Parenting and Play Dates Self Help Advice

Written by Marla Paul

Have fun with your children. Here are some tips on not turning play dates into work. 

"Mommmmmyyyyyy, I want a friend to come over and play."

My 7-year-old daughter's request seems simple enough. But it is Saturday at 9 a.m. and I know the odds. About 1 in 1,000.
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We have committed the cardinal sin of not booking ahead. Still, with the prospect of playing with Barbie dolls for 48 consecutive hours, I give it my best shot.
I call friends from her second-grade class. I call schoolmates from last year's first-grade class. I retrieve a crumpled piece of paper from my phone book with the numbers of kids from her pre-school. We try to remember what they were like and call them, too.
Nearly 45 minutes of rejected invitations later, the situation is exactly as I had expected. Every 7-year-old in North America already has a playdate. This playdate has been booked one to three weeks in advance. In the case of a few far-thinking mothers, the dates were booked while they were still pregnant.
Between these advance reservations and schedules clogged with karate, soccer, ballet and piano lessons, spontaneous get-togethers have become extinct. That's spontaneous as in my daughter banging on a friend's door and asking if she wants to come out and make a snow angel.
Playdate. The very phrase is absurd. Play is a child's muse: the sudden inspiration to construct King Arthur's castle or launch a lemonade stand on a summer afternoon are not things that can be scheduled on a "Week-at-Glance" calendar.
Playdates are a glaring example of how we pressure and overschedule our kids. On these "dates" there is no option for a 10-minute visit to the park. No, Stephanie gets dropped off for two to three hours, a time span that can feel overwhelming to a young child.
"Can Stephanie please go home now?" my daughter pleads softly in my ear after an hour of togetherness.
With parent-scheduled and controlled playtime, children also are robbed of the ability to discover the natural rhythm and progression of friendship. On the more formal playdate, a minor skirmish can deal a fatal blow to a developing young friendship (as Ali's mom decides never to invite Katie over again because the two have argued). A child doesn't get to learn how to fight and make up with the girl or boy next door.
But it is hard not to play the game, because the stakes are too high. A mother who doesn't arrange her child's playdates has a child who doesn't have anybody to play with. And what parent isn't terrified that her child won't have friends?
Few things have caused me more pain than when my daughter plaintively asked, "Why don't I have a best friend? Everybody else in my class does."
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