Friday, April 30, 2010

Why I Hate Playdates

Hating playdates isn’t P.C. I know that. Yet I can’t manage to shake the dread I feel when my kids ask to have them. I know other parents who secretly feel the same way, but they hide their dislike for playdates better than I do. They mask their shame at being a parent who doesn’t want to support their children’s interpersonal development by not facilitating the playdate experience and thereby making their kid a social pariah before the age of ten. Don’t get me wrong – I actually like my daughters' friends very much. In fact I am constantly surprised and amazed by what a good group of kids they are – amusing and challenging in the best possible ways, with a healthy dose of snarkiness mixed with sarcasm – what is that, snarkcasm?- that I try to encourage in my own children. It’s not the kids that I hate, it’s the actual playdate ritual itself.

Playdates are time consuming to set them up, fill up afternoons of our always over scheduled days and force me to come home from work when I’m already exhausted and cranky and entertain another person’s child rather than get away with ignoring my own for a couple of hours. And as a working parent, I always feel like I never have enough time to reciprocate and have other people’s kids over as much as they put up with mine. And that showers me with guilt. Don’t want to be the mom they talk about on the school yard and accuse of dumping her kids on other people.

Then there is the stress of making sure it is not just a playdate, but a fun playdate. Because the last thing your kid wants is for word to get around that their house is a boring place to be or that their mom is too strict or doesn’t serve the right snacks. I already have enough of these issues – scheduling, reciprocity, presentations – to deal with at work. Do I have to face them on the home front as well?

Here’s the Wikipedia take on playdates that made me laugh. (Okay, I know, I’m embarrassed to admit getting info from there, but in this case it has a very succinct and insightful description of the phenomenon of playdates):

A playdate is an arranged appointment for children to get together for a few hours to play. Playdates have become the standard for children of many western cultures because the work schedules for busy parents, along with media warnings about leaving children unattended, prevent the kind of play that children of other generations participated in. The intention of a playdate is to give children time to interact freely in a less structured environment than other planned activities might provide. Playdates are a late 20th century innovation. Playdates are becoming part of the vernacular of popular culture and form a part of children’s "down time." Most parents prefer children to use these hours to form friendships by playing with other children either one-on-one or within small groups.

Damn those media warnings. Why can’t I just kick my children out onto the street to play with the neighborhood kids from dawn until dusk like our parents did? We were gone all day Saturdays, Sundays and after school with no adult supervision. Our parents had no idea where we were for hours at a time. We could have been plotting the downfall of western civilization and they would never have known. But the thing that struck me on the head like an unbelted car seat in a rear end collision was the statement, “Playdates are a late 20th century innovation.” Basically, we parents created this activity to add to our already over scheduled lives and it has now morphed in a childhood must do.

Like I said, the kids my girls hang out with are great. It’s the schlepping kids to and from playdates, feeling beholding when I can’t (because of work or sheer exhaustion) cheerily reciprocate with an afternoon of play with the ease (and great generosity) that most of the other mothers seem to do. And then there is that pressure. I once had a girl over for a playdate who asked if we had a cat because she mistook the dust bunnies on the floor for hair balls. And another who, after a snack of milk shakes, cheese sandwiches, cut fruit and gogurts complained, saying, “That’s all there is to eat?” I never seem to know what activities to engage them with or food to put in front of them that is going to satisfy or (God forbid) live up to the increasingly high expectations of the playdate experience.

And what if there is a mishap? Because I’m the type of person who always needs to worry about something – I sometimes think worry is the only thing holding me together – what if something bad happens while someone else’s child is on a playdate with you? I think for that reason I have all but eschewed the destination playdate out of fear of losing someone’s kid in the crowd at Camp Snoopy. What if, you prepare an elaborate snack of taquitos with fruit salsa which sends your playdate guest into convulsions because their mom forgot to tell you about their allergy to cilantro? Or exposing them to something inappropriate, which happened to our friend’s kid when they came home from a playdate and described to their parents how the host mom had naked pictures of herself in erotic poses proudly displayed on every wall in the house. Playdates are supposed to be fun and educational, but not like that.

Someone told me about a blunt playdate mommy who informed the mother of the visiting child that their kid played well and would be allowed to come back. It was as if my friend’s kid had passed a checklist of playdate guest challenges and won the prize of being able to visit again. I agree with blunt mommy’s sentiment, but I’d never be that direct. We’ve had kids come over who have torn antique dolls to shreds, “accidentally” slapped my daughter in the face and cruelly tried to scare my younger daughter so she’d leave the older kids alone to play. And when their mothers came to the door and asked how it went, I said what any playdatephobic mom would say, “Oh, everything was great!”

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