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Playdate Dos and Don’ts

Multiple toys = fewer fights.

Multiple toys = fewer fights.

As a playdate addict — and survivor — I’ve seen everything and anything that could go wrong at a playdate. From kids who hit to broken toys to crushed Veggie Booty on the floor, I’ve been there, done that. I’ve also amassed a little bit of knowledge when it comes to throwing or participating in a successful playdate. Here are the lessons I’ve learned over the years.

  • Make it about them. Yes, it’s great to socialize with your favorite mommies, but eventually your child is going to show a preference for certain kids. Some personalities just mesh better, too. You might love one mom, but her kid drives your kid nuts. As much as it pains you to do it, those are the playdates that should simply fade away.
  • Let kids be kids. I’ve been to playdates where the moms set elaborate schedules. Noon to 12:30 we had a snack; 12:30 to 1 we did a craft. 1 to 1:30 the kids played t-ball. 1:30 to 2 we had ice cream sundaes. While it’s nice to plan ahead, it’s actually far better for kids to give them basic toys like blocks, dress-up clothing, and balls, and let them do what they will with those tools. According to one Boston College developmental psychologist and researcher, free play helps kids learn important life skills such as how to compromise, anticipate other people’s needs, and meet their own needs and desires. “To play well,” says researcher Peter Gray, “and to keep others interested in continuing to play with you, you must be able to see the world from the other players’ points of view.” This leads me to my next tip…
  • Stay close, but don’t intervene right away. In the beginning, I was right on top of my daughter like a mythical helicopter parent. Now I realize that yes, my kids need me to help them navigate some problems, but it’s probably better to let them try to solve them first. I’ve also learned that as much as it’s nice to sit and talk in the kitchen while kids play in the den, a parent’s presence is often enough to keep the playdate on track. (And when those eyes aren’t there, hair gets cut, dolls faces get drawn on with markers, and both kids can claim they didn’t throw the first punch. Trust me. I know these things.)
  • Keep it short(ish). Kids get tired quickly. It’s hard sharing, and even harder dealing with lots of activity. Over the years I’ve interviewed plenty of smart experts and they all seem to agree. When kids are young, playdates should be about as long in hours as your child’s age in years. So if your child is two, stick to a two-hour-or-under event. This is just a guideline, of course. Some kids can play all day, while others get overwhelmed after 45 minutes, so make changes accordingly.
  • Set a time limit. I once threw a playdate for a non-Gymboree friend (those girls knew my work schedule, and were always so supportive). After about two hours I was ready for the playdate to end, but the mom didn’t show any signs of leaving. The playdate started at noon, and she stuck around until after 4:30! After that I realized I needed to give a starting and ending time when I extended an invitation. And grow a backbone!
  • Put away favorite toys. It took me a while to learn this one. Of course, I wanted all my daughter’s friends to have as much fun with her beloved Ducky as she did, but it made her so angry to have to share it that I soon realized it was better for Ducky to sit on a shelf until everyone went home.
  • Set boundaries. When Big Girl got older we started having drop off playdates. Some of those kids were whirling dervishes. By the end of the playdate the playroom looked like a nursery school after a holiday party: everything was strewn around and mixed up. When the moms came to pick up they would smile and leave without offering to help pick up the mess. As a result, I would grumble and gripe and complain, swearing never to have a playdate every again. I was the one at fault, though. I should have gone in and explained what was expected at our house when I heard the Legos starting to fly, or taken the kids outside to our swingset if I couldn’t get the carnage under control. I also should have asked the crazy kid’s mom to lend a hand or at least ask their child to help straighten up before they left. I was too afraid of offending or coming off as a meanie,  though. In retrospect, I deserved all those hours of sorting and putting away.
  • Don’t expect everyone to reciprocate. To this day one of the things that drives me nuts is that there are a lot of moms out there who might like you, like your child, like having playdates, but will never return an invitation. I used to take it personally. Now, I just let it slide. You never know what someone has going on in their life. Are there moms out there who are just selfish? Sure, but their kids are probably the ones who need the playdates the most.
  • Don’t be afraid to discipline — as long as the other mommy isn’t around. If a dropped off kid smacks your kid in your house, you can absolutely give them a time out. You can also call their mom to come and pick them up. However, if your child gets whacked and the mom is sitting right there — unless you want to risk a fight — you really can’t say much. I’ve been lucky. Almost all my friends have been right on top of their kids. However, in the two instances where we had hitters with lax moms come to play I stuck with, “Hitting isn’t nice,” took the toy in question away (it’s always about a toy), and tried to distract them with a new activity.

How have your playdates gone? Do you have any strategies that work better than others? Please post below to tell us all about them.

One final note: I am so excited to announce our first-ever contest and give away. Green products manufacturer Seventh Generation will be giving one of my readers a huge basket of cleaning products and other items. Look for more details in tomorrow’s Favorite Things Friday column!

4 Responses to “Playdate Dos and Don’ts”

  1. Shari says:

    Sometimes when they are so little the answer IS multiple toys that are the same, but EXACTLY the same, you are right. When they are under 3 or even 4, sharing is too much to expect of them. That helps in ending disputes before they begin. When my son was really little I also had to watch the time and leave after an hour and a half. Sometimes it is so nice to be with other moms and the time flies. But if I went past that mark, I was in for a real disaster.

  2. Julie says:

    I love this blog post! I am a complete playdate novice (have only had 2 so far) and always feel like I didn’t do “it” right. Thanks Karen.

  3. Dm says:

    Was wondering what you think about borrowing toys?
    my son has had 2 playdates recently where the guest
    asked to borrow one of my son’s toys.
    What is the etiquette on that?

  4. kb says:

    It depends on how close you are to the child and the mom, whether or not it was a much-loved or expensive toy, and when the mom said she was going to get it back to you.

    I’d probably be fine with lending something that wasn’t a favorite toy to a close friend’s child. We often “loan” out stuff here.

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