Brandon was 3 the first time another mother called me to schedule a playdate.
"A playdate," I giggled. "That's so clever! Did you make that up yourself?" (The dead silence on the other end of the phone clued me in that I had just made a monumental maternal faux pas that could potentially rival my last monumental maternal faux pas of offering up a bag of artificially colored/flavored Cheetos -- rather than the au natural variety -- to my son's playgroup.) The other mother suddenly had a dire emergency and promised to call back. She didn't.
Determined to spare myself future mortification, I began reading up on the ins and outs of playdates; rapidly surmising they entailed a considerable amount of parental involvement. One article, for example, "Plan the Perfect Playdate," suggested I orchestrate a caterpillar cookie recipe that would have given Wolfgang Puck a run for his money. And honestly, do people really have potato sack races anymore?
Four kids and many magazine articles later, I now feel I am a virtual authority in the field of playdates. And considering Merriam-Webster has yet to add this modern mommy term to the official lexicon, I've taken it upon myself to write a definition.
Playdate (n): 1. adult-supervised, adult-directed "free play" between kids. 2. an organized method of fitting socializing into a kid's hectic agenda. 3. a means of improving a child's social status and heightening his popularity. 4. the culminating step in the over-scheduling of kids' lives by over-protective, stressed-out parents.
Despite the societal clout of these new-fangled kiddie rendezvous, many experts fear that while they may be fine for preschoolers, they can be stagnating for kids developmentally prepared to be more independent, largely due to the following defining features:
The Playdate Scheduling Feature
When we were kids, our social plans were arranged with a "Hey, you wanna come over?" on the school bus ride home. Today's playdates, in stark contrast, are planned weeks in advance and entered indelibly into parental palm pilots.
The Problem with the Scheduling Feature
Since kids' friendships can change with the tides, a playdate planned six weeks in advance offers no guarantee that the playees will even be speaking by the designated moment of contact. Furthermore, due to vast parental involvement, playdates exude a comprehensive list of adult-driven etiquette rules that weren't even on the radar screen when kids were running the show. If someone invites our child for a playdate, for example, mommy protocol suggests we reciprocate within a reasonable period of time. If, perchance, the other mother invites our child back prior to reasonable reciprocation, we must profusely apologize and promise to have her kid over two times in a row next time.
The Adult-Supervision Feature
When we were young, unsupervised play was the norm. We'd hop from one backyard to the next (before the evolution of the cul-de-sac) and stay out until our moms called us in for dinner. Today, parents are expected to continuously supervise their children's social gatherings (and supply a long-range walkie-talkie in the event they have to run in to check on dinner).
The Problem with the Adult-Supervision Feature
From a safety standpoint, parental vigilance is perfectly appropriate. After all, awful, unthinkable things can happen to children when they are out of a parent's vision and earshot (and the media makes sure we don't forget it!). There is, however, a fine line (especially with older children) between being cautious and being overprotective and smothering. Our kids are growing up in a nervous world as it is. Our refusal to leave their side (when they are old enough for us to do so) sends a neon message that we, their knowledgeable parents, genuinely believe our absence will jeopardize their safety - an unsettling message indeed for children just getting their feet wet in the waters of independence.
The Organized Activity Feature
In the old days, If we and our friend grew tired of hopping on our pogo sticks, someone would say something profound like: "This is boring, let's do something else." We'd bounce around ideas like climbing a tree or watching "The Flintstones," and move on to a new activity. During the modern playdate, on the other hand, the host parent is the designated boredom buster. Kids (and other parents) expect us to provide playdaters with one organized option after another, and have an arsenal of dehydration-preventing juice boxes are on hand, to boot.
The Problem with the Organized Activity Feature
Having every moment of a playdate planned and accounted for from bubble blowing to Batman action figure time, deprives children of the opportunity to engage in free creative play and learn to occupy themselves independently. Plus, it reaffirms the erroneous belief that it is a parent's job to provide kids with round-the-clock entertainment.
So what can we modern parents do to counteract these playdate pifalls without making social pariahs out of ourselves? We can begin by throwing in the towel on the Julie the "Love Boat" cruise director persona (orchestrating limbo contests and shuffleboard competitions), and make like Captain Stubing instead (controlling the ship from a comfortable distance). In other words, our role as big kid playdate hostess is to provide a safe and pleasant playing environment, adequate (as opposed to constant) supervision, and, oh yes, dehydration-preventing juice boxes.Sharon Duke Estroff is a nationally syndicated parenting columnist.