Nice Kids, Rude Parents: Does Your Playdate Etiquette Need a Makeover?

If your kid isn't exactly raking in playdate invitations, it might be time for you to brush up on your social skills.

Social Slipup: You're Too Competitive

Are you worried that your child's juice-box-throwing habit or her refusal to share could be hurting her ability to make friends? Don't assume that her behavior is always to blame: Many parents are also guilty of less-than-perfect playdate etiquette. We've got solutions for some of the most common mistakes you might not realize you're making.

It's okay to secretly believe that no kid is as perfect as yours. But it's definitely not okay to announce it to everyone. I had to "lose" the phone number of a mom who constantly compared her son with my daughter. The last straw: We'd both given our babies deposit envelopes to occupy them while we were at the bank one day. As we left, my "friend" suddenly said, "Dammit! Leo just dropped his envelope and Josie's still holding hers. I thought his fine motor skills were superior." Um, hello? When you're turning who can hold an envelope longer into a contest, you need to get a hobby.

Acting this way guarantees that other parents will avoid you -- and your kid. Not only will you shrink your child's social circle, but eventually, he might think you love him just for his accomplishments. "Parents are very focused on achievement today," says Dan Kindlon, PhD, author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. "They want to bask in the light of their brilliant kids." In other words, competitive parenting is about boosting your ego -- not being proud of your child.

The fix: The next time you're tempted to comment on whose toddler is crawling faster, "Ask, 'Why am I emotionally invested in another kid's progress?'" says Julie Holland, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University's School of Medicine. After all, you're still a good parent even if your child isn't as speedy as her pal. If you do have concerns about whether she's reaching her milestones, see your pediatrician. If you don't, replace the comparisons with actual adult conversation; talk about the novel you're reading or the vacation you want to take.

Social Slipup: You Dictate Food Rules

It's fine to be choosy about what your child eats. But unless he has a food allergy, you shouldn't dictate rules to other parents about what to feed your kid on playdates or comment on their food choices; otherwise, your child's social calendar may get lighter. "No one wants to have playdates with moms who say things like, 'He can only have whole wheat crackers!'" says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Parenting Books. "You can't avoid junk food if you're going to let your kid have friends."

And if you rigidly try to control his diet, he'll never learn to handle real-world choices and temptations, says Ellyn Satter, author of Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. "For that to happen, kids need to learn to manage food when you're not around," she says. Depriving him of treats can backfire -- your child may become obsessed with the junk food you forbid.

The fix: First, relax: Munching on a few cookies at a friend's house won't undo your child's good eating habits. "The foods you serve at home will probably be the ones your child will like and choose to eat as he gets older," says Satter.

If he does have a treat, balance it out by making sure his meals are healthy. And it's reasonable to ask the playdate host to avoid giving your child a huge snack, or serving one too close to a meal, so he won't ruin his appetite, says Satter. "You won't seem too restrictive, and your child will still eat a healthy meal at home."

Social Slipup: You Micromanage Playdates

Do you overplan every playdate? Do you swoop in at the hint of an argument and insert yourself relentlessly into the kids' play? Not only will the children think you're a pest (the little pal may not want to come back), you're also undermining an important learning experience. "Children teach each other friendship through play," says Michael Thompson, PhD, coauthor of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Worlds of Children. "If you're micromanaging the kids, it's not play-it's an adult-run activity."

Shadowing your kid hurts more than her friendships. "The more you hover, the less resilient she'll be," says Michele Borba, EdD, Parents advisor and the author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. "Children have to learn to problem-solve without you."

The fix: Teach your child to manage her playdates. Before her friend comes over, remind her to share and let her put away toys she can't part with. Then, step back. Unless the kids are in a physical fight, tell them that they have to work out their problem," says Dr. Borba. If they can't, you can offer some suggestions -- but they need to make the decision.

Social Slipup: You Take Advantage

Parents expect bad behavior from kids on playdates -- it's The Parent Who Has No Manners that fills them with dread. "Too many moms see playdates as an opportunity for free babysitting or a chance to mess up someone else's house and not clean up," says Noel Claro, a mom from Queens, New York. If you're guilty of this crime, chances are your kid won't get many playdate invitations -- and he'll learn some terrible manners by watching you.

The fix: Remember the golden rule of playdates: Treat others as you'd want others to treat you. If you need a sitter, hire one -- a family shouldn't be left waiting for you to get your kid because your book club ran late. When you accept a playdate invitation, say thank you afterward and extend an invitation in return. And don't make yourself comfortable at the hostess's house when you pick up your child from a playdate -- she needs a break!

Social Slipup: You're Judgmental

There are a million different ways to raise healthy, bright, resilient kids. We've all spent hours chatting about natural childbirth versus epidurals and cosleeping versus cribs with our fellow moms. But when you start criticizing other people's parenting choices, you risk alienating them -- and limiting your child's social circle. You may think you're simply educating other people when you make these judgments, but it's not that innocent, says Dr. Holland: "You're trying to make yourself feel better about your parenting choices by putting other people down."

The fix: "Make a list of everything you've done right as a mom and everything you're proud of," suggests Dr. Holland. "When you see your accomplishments laid out like that, you may feel less compelled to critique other people." If you still have the jones to judge, pinch yourself before you say anything. "Just smile, knowing that you're making good parenting choices," Dr. Holland says with a laugh. "It's fine to gloat inwardly, just not outwardly!"



Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the March 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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