By now, you and your child are old hands at the playdate game. But the dynamics are beginning to change. The big difference? Hurt feelings. Common playdate squabbles still involve sharing toys, taking turns, choosing activities, and winning (and losing) games. Now, though, your child is starting to take such social slights more personally than he did during the preschool years. By keeping some guidelines in mind, you can help ensure that bruised feelings, dangerous dares, and playdate putdowns don’t mar your grade-schooler’s get-togethers.
Making a “date”
Let your child lead. At this age, kids are starting to plan the time they spend together at school — who they’ll eat lunch with, for instance, and who they’ll meet up with during recess. So it makes sense to allow your grade-schooler the same freedom when it comes to making playdates. The less you interfere in the planning process, the more control your child will feel over his social world — and the more he’ll learn about being a gracious host. So let him choose whom to invite, when to make the date, and what the kids will do (schedule and common sense permitting, of course). Keep it small. Three really can be a crowd when it comes to playdates, says Sara Wilford, an expert in early childhood education at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Instead, try to limit playdates to one friend at a time. Otherwise it’s too easy for the third child to feel left out. If your child does invite more than one friend over, aim for a group of four so the kids can pair off. If the idea of several children tearing through your house makes you shudder, arrange to meet at a local playground or park. Keep it short — at least at first. An hour is fine for a first visit, and two hours is plenty for after-school get-togethers, says Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, teacher Lisa Church, the author of Everyday Creative Play.Wait until the kids are seasoned pals before you attempt longer weekend visits or sleepovers. Get the facts on food. Because your guest will probably have a snack or two during the playdate, be sure to ask her parents about any potential food allergies, sensitivities, or preferences: Is she allergic to peanuts? Lactose intolerant? Vegetarian?
Scratch screen time. Playdates can help kids polish their social skills — something that’s hard to do when they’re staring raptly at a screen. Save the show or game for the post-playdate wind-down, and plan activities kids can do together instead. Let your guest’s parents as well as your own child know about this no-screen policy ahead of time. That way, the playmate won’t show up expecting a private viewing of a new show your child’s been talking about. Set boundaries. As kids get older and more adventurous (especially when egged on by a peer they’re desperate to impress), you may need to clearly limit the scope of their play area. You may want to tell them that playing in the backyard is fine, for example, but no shooting hoops in the driveway unless you’re there to watch. While you don’t want to hover too much around kids this age, it’s important to know where they are at all times and look in on them regularly. Keep siblings away. Do your best to distract younger children when an older sibling has a friend over (better yet, pair a younger child with his own playmate). Much as you may welcome a playdate as easy entertainment for both of your kids, being saddled with a little brother or sister isn’t fair to the child having the playdate — not to mention frustrating and possibly even unsafe for the younger one, who can’t keep up with the older kids’ more advanced (and daring) play. Let kids choose what to do. Plan two or three activities you think the children may enjoy, suggests Lisa Church, but don’t insist on doing them if the kids are fine on their own. This will only agitate a child who feels that you’re intruding on special playtime with a friend. Instead, wait for your cue — usually something along the lines of, “We’re bored. What can we do?” Be prepared for “break time.” Besides having some healthy snacks on hand, it’s a good idea to have a quiet-time activity ready in case the kids get too wound up — or are beginning to butt heads. Sara Wilford suggests baking cookies or reading a book together, making a brief excursion outside, or doing an easy and relaxed arts-and-crafts project.
Lay down “house rules.” Situations will undoubtedly arise that require you to correct your visitor’s behavior. Rather than simply reprimanding him, says Wilford, remember that the rules may be different in his house and that he needs to understand the reasoning behind your requests. Instead of saying, “Don’t eat in there!” for instance, say, “We only eat in the kitchen at our house.” If he’s running down the stairs, say “Those stairs are slippery, so please walk carefully on them.” This cuts down on the reprimands while still keeping the kids in line. Let kids work out problems. If children don’t see eye-to-eye on something, resist the urge jump in right away. Small disagreements seldom last long, and if you hang back you’ll often find that kids are capable of working out their own resolution. Intervene if you have to. If a conflict is escalating into put-downs or physical confrontation, it’s time to step in. Remain calm and make firm statements like, “I can’t let you do that to Natalie.” Remind both parties that words and actions that hurt are not acceptable, and then coach the kids on coming up with a compromise to the original problem. If the fighting continues, separate the children for a while or introduce a new activity that’s less likely to cause conflict.
Give fair warning. When the end of the playdate draws near, remind the kids that their time together is almost over: “Ten more minutes, boys. Time to wrap up your game.” If the playdate was a success, preface their parting with a brief discussion about what they enjoyed this time and what they might like to do at their next get-together: “You two did so well making muffins together. Want to try a cake next time?” Send a memory home. If the kids created anything tangible (drawings, crafts, cookies), send your guest’s creation home with him. If not, consider snapping a photo you can print out and send home. Kids are often so excited to share these treasures with their parents that it helps ease them out the door at the end of a playdate. Take the playdate on the road. Some parents find that rather than leaving both kids whining (or hiding) when a guest’s parent arrives to drag him out the door, it’s easier to end the playdate by getting everyone out of the house. If it’s feasible, consider walking or driving your guest home, then make the trip there seem like an adventure: Have the kids race to see who can get their shoes on first, and talk about the different sights you’ll see on the way. You just might find that the goodbyes go more smoothly on your guest’s doorstep than they would on your own.