When your kids are young, a playdate is really a double date. You and your child meet up with another parent and child and hope that no one pushes anyone else’s buttons (or bodies).
My four-year-old daughter and I have had some awkward playdates with acquaintances where all parties involved silently agreed to never repeat the experience again.
But it’s really the playdates with your own friends that can be uncomfortable to navigate because you’re going to have to see each other again.
When you have a different parenting style from your friend, or different house rules, or very different kids, playdates can get awkward.
Here's what to do on a playdate when things aren't going according to plan, without offending your friend (or their kid).
What to say to your kid
Before the playdate begins, it's helpful to remind your child of a few rules that still apply even though he or she has a friend over.
It can also be helpful during the playdate to talk to your child within earshot of the other parent and child. That way everyone is getting the message, but it's softened by the fact that it's directed at your kid.
What you say: "Let’s put away any special toys you aren’t comfortable sharing."
What you mean: "Let’s put your favorite stuffed bear away so you don’t absolutely freak out when your friend tries to pet it."
I believe in teaching my kids to be a good host. If a toy is out, it’s fair game for our friends who have made an effort to come see us. So toys that are especially precious and cause some possessive tendencies need to be put out of sight before friends come over.
What you say: "Remember, Little Brother is not always ‘It’."
What you mean: "Little Brother may not be old enough to realize that you’re ganging up on him and making him the butt of the joke, but I know."
It’s most helpful to remind your older child before the playdate how you expect her to treat and protect her younger sibling. Then let your child pass that information on to her friend should the need arise.
I also remind my oldest that she should let me know if I need to "redirect" her little brother’s attention if he’s smashing the house of blocks she and her friend are building.
What you say: "Sure, I’d like to play something."
What you mean: "Sure, I’ll help you navigate this awkward moment."
Most playdates have that moment where the kids come to a standstill. Each kid wants to play something different, or someone isn’t sharing, or someone got grumpy, and then they inevitably ask you to play with them.
I find it helpful to play for a moment and find an activity that both kids will enjoy, then step back and let them enjoy the structured fun.
What you say: "Maybe it’s time for some alone time."
What you mean: "My kid is done, and you’ve got approximately ten minutes to leave before witnessing her meltdown."
You know the signs when your kid is maxed out. When you’re at someone else’s house, it’s great because you can just leave, but it’s kind of uncomfortable to ask someone to leave your house.
Other helpful phrases here are:
- "Let’s play one more game before our friends have to get home."
- "It’s almost dinner time. I bet you’re hungry."
- "You’ve played so hard, it’s probably time for a rest."
Or, of course, you can always use the tried and true, "Let’s start cleaning up." That’s the universal hint for, "It’s time for you to go."
What to say to the other kid
Establishing your house rules and correcting the behavior of the other child is the most awkward part of a playdate. By phrasing things the right way, you can soften the blow a little bit so you don’t look like you’re overstepping your bounds.
What you say: "Let me show you around."
What you mean: "Let me show you where I don’t want you to go."
Prevention is the key. Lay down some laws under the guise of giving your guest a tour. You can point out areas of the house that the kids are allowed to roam freely and areas that are off limits. Any parent who’s found a visiting kid going through jewelry in the master bedroom or playing on the computer in the office learns this trick fast.
It’s good to establish some house rules in front of the other parent so that the other parent can help enforce them.
What you say: "In this house we don’t jump on the bed."
What you mean: "My house. My rules."
This is a good way to correct the behavior of your friend’s kid without seeming too harsh on the child or critical of your friend’s choices. Maybe your friend doesn’t mind if the kids jump on the bed at her house, but you don’t want it happening at your house.
Don’t make it about the behavior itself, but about the behavior in your house:
"In this house we only eat at the table," "In this house we don’t bang on the windows," or "In this house we don’t strangle our friends."
What you say to the parent
When the other parent is your friend, you need to communicate in a way that gets you your desired result without offending your friend. You can do that by keeping the focus on the kids rather than yourself or your friend.
What you say: "Want to come at 10 a.m.? That’ll give us a two-hour window before naptime at noon."
What you mean: "I’d like this playdate to be about two hours, and I need you to leave before noon so I can get a rest while my kid naps."
Some people think a playdate is an hour and some think it’s an all day affair. So giving yourself an in and out time can clarify your position.
If you’re flexible, nowhere to be, nothing to do at any certain time, then you can skip this.
If you have children who need to eat and sleep at certain times or a kid who maxes out of playdates at around the two-hour mark, then you have to be specific when you lay out the plans.
What you say: "Let’s check on the kids."
What you mean: "I think your kid is being mean to my kid and I want you to notice."
If another parent isn’t seeing what you’re seeing, and you’re not comfortable saying, "Your kid is not being very nice," make it an, "Oh won’t this be fun?! We’ll spy on our kids for a minute," suggestion.
Playdates can be fun for the parents and the kids if you can just figure out how to navigate the awkward parts without saying what you're really thinking.