Been there! Navigating our kids' friendships is one of the great challenges of parenthood and as a mom to an almost six-year-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old, I'm just getting started. We're still in the "playdate" phase, where, for the most part, the parents stick around with the kids.
I don't schedule a whole lot of said playdates—between my friend's kids who we socialize with and my sister's kids who we're with all the time, we have plenty of unscheduled, organic fun. Still, I've had some experience with playdates and, yes, awkward playdates.
Just last month, I had a mom of one of Alex's school acquaintances ask for a playdate and when I agreed to do it at my house, she told me she was bringing her husband along, too. Huh? My husband and I didn't know these people at all. They showed up with three Nerf guns in their bag and the kids proceeded to play "beat the crap out of each other" —not a game I condone. The family stayed for three hours. Three hours! I literally had to make up an appointment just to get them out of my house. We even got in the car to make it look official. After driving around the block a few times, we came home and scratched our heads. Needless to say, I'm a little wary of playdates with kids and parents I don't really know. But there can even be issues with the ones we do know, right?
Once my kids get a little older, I'm sure I will come to love playdates. I won't have to go on them and the kids will choose for themselves who they hang out with. But for now, there are still some tricky situations that I find tough to diffuse. And I know I'm not alone when it comes to these challenges. To get a little guidance, I reached out to experts for tips on handling some of the trickiest playdate scenarios. Here's what they had to say:
The issue: You're good friends with the parents, but your kids don't get along
Sure, it would be nice to have one big love fest of joint pizza nights and family vacations, but you can't force kids to be friends, says Fred Frankel, Ph.D, director of the UCLA children's friendship program and author of Friends Forever. So whenever possible, do things with your parent friends on your own. And when everyone does get together, ask your kids to be good hosts or guests, but let them know you don't expect them to be best friends. "Don't even call it a playdate," says Frankel. "Taking that heat off makes everything go smoother—the kids will be better behaved knowing that they don't have to be buddies, just cordial." And the feelings are usually mutual, which helps.
The issue: You can't stand the parents, but your kids are all great friends
The general rule of thumb is that socializing is important for your kids, so you should do whatever you can to foster their friendships without letting your own biases get in the way, says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Toxic Friends. "Just set boundaries that make the situation more palatable for you—don't invite her in when she drops off her kid, don't make family playdates, keep the conversations about the children," she says. But if your kid is young enough that you're still going with him on playdates, you may get a pass. "Your time is important and if the other mom is really not someone you want to spend it with, you can steer your kid toward other friendships." A four year old will get over it.
The issue: Your kids are friends, but the mom is standoffish.
"If you feel like you're being snubbed, don't push the playdates," says Cindy Post Senning, director of the Emily Post Institute and author of The Guide to Good Manners for Kids. The mom's non-responsiveness may have nothing to do with you (she's genuinely really busy) or it may; but either way, stressing about it is not worth your time or energy. "There are lots of potential friends out there and that's a good lesson for your kids to know." If your child's interest in the friendship stays strong, try again with the mom in six months. Frankel's trick for tipping the scales: Help the other mom see how close your kids are. "My daughter has a great friend but the parents didn't seem interested in getting them together," he says. "On costume day they both dressed as superheroes and were standing arm in arm. We snapped a photo, emailed it to the parents, and said, 'How about a playdate?' It was obvious how much fun the kids had together so, problem solved!"
The issue: You like the parents; the kids are unruly
Keep playdates at your house, where your rules stand. "It's hard to offend anyone if you frame it as, 'This is the way we do things in our house,'" says Senning. Still, if the kid makes you uncomfortable you have to wean yourselves from the friendship—at least for a while. Just tread lightly if you approach the parent. "Mothers are very defensive and not always honest with themselves about who their children are," says Barash. Try commenting on the situation, rather than the kid. My friend Amanda, a mother of three in North Carolina, had standing playdates for her sons with boys down the street, children of a close friend, but the kids fought constantly. "Finally, I just called out the elephant in the room and said, 'Ugh, this is awful—what can we do?' I worded it carefully and didn't make it about her kids at all." The moms cancelled the group playdates for a while then tried supervised one-on-one playdates so each of the kids could learn to play nicely. "It took a while but it worked—now we're slowly letting them all play together again."
The issue: Everyone gets along great, but the parents have no manners (they stick around for hours; never reciprocate; don't help clean up)
When you're setting up playdates, always give a start and end time, says Senning—especially when the children are young and the mom will be there too. "Make it clear upfront that there can't be any lingering. When the time is up, you can say, 'Oh, I really have to get working, get on that conference call, whatever it is.'" As for cleanup, get on the floor with the kids and say, 'Okay, let's all clean up now' and hopefully the other parent will take the hint. If you've had a child over three times and there's been no reciprocation, table the invites for a while. Also know that occasionally, you may need to relax your standards a bit, adds Barash. "Your kids might be drawn to kids whose parents don't have the same style as you—it doesn't mean it can't work." Figure out what's most important to you (a clean play room, an evening of friend-free quiet) and prioritize that. Another idea from Marie, 35, a mother of two in New York City: Pick a neutral site. "I had a friend who would come over with her kids and stay for hours, eating all my food, destroying my home," she says. "Eventually I stopped inviting them over and suggested we meet at the park instead. Now we all still get to hang out but I can leave when I want!"