No one wants to be known as a helicopter parent, but you still want to make sure your child is safe and engaged during a playdate. Oh yes, and has fun. In this age when parents are quick to overmanage a child’s interactions, pediatricians and other childcare experts recommend an approach that’s hands-on ahead of time and “let ’em play” when the playmate shows up. To achieve that balance, take these steps before your child’s next playdate:
Insist On Safety Standards
Even if you plan to have your nanny or spouse present at the playdate, or attend yourself, it’s critical to know everything about safety precautions at the home where your child will be playing. The most critical question pediatricians ask before their own children go on playdates: “Does your house have a pool?” If the host answers in the affirmative, make sure to ask follow-up questions about how accessible the pool is and any other security precautions in place. Ask the same about any ponds or lakes near the home.
If the focus of the playdate is swimming, find out who will be in charge of the kids’ water safety and if they have lifeguarding credentials. With the high incidence of drowning in home pools, you just can’t be too careful. Also determine if the hosts own firearms and whether they’re unloaded and locked away. If the host meets this question defensively or casually, it’s probably better to schedule a playdate at the park or your own home.
You may want also want to visit the house in person for a few minutes before leaving your child behind. While you don’t want to come across as the neighborhood watchdog, you do want to be able to spot things the other parent may not have mentioned, like smoking in the house or a trampoline. So you won’t come seem rude, simply say, “I always like to walk Jared in and tell him goodbye” or somesuch. And make sure you aren’t using the playdate as a chance to check out the host’s personal stuff, like the bedroom or fridge, or to gossip about adults you only know through your child’s friendships.
Be Sensitive When It’s Your Turn
If you’re the host of the playdate, consider all the same safety concerns and eliminate any dangerous situations before the other kid arrives. Also make sure you ask your child’s friend’s parent about any food allergies or issues with video games or television so you can either adjust or opt out of hosting that particular child. Establish how you’ll handle any issues that arise between the kids, too, beginning with time-outs and including calling the other parent so the other child can leave if misbehavior gets to be too much.
When you’re the one setting the schedule, pick a time after a meal so the kids aren’t likely to be tired, hungry or cranky. Also be sure to plan an active game or two to break the ice, along with leaving just a few toys out in a comfy spot so the kids can interact without the adults. (Take any toys your kid’s especially attached to out of the mix, so sharing or fights won’t be an issue.)
If you have young children, make sure to invite the other parent or caregiver to stay, at least the first time you host that child. Along with making everyone more comfortable, this can give you the parent a chance to chat with other adults and expand your support system, especially if you’re a full-time stay at home parent. It’s also perfectly appropriate to insist that the other parent stays for the first visit, at least until everyone is comfortable.
Remember Why You Want Your Child To Have Playdates In The First Place
It’s all too easy to let your child’s playdates become yet another way your tyke is overscheduled and overstressed. Playdates are a great way to help your child make friends and build social skills, but they’re not always necessary, psychologists emphasize. Children who already attend a preschool for at least a half-day a week or have family friends near their age who they see most weekends may already have enough social interaction in their lives, for example. If that’s the case, don’t feel apologetic if you don’t want to devote the family’s free time to an organized playdate.
Your child could also be a little too young to stay at someone else’s house to play without a parent or long-term caregiver staying. Don’t rush your child to be ready for full-fledged playdates just because the rest of your circle has children who are. Experienced moms recommend a kindergarten cutoff for a child to be ready to stay and play without a parent nearby. Your kid may be ready before or after that, but make sure you tailor your decisions to your child.
If you do opt to add playdates to your child’s growing-up experience, feel free to limit them to one or two a week. And if your child has a rich imagination and seems perfectly satisfied spending free time entertaining herself, go with it. There’s no need to push the playdate experience when it won’t be appreciated.
Also avoid the trap of starting a playdate regimen with your child’s needs in mind but then letting it become the adults’ bonding time instead. While it’s great if you and the other parent or caregiver can also socialize during playdates, make sure the focus is on your child’s experience, not your own. Be mindful of how the kids are interacting if they’re at your house and make sure to keep an eye on them even if you’re at another host’s home. Your child’s safety and socializing skills depend on it.