The pros and cons of playdates – and the temptation of insular parenting

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The pressure to be the ‘perfect parent’ 

I never realised before becoming a parent how much judgment exists around parenting. From the time your first baby arrives – no, even prior to that – it’s easy to find yourself bombarded with information, about what you should do during pregnancy, birth, feeding and caring for a young baby. And it doesn’t stop once they’re walking around. We have so much information about the ‘best’ educational approaches, theories about being stay at home or working parents, how and when to discipline and when to give them freedom … I could keep going.

So much of this information – even with the backing of ‘research’ – conflicts, so you can find yourself forever readjusting what you thought was right. And of course, advice rarely comes without being wrapped in a thick layer of judgment. It can be exhausting, if you let yourself become too absorbed in it.

The problem with playdates (note – it’s not all bad!)

But play dates are ok, surely?

Of course it’s good for kids to play together out of school time. Given we are all busy, we need to schedule these more that we have in the past – we can’t fit in everything we want into every day. And, now my two are in mid to late primary school, they don’t need to be supervised. Playdates provide freedom to get other things done, to leave them to their own devices, and can be a helpful motivation for good behaviour. Surely, it’s all good?

Well, apparently not necessarily. A new book, The Playdate: Parents, Children and the New Expectations of Play, by a sociologist and parent, Tamara Mose, looks at the shift in parenting approaches, including play dates, that has happened over a number of decades, and points to playdates as a contributor to a less inclusive society.

What???

I read the article promoting this book, titled The Privatisation of Play and became immediately defensive. Not because of the word ‘privatise’ (yes, it’s jargon, but that’s how we talk in the planning / urban design world), but because it was another thing to become defensive about. I don’t need to feel guilty about something else – particularly about something I thought was a good thing. I’m trying my best, ok?

So I put it aside, stewing a little, but then re-read it, a bit more impartially. And you know?  While I don’t agree with everything I read (and I haven’t yet read the book itself), there is actually something to consider within it. What I took from it was this:

  • We are far more likely to organise our children’s lives – their after school activities, their free time, their responsibilities (such as supervising homework) than happened in the past. When I was growing up (and my parents were far from ‘hands-off’ parents), my friends and I had far less organised activities and more free time. We were more likely to play with neighbouring children, or amongst themselves (in a large family), or even, on our own. And we were responsible for more at home.
  • We are potentially creating pressure for ourselves as parents, juggling the organisation of playdates among the many other things we do. Plus – we are more likely to be in the car, driving them to and from others’ homes, coordinating the timing between other activities. Adding to the pressure to get through everything we try to do every day.
  • We are more likely to hold playdates at home – meaning our kids don’t have as many interactions with kids that are not, somehow, connected to us (we know the parents, or have met them through school or other activities). I don’t know anyone who consciously ‘vets’ the kids or parents, as is mentioned in the article, but maybe it happens subconsciously (we are more likely to agree to playdates when we like the parents) and so it takes away, a bit, the ability for kids to form their own friendships. This might happen because, as parents, we’ve filled up our time so much with our kids’ activities that we’ve left little time for ourselves – and so we are increasingly looking towards our kids’ parents for our own needs for socialiation. This is also a shift.
  • The play time is more likely to be regulated and dictated to by adults. There is a greater tendency to look towards the adults for ideas, and it can take some self control not to corral their activities into those which are less ‘messy’, for instance. That means less free time for us, and less free play for our kids. As Tamara Mose says, ‘ the biggest difference between simple play and an official playdate is that playdates are work’. And we do need more time for play, as I’ve written here.
  • Plus – and this is what the article was talking about – while we organise playdates within our homes, some kids miss out. And, when we focus less on more organic, self organised play time – which may involve playing in the street, in a local park, these public spaces suffer because less people use them. Often the people who do still use them are the ones with less influence in gaining support for the maintenance of these spaces. We are – often, I think, without thinking about it – marginalising many in our community.

What do I now think?

In writing these points up, quite a few things struck me:

  • I kept focusing on the parent, rather than the child. I’ve never bought into the idea of being a ‘perfect’ parent, but maybe, more than I realised, part of my self worth comes from the way I parent my kids. But our kids are individuals, and the way they develop and grow comes – yes, in part from us – but also from themselves. Parenting, I think, shouldn’t be a means to validation.
  • When I wasn’t looking at the kids through the eyes of how it reflects on me as a parent, I was still looking very narrowly. I was focused on my kids (actually, my children and their friends), rather than seeing them as part of a broader group of the next generation. And yes, that’s probably natural.But.Too narrow a focus can distort our understanding of who they are relative to others. We can over emphasise the dangers, overstate their talents* – and over worry about their future. And we can pass this worry, and uncertainty onto our kids, leading, in many cases, to either an inflated sense of self worth, a fear of what might happen, or sometimes a mixture of both.

According to Mose,

“Parents are unsure of what is happening in terms of their children’s future, and we want [children] to be prepared, so we over-prepare them,” Mose says. “What we do in the playdate is create a play that is mediated at every level. And when it’s mediated at every level, parents think that they can determine which direction they’re leading their child, and maybe that offers them some type of security.” But that security is probably based on false premises.

  • Finally, by looking so narrowly, we can forget the broader context. We live with others. We are part of society – ideally. If we forget those we don’t interact with, and if others take the same approach, we run the risk of leaving a lot of kids behind.  We are likely to not notice this is happening.  Until some of those marginalised react against it, in ways that don’t fit our ‘safe’ world. By then, it might be too late.

What changes am I going to make?

I don’t completely know, yet. These are thoughts that have just occurred to me, I’m still reflecting on them, and I’d love feedback about them.

One thing I do know is that that you can view articles and books like the ones I’ve quoted from (and in fact, my post) in one of two ways. They can be an means of beating ourselves up – again – for not getting it right, or alternatively ignore it, saying ‘well, I’m just going to continue because this suits me’ (even if it also stresses me). That’s a fairly insular approach to parenting, and life. But tempting.

Or you can see what changes can be made. I’m going with the second option.

In my view, playdates are a good thing, but I am looking at changing the way they take place. I’m considering the following questions:

  • Do I need to be so scheduled with the playdates? Can they happen more spontaneously? (and then I can drop the word ‘date’ – which would be great!).

I personally hate the playdate ‘ambush’ that my daughter and her friends specialise in, but maybe there is a middle ground I need to be able to strike. I need to think about this.

  • Do we have to have so many of our playdates at home? What other opportunities are there – where other kids may be playing, and can we be more inviting in letting others join in?

My husband tends to be better at the outdoor plays – off to play cricket, or footy, or the like. When you are outside, it is surprising how often other kids do join in, and that is so good, for everyone.

  • What role should we play as parents? Where can we step back and let the kids organise what they do? What opportunities are there to run free and create their own entertainment?

This is one reason camping, for instance, can be so good. But it can also apply in more local examples. There is no reason that I have to be watching constantly everything my kids do. In fact, letting them wander, within comfort zones, is probably better for them – and gives me some free time too (maybe with a friend, or a book, or to write, or just to be. Which would be a wonderful thing). And we are getting to the point where they can go to the local park on their own, which is even better.

  • I don’t think we will be dropping organised activities any time soon (although possibly the number might decrease). Given that, it’s actually a good thing for the siblings to come along, despite any complaints, especially when other parents do the same.

During this time, so much creativity can take place. And again, there is often more mixing with others (especially when the activities take place in public areas, such as ovals with nearby play grounds.

Final thoughts

Maybe one of the most important things within this topic, and others like this, is to become aware of the pressure we might be putting on ourselves. Maybe we can tone that down, just a bit?

As I said, parenting isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a competition. Our self worth shouldn’t be so dependent on outward measures such as what our children achieve, because there are a variety of factors which will influence that. We can’t control this fully. And there are more important measures of success than traditional ‘achievements’.

I believe our role as parents is to help (not make) our children grow into good people. As young children, as primary kids, as teenagers, and as adults who can stand on their own. In my view, a good person is someone who continue to become more compassionate, curious, interested in others, and tries their best at what they put their efforts towards. And that’s often seen in the impact they have on those they meet.

But – in the end – how they live their lives is really up to them. We can just help. And be there for them. That’s a lot – let’s not create more pressure by it being all about us.

I’d love to know what you think about this – about playdates in particular, about over – parenting (maybe), and about where our focus should be. Yes, simple topics for a comment section – but a discussion on this would be great!

More information

If you’d like to read more, here are a few links:

*although MY kids are, of course, brilliant, wonderful and the best in the world. And that can’t be overstated. Just saying.

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6 thoughts on “The pros and cons of playdates – and the temptation of insular parenting

  1. Helen, I found this post fascinating. As a parent I’m not great at the ‘play date’. My kids often get asked to go for a play, which I’m happy for them to do. When I was growing up I just played with my neighbour – like you say in your post. In my daughter’s grade (Grade 4) they have a ‘contract’ between all the girls – set up by the teacher, that they are not allowed to talk about play dates at school because of how it makes others feel. As you point out, playdates are exclusionary. I like the idea of a more open play – meet in the park or bring roller skates to this place at this time… something like that. I’m going to share your post in the parents Facebook group of her class – I think a few of the parents would be really interested. I’d be interested in what other people have to say.

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    1. Thanks Collette – I’d be really interested too (and I think the contract idea is a good one too. I’ve seen so many kids in tears because of play dates being discussed – or used as bargaining tools. Generally girls. Sigh)

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  2. Play dates haven’t gone well for us so far. Ariel is going through a funny stage ( 2year old) with strangers and freaks out a bit. I often see her playing alone at daycare as well. She is happy though. She loves playing with her cousins so Im leaving it until she feels more confident which is happening slowly.

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    1. Yes, quite different at that age, and I think your approach is great. Kids (in my limited experience with my own two) know when they are ready and pushing – particularly when they are so young and don’t necessarily have the language to explain what is happening (actually, that can take a few years!)

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  3. It’s an absolute minefield! My eldest son has been choosing his own mates for a while now, and I’d forgotten all about the wonderful world of playdates until this year, when my four-year-old started kindy. I even find the word weird: PLAY DATES. So strange! This is a great read Helen, really well researched and thought provoking.

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    1. Thanks Lisa! It becomes trickier too – or it can (I think we have more control than we think, sometimes). And yes, DATE (doesn’t seem the right word, does it?)

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