How did we get to where we are today?
The trend for highly supervised playdates grew over a lot of years, and there are some reasons that even if they change back, they won’t ever be quite the same.
One of the reasons the playdate came about was that with more parents in the work force, our schedules are simply packed tighter. We are not home when the neighbor kid comes asking to play, and when we send our child out to play, he finds the streets empty and is bored. Ironically, the place that kids play the most with the least supervision might well be after school childcare. There the adult child ratio is between 1:10 and 1:15 depending on the state and the age of the children. Often these programs are run by young adults who are not caught up in the parents’ constant need to improve and train their children. All these care givers have to do is supervise and make sure no one gets hurt. I have talked to kids who like staying late at child care for exactly that reason—it is the one place where they get extended playtime where they are basically left to their own devises. And as with playing outside in the neighborhood of yesteryear, they have to deal with a random group of kids and find a way to fit in.
Another reason play became increasingly supervised and children’s roaming got leashed in is outlined by Julie Lythcott-Haims in her book How to Raise an Adult. She argues (and I find it so fascinating that one event could have such a large effect) that when "The tragic 1981 abduction and murder of a young child named Adam Walsh became the made-for-television movie Adam [and] was seen by a near record-setting 38 million people,” people became much more aware the potential danger to children and started supervising them more closely.( http://www.businessinsider.com/the-rise-of-the-helicopter-parent-2015-7). Knowing the actual facts about our children’s safety should do a lot to put your mind at ease about your children’s safety: Of the cases of missing children in 2016, here is how they break down:
- 90 percent endangered runaways.
- 6 percent family abductions.
- 1 percent lost, injured or otherwise missing children.
- 1 percent nonfamily abductions.
- 2 percent critically missing young adults, ages 18 to 20. http://www.missingkids.com/KeyFacts
Look at those numbers. Only 2% are non family abductions or a child getting lost or injured (and keep in mind that these are the statistics for the numbers on the list reported as missing; it doesn’t mean they stay missing). These statistics suggest that it is completely reasonable for you to let your kids play outside—in the front yard, at the park, going to the library or gym by themselves. And those short chunks of time alone are their testing grounds for them to make mistakes and figure things out.
What to do with playdates today
As I mentioned above, given how busy we are and little we are home, it is unlikely playdates will ever look exactly as they did before. But how can we assure that some of the social-emotional and cognitive benefits of free play remain.
Here are my thoughts and biases:
•Let your fellow parents know your limits and philosophy unapologetically. Don't try to change who you are as a parent in order to make someone else happy. Include in your discussion your attitudes towards discipline. If the consequence in your house for, let's say door banging, is to practice open and closing the door quietly 10 times, let your child do the practice and warn the guest child that now she knows the house rule and is subject to it. If an hour later she slams the door, have her go ahead and practice opening and closing it gently. In other words, send the message that "If you are going to enjoy the privilege of playing in my house, you also get the responsibility."
•Be willing to stretch your comfort level a little when you drop your kids at someone else's house. Find that balance between knowing who you are and being open to other perspectives. Within reason, it is okay for your kids to learn that someone else has a different standard about how things are done. Sometimes that will mean more sweets than you normally allow. On the other hand, it might mean strict rules about chores before play, no balls in the house, using inside voices, not playing in the living room, etc. You might roll your eye at these expectations, but it is a good opportunity to learn that there are lots of way to be in the world.
•Become comfortable with low-level supervision. Yes, your kids might get in trouble or get hurt. Use these as opportunities for growth. With no training and zero supervision your kids might be jumping off the roof. That is perhaps a little too high risk. But jumping from the lower branch of a tree--even with its potential for bruises and scrapes--provides a learning opportunity. Let your fellow parents know what you are okay with.
•Be available but busy. Uh? How do you do both at once? The trick to supervising a play date is to be around--the kids should know where to find you--and to be busy (otherwise you are hovering), but not so busy that you cannon step in if needed. So, don't be on a conference call where it is easy to get so absorbed, you forget you even have kids. Be doing something you can easily put down if your kids need you.
•Be slow to intervene. When you see that kids are fighting over fairness or rules or sharing, allow for some drama and upset. If it is resulting in blows or gets really heated, step in as lightly as you can. Say something like, "I cannot let you hurt each other badly either physically or with words. Do you need some help talking this out?" Then use open ended questions and a lot of listening. Let the guest child start first: "Matt, what happened from your perspective?" Give Matt lots of time to tell his story uninterrupted. Get the complete story by asking, "What else?" or "Is there still more to say about that?" When he is done summarize and check, "It sounds like you are upset because.... Is that right?" Then repeat the process with other children present. This process gives kids a chance to physically calm down and be heard. At this point, check in again: "Is this something you can find a solution to peacefully or would you like more support?" If they think they are fine, give them the chance to work it out without you there. If not, keep going with open-ended questions: What might be one solution here? Why might that work? What might not work about it? What else? What is another solution that might work? Who can think of another?
•Say no to electronics. Your kids need this time to relate face to face.
•When kids mess up, give them a chance to make things right and eventually try again. Kids will break things. They'll be thoughtless and leave the hose running. They'll pull every costume out of the costume box and then not clean up before going outside to shoot hoops. Be clear about your expectations up front at the start of the play date, including about how you wanted to be spoken to by both visitor and your own child. When they mess up, help them go back and make it right again. You might need a time out from play dates with a particular kid, but it is better not to say a forever no. That child might need multiple chances to learn what your limits are.
•Help kids find ways to have fun that are not hurtful or harmful to themselves or others. Kids might get into some mischief like playing a practical joke on a younger sibling or a neighbor. I remember in high school we used my boyfriend's left over creampuffs (he worked at a bakery) to throw at cars and houses. One evening we hit a guy dressed in formal wear getting out of his car. We sped away and didn't get caught but that made me feel bad enough to realize that what was a joke to us (I figured it was a lot less gross than egging someone) was really not a joke. We didn't need punishment to get us to stop. We already felt bad. Had my mother found out, she might have suggested that my boyfriend was a bad influence and I shouldn't be seeing him. That would have been insult to injury. Instead, after encouraging me to see if there was someway to put the wrong right (like go back to the house, confess and offer to pay the cleaning bill), she might have assured us that we were creative enough to find ways to have fun that wouldn't hurt others and that that was what she expected.
•Avoid feeling unimportant or left out. In this era of hyper parenting, we are on ON all the time. We expect to be interacting with our child every moment he is not at school and we are not at work. As silly as it might sound given how we all need some time for ourselves, it is true I really have talked to parents who say, "I like to arrange activities for my kids to do on playdates that I can be apart of because otherwise I get bored." It's like, "Well, I set aside this time for parenting, and now you are telling me to ignore the kids. That's no fun." Actually, I get that. I like to play and I like to play with kids. The problem is that if adults are part of play, everyone has to play by adult rules of politeness, respect and fairness. For kids those things are fluid and have to be negotiated with each of their playmates. Put your own feelings aside and let your kids play on their own.