As I am working here at my computer I am listening to my Sunshine doll and her friend playing in the pool and chatting about life from a 10 year old’s perspective. They are sipping strawberry cream soda and giggling. It is the sweetness of childhood friendship in a snapshot moment.
But not all playdates end up this way. Some end up in fights and frustration; others in your kid picking up a bad habit, bad attitude, or bad word. What is a mama to do if she wants to both safeguard and socialize her child?
I picked up some good advice early on from Mardy Freeman in her book Children of Character. Mardy outlines a plan for playdates that I have found useful. The way I have used her outline looks something like this: How well do I know and trust the child that is coming over to play? This requires me to have paid attention to conversations on the playground, art class or wherever my child knows this child from. Checking out mentally, being overly engrossed in conversation because you are socially starved, or reading a book because you are bored is not an option in these information gathering, get to know you stages. Sorry, parents. Remember that a little intentionality goes a long way. A kid from a great family can act their worst away from home.
If I do not know this child well, the kids will have to play in my presence. Letting your child know ahead of time which rooms will be available and which room are off-limits is helpful. Your child doesn’t need to know why. Creating room limits will allow them to use their imaginations to choose a game, while keeping them within earshot. Then as trust is built, you can let out the reins a little more, checking with less frequency. If trust is broken, we go back to supervised play, if it seems like that relationship should be maintained at all.
And what if your child is invited to play at their house? I was never shy about choosing a neutral location where we could all play instead. If that went well, I was willing to hang out at the friend’s house to keep an eye on things. I want to be aware of the child’s siblings and how they treat my child, relatives that pop in and other friends that are invited to play. I am very cautious about giving up that safety. That requires me to give up convenience sometimes and to make my house the place where everyone wants to play. Or “hang out”, as older kids call play dates. It requires me to be the mom that drives everyone in my mini-van full of crumbs. It requires vigilance. But in a world where one out of every three girls and one out of every eight boys will be sexually abused by age 18, it is reality. It has caused us to rule out slumber parties (with the occasional exception of their best friends whom we’ve known very well for a number of years). In a world where 9 out 10 adult addicts began using before they turned 18, and 25 percent of Americans who began using any addictive substance before age 18 are still addicted, vigilance is necessary.
We established a rule that boys are not allowed in our girl’s bedroom from an early age. That way it is embedded in their minds and in the house rules, saving from awkward moments, issues, and explanations later on. Little boys have chafed at such a rule, but only because there were shiny toys in the bedroom. We gladly pulled out the toys. Except for that one human wrecking ball that was given only soft blocks to play with. And the times little siblings of friends want to play with personal coin or stamp collections they find in the bedroom. Restricting bedroom access is a request of my kids when such siblings are present. Of course, playing in the living room means you will be inconvenienced with clean up, but that is a small price to pay for safety.
Establishing a plan of action ahead of time, that hopefully both parents agree upon, creates reasonable expectations and smooth reactions to surprise playdate requests. Bringing Up Girls by Dr. James Dobson influenced our thinking on playdates and slumber parties. I do not hesitate to bring up any issues encountered to the other child’s parent. I treat them the way I want to be treated. If they hear my child is
struggling in some area I would want them to tell me. So am I helicopter parenting? Not at all. I do not interfere with my child’s relationships and solve their problems for them. I teach them how to get along and how to apologize for inevitable mistakes and let them work it out whenever possible. But I do offer guidance, my presence to deter any thought of mischief, and a listening ear. Do not worry, you will get to the place where your vigilance is not a full time job. And you will know and love these other kids that do life with yours. Their character and accomplishments will enrich yours. Every kid can use another person cheering them on.
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