Back in the day, kids got together when they wanted to play. We didn’t have dates with other kids. We just played ball in the backyard, created crazy games with the neighbors, and came up with our own plans. But if you’re the parent of a young child, you’ve probably had other parents ask you about “play dates” between your child and their children. The term play date is more than just an annoying phrase, it is a new practice that sets our kids up for inflated expectations and takes away their opportunity for spontaneity. It is time to end play dates and get back to letting kids be kids!
What is a Play Date?
When I was a child my parents rarely made arrangements for me to get together with another child – we made plans together based on what I wanted to do and which friends I wanted to have over (which usually just meant the neighbors). However, now parents of kids as young as infants are arranging play dates. And as much as you might want to think that play dates are just the same as kids getting together to play – they aren’t. When parents arrange for play dates they often involve:
- Arrangements for kids to play together – whether the kids want to or not
- A pre-determined activity, such as going to the zoo, the park, or the museum
- Parents using the time as their social hour
- Expectations for snacks, travel, and something beyond graham crackers in the backyard
There are groups for parents that even provide the framework for the rules of playgroups and play dates. In one article a mother talks about the stress of joining a local playgroup, where the rules even state that each group can have only 5 parents and they rotate on formal schedule which family hosts the play date. The expectations are that the host will provide snacks for children and adults, and provide a specific activity or designated group of toys for the children.
What is Wrong with Play Dates?
There is nothing wrong with the idea that kids can learn a lot from each other and should have opportunities to do so, but the idea that kids need to be entertained in order to be socialized can lead to fallout.
- Parents feel pressure to provide entertainment that rivals those of other play dates. It is a game of keeping up with the Jones’s way of life.
- Parents end up spending more money than they maybe would like to or should because of the pressure to entertain.
- Children learn that their friendships are orchestrated by adults, and they don’t develop the tools needed to actively seek out relationships on their own.
- Children don’t get valuable opportunities to create, imagine, and dream as a group.
- Carefully planned and scheduled play dates don’t give kids the valuable lessons involved with negotiating with peers for which activity they should do, whose turn it is, or what to do next.
- Kids are so scheduled that they don’t even have room to misbehave and make bad choices with friends. If we let them make mistakes when they are 4 (like taking away a friend’s toy), they learn how to navigate social rules and make amends for mistakes. Even though some think that orchestrated play dates that are filled with entertainment are good because kids will be better behaved (when they are just kept too busy to try otherwise), the truth is that real play allows kids to misbehave and learn how to do better next time.
- Play dates are often formed based in part by adult friendships that have formed, meaning that unless the parents want to spend the play date with each other, the kids don’t get to do the same.
How Can My Child Get Socialization Without Play Dates?
Parents use play dates for two specific reasons – for their own social time and because they worry that their children will grow up to be socially backward if left to their own devices. Parents worry that kids who are shy or the only-child won’t develop the necessary skills needed in life. But studies don’t show this to be true, and for decades these kids have learned to manage their social lives – until we stepped in and developed play dates for them.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t invite other kids over to play with our kids. But let’s at least ask our kids who they want to spend the afternoon with, and let them think of things to do together. Today there are 4 boys at my house running around, inventing games, shouting, and playing. No dating necessary. A few reminders by me to close the door, take off muddy shoes in the house, and not to hit each other in the eye with the Nerf dart is the most orchestration I have to do.
Let’s save the dating for real dates – where bowling, seeing a movie, and going out to dinner are adolescent and twenty-something behaviors. If we quit taking our kids on dates so they feel like they have friends, we will have time and energy for real dates with our spouses – which is probably much more important than conforming to the rules of the neighborhood playgroup.