(n): 1. adult-supervised, adult-directed "free play" between kids. 2.
an organized method of fitting socializing into a kid's hectic agenda.
3. a means of improving a child's social status and heightening his
popularity. 4. the culminating step in the over-scheduling of kids'
lives by over-protective, stressed-out parents.
I first started teaching, I couldn't fathom how an otherwise with-it
mom could morph into a neurotic disaster at the sheer mention of her
child's social life. I mean, I could have just wrapped up a thirty
minute conference with Mrs. Xberg about Justin's math and reading woes
without so much as a sniffle, only to watch her well up in tears and
start fishing around in her purse for the tissues the moment we
broached the issues of playdates.
What's the big deal? I used to
think to myself. Can't Mrs. Xberg just tell Justin to go play with the
kid down the street? But when my own son hit grade school, and I began
agonizing over his social calendar, I alas had a glimmering. For I -
the cool as a cucumber teacher - had inexplicably morphed into a
maternal tossed salad.
At an especially low point, following a
momentary glimpse of my shy first-grader hanging solo in the
schoolyard, I managed to convince myself that if I didn't get on the
playdate ball soon, my son would grow into an antisocial recluse living
in a cabin in the woods whose only friends were raccoons.
to spare my six-year-old this solitary fate, I willed myself to become
the playdate hostess with the mostest and began stocking up on all
available literature on the topic - A counter-productive strategy, I
might add, at least from an anxiety standpoint.
One article, for
example, entitled "Plan the Perfect Playdate" suggested I orchestrate a
caterpillar cookie recipe that would have daunted Wolfgang Puck. And do
people really have potato sack races anymore? Or stitch the
participants' initials on burlap sacks before the big hop-off?
the societal clout of playdates, they have their share of pitfalls,
too. Largely thanks to a few defining features of these contemporary
The Playdate Scheduling Feature -When we were kids, oursocial
plans were arranged with a "Hey, you wanna come over?" on the school
bus ride home. Today's playdates, in stark contrast, are planned weeks
in advance and entered indelibly into parental blackberries.
The Problem with the Scheduling Feature -
Since kids' friendships can change with the tides, a playdate planned
six weeks in advance offers no guarantee that the playees will even be
speaking by the designated moment of contact. Furthermore, due to vast
parental involvement, playdates exude a comprehensive list of
adult-driven etiquette rules that weren't even on the radar screen when
kids were running the show. If someone invites our child for a
playdate, for example, mommy protocol suggests we reciprocate within a
reasonable period of time. If, perchance, the other mother invites our
child back prior to reasonable reciprocation, we must profusely
apologize and promise to have her kid over two times in a row next time.
The Adult-Supervision Feature
- When we were young, unsupervised play was the norm. We'd hop from one
backyard to the next (before the evolution of the cul-de-sac) and stay
out until our moms called us in for dinner. Today, parents are expected
to continuously supervise their children's social gatherings (and
supply a long-range Walkie-talkie in the event they have to run in to
check on dinner).
The Problem with the Adult-Supervision Feature
- From a safety standpoint, parental vigilance is perfectly
appropriate. There is however a fine line (especially with older
children) between being cautious and being overprotective and
smothering. Our kids are growing up in a nervous world as it is, our
refusal to leave their side (when they are old enough for us to do so)
sends a neon message that we, their knowledgeable parents, genuinely
believe our absence will jeopardize their safety - an unsettling
message indeed for children just getting their feet wet in the waters
The Organized Activity Feature-
In the old days, If we and our friend grew tired of hopping on our pogo
sticks, someone would say something profound like "This is boring,
let's do something else." We'd bounce around ideas like climbing a tree
or watching the Flintstones, and move on to a new activity. During the
modern playdate, on the other hand, the host parent is the designated
boredom buster. Kids (and other parents) expect us to provide
playdaters with one organized option after another, and have an arsenal
of dehydration-preventing juice boxes are on hand, to boot.
The Problem with the Organized Activity Feature
- Having every moment of a playdate planned and accounted for from
bubble blowing to Batman action figure time, deprives children of the
opportunity engage in free creative play and learn to occupy themselves
independently. Plus it reaffirms the erroneous belief that it is a
parent's job to provide kids with round the clock entertainment.
what can we modern parents do to counteract these playdate pifalls
without making social pariahs out of ourselves? We can begin by
throwing in the towel on the Julie the Loveboat Cruise Director persona
(orchestrating limbo contests and shuffleboard competitions) and make
like Captain Stubing, instead (controlling the ship from a comfortable
distance). In other words, our role as playdate hostess is to provide a
safe and pleasant playing environment, adequate (as opposed to
constant) supervision, and, oh yeah, dehydration preventing juice boxes.
SHARON DUKE ESTROFF
Duke Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? (Random House,
2007). Her parenting articles appear in over 100 publications including
Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Woman's Day. Her popular Undercover Mom Blog on Net Family News
gives digital immigrant parents timely, straightforward advice on raising digital native kids.