hard enough to parent these girls — I can’t imagine having to play with them!

3. The problem of the younger half. I spent a lot of time arranging social interactions for our first two daughters. Back when they were toddlers, I had energy and a desire to “socialize” them outside of their own family. Then came daughter #3. She got dragged around to all of her big sisters’ social events and activities, so there was no time left over to focus on a separate social program for her. I justified this by thinking, She’s got TWO sisters; she’s getting plenty of socialization within our house! The result is that our third daughter has almost no friends her own age. She tags along at her sister’s playdates (“Hey, guys, wait for me!”). We allowed her to invite friends to her third birthday party, and she chose two of her big sisters’ friends, aged five and six. When I take her to activities with her same-aged peers, I know almost none of the other parents or children there, and I don’t make the effort I should to meet them because a) I’m so tired, and b) my social glass is pretty full with the relationships I’ve amassed via our oldest daughters.

I can only imagine how much worse this will be for daughter #4.

The solution to all of the above problems, as with so many problems, is: school. Once our daughters go to school, they’ll each make friends of their own. With one daughter already in kindergarten and one in preschool, it’s increasingly the case that families invite only one of our daughters to play. It’s not quite accurate to call this a “solution,” though, since it turns me into a taxi driver with one drop-off and three unwilling passengers, at least one of whom is screaming, “I want to play, too!” And I realize that, in its final form, this “solution” will have me driving in four different directions, while our house becomes a revolving door to four sets of friends.

None of which really sounds all that bad, especially since by that point I’ll have four girls in school all day long. Vive l’education!

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