Ah, remember those days when we, as kids, ran out and played in the neighborhood with other kids. I remember running inside to tell my mother I was hungry so I could gobble down a sandwich just to get back outside for our game. Dirty sneakers, muddy pants, smudged faces, and sweaty heads were the norm after school and on weekends. Bats, balls, gloves, ice skates and sleds are in every picture from my childhood. Play was arranged by stepping out the front door. Arranging a playdate? My mother rarely had to face this parenting challenge. Today, parents need to decide about playdates regularly.
I recognize that some neighborhoods may still have the community environment that allows spontaneous play, but most families today face the problem of separation between friends which then require parents to arrange playdates. What is a good playdate? How can we arrange a playdate so that we are comfortable about safety, diet, and constructive play?
Playdates are very important for children. From the time children are three years old and recognize that there are people their age on this planet, they want to interact with playmates. Children develop their brain power through interaction with people. So playdates are a necessity in this increasingly isolating society of ours. A good playdate is one where children play actively with each other sometimes causing conflict and solving it together. Battles over legos, homemade forts, or who plays what role leads to problem solving skills, compromise, creativity, and use of the imagination. We know that creativity is all but erased in computer games. Imagination is stifled by TV and movies. Kids can get enough of those without wasting time with a friend with screens in front of them.
Good playdates take more than the type of play. Supervision is necessary even for the closest of friends. Someone needs to be there to be sure conflicts don’t get out of hand or to help support the friends’ activities. An adult can also be sure that kids don’t snack inappropriately between play. Good snacks are increasingly important and can be easily accepted when provided with a little creativity.
Obviously, good playdates take some work. Parents need to talk to one another – not just about scheduling the playdate. Good playdates really depend on communication between parents. Meet the parents of playmates. Stop in at drop-off and observe a little of the play environment. Parents need to make sure the other parents know your expectations. Be explicit about your expectations over TV and computer time. Ask about outdoor time during playdates if the weather permits. If you are the host parent, be available for some supervision. Be true to the other parent and enforce agreed upon rules for the playdate. Many parents want to hear that parents have the similar opinions about play. It is wonderful to find good playmates and families that carry out similar values in playdates. This is important even as your children enter middle and high school.
If a playdate doesn’t work out to your liking take control of the playdate. You can require that your child and that friend play together at your house. If you don’t approve of play between your child and their friend, veto the playdates or minimize their time together. You do not have to debate your decisions with your child. You have a right to agree or disagree with playdates!
A discussion of playdates cannot ignore the ever growing sleepover nightmare. More and more I am hearing about sleepovers that include very late nights, children awake later than parents, unsupervised TV and internet use, and the post-sleepover “hangover” where parents deal with over tired children on a day reserved for homework or family time. It is amazing that parents are pushed to give into these sleepovers without restriction. Parents have a right to put restrictions on sleepovers – especially in later years. Even teens can have a lights out time. Time restrictions on computer and internet use are important. There are good reasons to limit their use after certain hours.
If sleepovers and their aftermath get out of hand (moodiness, decrease in school work) a parent needs to say ‘no’ to them. Your child will not suffer because “everyone else is going to be there”. Your child can be picked up at 11 and sleep at home. They won’t miss much and they’ll sleep better.
Parents need to be aware of what happens in playdates and sleepovers and exert some influence over them. Bad playdates and sleepovers are not helpful to your child or to your family’s functions. Keeping your child’s interactions with friends as healthy as possible is a worthwhile concern for all parents. Parents need to feel empowered to exert their influence even into teen years. Your child will be better off for it.