Playdate Protocol

We've got the etiquette secrets to successful kid get-togethers.

playdate_protocol_art Eric McNatt

play·date (n): 1. a scheduled social engagement, for purposes of play, between two or more young children 2. an innovative arrangement created by contemporary parents to ensure their kids' play will take place in a safe environment under adult supervision 3. the culminating step in the overscheduling of children's lives by overprotective, stressed-out parents.

If the above definitions sound less than definitive, that may be because I made them up. In truth, Merriam-Webster hasn't yet added playdate to the lexicon. Nevertheless, you'd be hard-pressed to find a parent today who hasn't planned, booked, and agonized over this complicated, perplexing, and seemingly crucial component of a child's social life.

Indeed, the advance arrangements that characterize playdates arouse mixed emotions for many of us who grew up in a more free-roaming age, when get-togethers were settled with a quick "You wanna come over?" on the bus ride home. Now we're making those deals all over again -- this time for our children -- and we find ourselves sweating over their social lives to a greater extent than we ever did over our own. With more two-income families and less comfort about kids' just hanging out in backyards, socializing has become more formalized. And as many parents are discovering, the rules are new and not always obvious. Here, then, are the most angst-filled playdating questions from parents, with advice from experts.

Do I have to plan playdates for my child?

Hosting pressures for the grown-ups, social pressures for the kids -- why do we put ourselves through it? "A lot of parents, unfortunately, look at the number of playdate invitations a child gets, or how many they host, as an indication of the child's popularity," says Jerry Brodlie, Ph.D., a Greenwich, CT-based child psychologist. Holdouts, on the other hand, may feel reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, especially when others go overboard with a different date every day. If you fall into the latter category, you may wonder: Is my child missing out? Relax. While playdates are useful for building a child's social skills, says Dr. Brodlie, you can feel free to set a limit -- once a week, every two weeks, or even every three -- if you or your little one feels overwhelmed.

Should I be nosy or not?

Part of the goal in arranging playdates in today's perilous world is to protect our children from unforeseen dangers. Yet who knows what hazards lurk in the homes of other families? "I'm amazed at parents who bring their child over for the first time, pull over, let the child out, and drive off," says Kay West, mother of two kids and the Nashville-based author of How to Raise a Lady and How to Raise a Gentleman. "I wouldn't leave my child without visiting a bit first. I'll invite myself in and casually look around to see if I'm comfortable. I also come right out and ask about things like guns in the house. I say something like, 'I know I'm obsessive about this, but I feel uncomfortable with my children being around them.' I also tell parents what my limits are on TV watching and video games."

Jeffrey Marsh, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, says that being self-deprecating about one's personal rules, restrictions, and phobias can help reduce the tension that accompanies grilling another parent. Of course, some concerns require a more hardheaded approach -- your child's food allergies, for example. In the end, every parent must decide which issues are deal breakers. Don't be too nitpicky -- you don't want to act like the dinner guest who tries to dictate the menu. But don't be afraid to call things off if your biggest concerns aren't laid to rest. "This is your child," West says. "You can't be too concerned for his safety."

Why am I always the host?

Many a parent finds herself hosting playdate after playdate with the same child, with no reciprocity from the other parent. Assuming you haven't gone overboard and your obsession with hidden dangers isn't the problem, courtesy should dictate a return invitation sooner or later, shouldn't it? "If you're always hosting, you should stop and examine what the other parent may be using you for," West says. "If it's moving toward auxiliary childcare, you want to be careful about how far you allow it to go." She advises cordial honesty with the other parent. Try saying, for example, "We've really enjoyed having your child over to play and our daughter is eager to see the stuffed-animal collection she has been talking about." If that doesn't work, you may eventually have to stop the invitations and hope the other parent gets the hint, says West.

Should I stay or just drop my child off?

Some parents see playdates as a social outlet for themselves as well as their children. Others are relieved when the guest parent takes off so they don't have to play nice too. Of course, the real guideline should be the age of the children and their comfort level. Discuss beforehand whether the visiting child should be dropped off, and make sure parents and children are on board with the decision. Dropping off preschoolers may be okay if the kids are neighbors who play together every day, but many parents suggest a kindergarten cutoff: "I wouldn't drop off a child younger than 5 because you never know how your child will deal with separation or what the kids might get into that requires your attention," says Heidi Hoff, a journalist in Vancouver, British Columbia, who was spurred by her kids' experiences to write an e-book titled The Play Date Handbook. "Even when the kids are older, sometimes it's nicer for both the parents and the children if everyone sticks around."

Multi-generational dates can benefit both the grown-ups and kids, but with a caveat. "Playdates often wind up being social events for the parents, and that's not always appropriate because it can become more about them than the children," cautions Dr. Brodlie. "It's important to be mindful at all times of what the kids are doing. Focus on them; make sure they're having a good experience."

As a host, how strict can I be?

Parents are often squeamish about imposing discipline on other people's children. Get over it, some experienced playdaters suggest. Whenever possible, the parents should agree on disciplinary measures, such as time-outs, with the visiting child's parents. West cautions that if you have to reprimand the visitor, you should do it in a nonjudgmental voice -- it's not your role to tell him how to behave outside his own home. Instead, use a firm tone that implies, "This is the way it is here."

"In our house," she says, "'stupid' and 'shut up' are almost as bad as curse words. So if I hear a child say them, I pull him aside and tell him, 'I'd appreciate it if, while you're visiting, you don't use those words.' If another child is hitting, I separate the kids for a few minutes and say, 'We'd really like you to stay, but we can't have this behavior in our home.' If it continues, I call the other parent. Then I take an optimistic tone: 'Let's try this again another day.'"

Should I play cruise director or referee?

Some host parents run a playdate like a boot camp, marching the children from one activity to the next; others may instead offer a choice of entertaining projects, set out a few age-appropriate toys, or simply allow the playmates to find their own fun. The ideal approach is a balanced one, says Charles A. Smith, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS.

And here's the hard part: Don't jump in every time children get a bit aggressive, irritated, or argumentative, Dr. Smith advises. "Older kids in particular -- those 8 and up -- need to be allowed to create their own rules, structure, and leadership," he adds. "They need opportunities to work out their problems themselves, to argue, make up, and pat each other on the back."

What if my child doesn't want playdates?

Sometimes a half-day at preschool and seeing cousins or family friends on the weekend is enough for young kids. Yet there are some parents (and you know who you are) who seem hellbent on improving their children's social standing -- or their own -- by booking wall-to-wall dates. "Occasionally a parent will complain to me that her child isn't into playdates even though the teacher has said that she's perfectly sociable," Dr. Brodlie says. "Some children enjoy entertaining themselves, and that's a trait that should be fostered rather than discouraged. If your child has a lot of imagination and likes to play by herself, let her run with it -- it's a great quality to have."

In fact, count yourself lucky: With the break you'll get from playdate pressures, maybe you'll be able to read the paper once in a while. Let me know how that goes -- it's been a long time.