Why parents have to play the game
Organising play dates for your children can be a lot of hassle for busy parents -- surely little kids can make their own friends?
A lot of parents plan their children's free time with sports activities, ballet or arts and crafts lessons, but now you can plan their social life too.
The irony of being a parent is that your social life diminishes and becomes more worthless as theirs grows more sophisticated and you're the poor unfortunate who often has to organise it for them. However, the website www.playdation.com (plan your child's social life!™) is really something to behold.
I'm tempted to say 'only in America', so I will. Only in America could you have a website that gives parents the chance to "connect privately with parents you already know and whose kids attend the same school as your children". Surely a physical face-to-face encounter is likely, so why use the cold means of a website?
The organisation also allows you to "create a friends list for each of your children for which you have full control of the friend approval process".
I have an image of parents clicking through profiles of their four-year-old's peers, snarling with disapproval while he cries himself to sleep dreaming of what it must be like to have a friend.
It's a bizarre website but don't be too surprised if you discover an Irish version of it some time soon. Play dates are common enough but the phenomenon can be an awkward clash of parental politics.
The play date age parameter lies between four and six years old. Whether it is playschool, Montessori or the first few years of primary school, the play-date situation has to be managed carefully.
Supposing your child has befriended another, but that child's mother /father doesn't want any post-school socialising; how do you explain that to the child?
Or if the situation is reversed: what if you have misgivings about them, how do you explain that to a five-year-old who simply wants to go and play Power Rangers at Billy's?
Sorcha* is a married mother of three who lives near Limerick city.
"My eldest is in senior infants now but at the start of primary school I didn't know what the set up was for inviting kids over.
"It wasn't until my own child went to the other kids' homes did I realise that dinner was required. Yet, there was an occasion where one mother got annoyed with me because I had given the child her dinner. Why? She had cooked her little girl's favourite meal and I had ruined her appetite!"
Perhaps the biggest play-date issue is disciplining another child in your house.
"It's frustrating and a bit stressful," admits Sorcha. "On a fundamental level, you're not sure what style of discipline to apply if a visiting child starts misbehaving.
"For example, I've had situations with kids using bad language and while I don't want to draw attention to it for my kids, I can't let it pass. Also, little girls tend to set up 'secret clubs' when playing and whisper a lot. In fact, the whispering drives me mad!"
There is other general behaviour and attitudes which can cause a bit of tension.
"I've had a child argue with me, saying 'In my house we're allowed crisps before dinner' or 'in my house we can say crap and farts'. What are you supposed to do in that situation?
"Of course I've explained that the child is not in their house, they're in my house now, but it doesn't stop my daughter asking me why she can't have crisps or say the word crap."
Keeping the child entertained is another matter of significance.
"It can be very tiring coming up with ways to keep the child entertained," says Sorcha.
But surely the function of the play date is that the young ones will be occupied playing with each other?
"It's not as simple as that. Some children are used to getting a lot of attention at home, even when they're playing and they'll expect that when they come to your house."
Sorcha had an experience which has made her reluctant to keep up play dates in the future.
"It was when my eldest started junior infants. I got chatting to another parent at the school gate one morning; she had a little boy in the same class as my girl.
"Our kids got on very well and seeing as a major concern of any parent is their child's ability to make friends, I was happy to encourage it," says Sorcha
"This woman suggested a play date and I agreed and we exchanged numbers.
"We had a couple of play dates which went fine but then a few childminding favours were asked and I had to decline. I knew she had other support structures so didn't think I was being that mean.
"Anyway, one day I invited her little boy over for another play date and she left the child's older brother with me also. The two boys spent the afternoon fighting and I was left coping with five upset kids under 10, including a baby. It was mayhem.
"Then she was nearly two hours late collecting them and unapologetic. I was so shocked. I felt she was totally taking advantage and dumping her kids on me."
Although it might seem trivial to some people, it can be the small incidents that cause most stress. Andrew, from Westmeath, describes how one play date he had ended on the brink of confrontation.
"My eldest girl was about six. She had gone on a play date but I noticed she was a little withdrawn when she came back. When her Mum and I asked what was up, she explained that the girl's Dad had insisted she sit at the dinner table and was not allowed leave it until she finished all her dinner. I was livid!
"What upset me was that my girl was afraid to tell us because she thought she'd be in trouble.
"I wouldn't have gone over shouting the odds, I simply would have explained that I don't agree with his approach and he shouldn't force it on other people's children."
Sorcha's experience might put a lot of people off the idea of organising play dates. There are enough stresses in modern parenting, without having to deal with people who appear to be taking advantage.
But are you depriving your child of a valuable social outlet if you decide to avoid play dates altogether? Sheena Horgan has four children and works in youth marketing.
"Yes of course you might meet the odd person with a self-serving agenda," she acknowledges, "but play dates are a necessary part of kids' growing up.
"It's very important for social skills; kids need to get used to being in other people's houses and playing with other children. They need to learn how to share and experience different houses with different rules."
But won't a child learn these things throughout interactions with siblings or cousins?
"If the child has siblings they will benefit from these experiences," says Sheena, "but Irish families are getting smaller and there are many one-child families.
"In relation to school, the environment is too controlled, and the lunch is too short, to facilitate the kind of social interaction that play dates give. In fact, I wish the typical school lunch break was much longer for socialising and eating and that sort of thing."
Play dates would appear to be a phenomenon born during the past decade. Why they are so widespread now? Sheena puts it down to two main reasons.
"Play dates may be more common because we're more organised now, as parents, than we would have been a generation ago. We're organising our kids' time more, with dance lessons or sports clubs and such, and so we're actually forced into organising socialising and play time with other children outside the home.
"Secondly, we're not as happy with kids playing out on the road like we used to years ago. Unfortunately, parents are more paranoid and wary about dangers to their child," she says.
"As an aside, I would say that play dates happen more frequently with non-working mothers than working mothers -- that's certainly my experience."
Sheena says she wouldn't discipline other kids who visit her home but she would explain what the rules are in her house.
"You can't discipline a visiting child in the same way you'd discipline your own. As an adult it's tricky because you don't know the children and their parents extremely well, so in a way the play date forces you to become sociable, which is in turn good for the child because they see you being sociable."
What does Sheena think of Sorcha's story? "When it comes to play dates, lateness of picking up kids would be a big bugbear for parents. Respect needs to be shown to the other parent. Try and stick to the time as much as possible. If I was running late I'd let them know but there will always be a parent who will take a bit longer and yes that can be awkward."
The world of play dates is a minefield of parenting issues and caution is clearly needed. On the upside though it's reassuring to know your child can make friends and you'd never want to deprive them of that.
*Not her real name
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