Keep the Numbers Low
At any age, the least risky move is to host a one-on-one. This way there's no fear of anyone getting left out. Also, the fewer kids the better the chance for quiet, independent play. There are some exceptions: Babies really don't play together anyway -- it's usually about parents -- so more can be merrier. As the kids get older (after about age 4) they can usually handle a few more friends in the fray. But be prepared: the more children around, the more involved you'll have to stay.
Plan on sticking around if your child is under 3. At this age, playdates are social events for both kids and adults. Most older kids like a drop-off (especially if it's with a family they know well). Some kids take a while to warm up to being left at another family's home. Often, it's just a matter of hanging around until your child feels totally comfortable.
The smaller the child, the shorter the playdate should be. An hour is ideal for babies and toddlers, but most preschoolers can easily handle two to three. When in doubt subscribe to the maxim: Leave 'em wanting more.
Have some activities ready in case the natives get restless, or to do simply if you want to be known as awesome.
What kid doesn't like to wiggle when the beat starts thumping? Have the children kick off their shoes, then crank up the tunes. Bump it up a notch by turning the music on and off and shouting "Freeze!" when it stops.
Have a scavenger hunt!
For toddlers, hide plastic blocks, tennis balls, or mini stuffed animals in a room and give helpful clues. Challenge older kids to find things around the house and yard. Pick items in plain sight. Some ideas:
* Hands on a clock
* A birdhouse
* Baby pictures of the host
* 3 yellow leaves
Origami is fun for all ages. Try a paper puppy that even toddlers can tackle with a little bit of help:
1. Fold a square piece of paper in half to form a triangle with creased edge at top.
2. Fold top two corners down to form ears.
3. Fold top layer of bottom point up to make space for the nose.
4. Draw in eyes, nose, and a tongue.
Make a good-faith effort to alternate locations. By the time your child is in kindergarten, he and his pals will be aware of whose turn it is to play host -- and will act as enforcers. Until then, if you find yourself taking your kid to friends' homes a lot, you'll need to step up.
Every once in a while you may get stuck with a mom or dad who drives you completely, totally nuts. You'll meet The Unreciprocators, The Sick Child Bringers, and, of course, The "What's One More?" type who jauntily drops off the cousin or a sibling. Although it's tempting to move to a new state, there are easier ways to make things work.
If a parent has the nerve to come over with a coughing, contagious child, then you should have the guts (and the right) to say, "I'm really sorry, but I can't have a sick kid over. I just don't want to risk having Zach catch something."
If a parent asks to drop off an unexpected extra, try, "Next time I'll plan to include all the kids, but I can't do it today." Or you can tell the other mom that it would be fine if she's willing to stick around and help supervise things.
We asked Melissa Leonard, a certified etiquette consultant in Harrison, New York, to give advice on these common predicaments.Q. That kid was a brat, and I don't want him to come back. What should I do?
A. Anyone can have a bad day, so take the "three crummy playdates and you're out" approach. If you're ready to give up, avoid making future plans by saying something like, "Our schedule is crazy at the moment. Can we touch base at a later date?" If you say that enough, all but the most socially inept person will get the message.Q. Should I report a little guest's bad behavior at pickup time?
A. Nobody likes a tattletale, so let the small stuff go. But most of us want to know if our child hit someone, bit someone, intentionally broke something, or had a major meltdown. If that's the case, diplomatically say: "It was great, but we just had a little incident...." Then give the other parent a brief explanation of what happened.Q. Speaking of naughty kids, is it okay for me to give a visitor a time-out?
A. Sorry, but that's not a good idea. Disciplining is always reserved for the behaviorally challenged kid's parents. If there's a tussle, though, you can get involved with a simple statement like, "Hands to yourself. We have a house rule against hitting." If that doesn't calm things down, create a diversion as in: "It's snacktime, everyone!"