by Erin Sweeten
I used to judge the parents of assertive kids. My first child was a delicate flower who needed to be coaxed up the stairs of a play structure. She’d get halfway up and a couple of loud, energetic children would go careening past. She’d freeze in terror, crying, and I’d have to climb to the rescue, muttering all the while. Could these parents not reign in their wild toddlers?
Then I had twin boys. One was boisterous and prone to meltdowns. The other was so insatiably curious that no device or full container was safe around him. He’d continually scurry off--- down the hallway, across a field, through rows of library books. Though I developed high security at the house and elaborate systems for taking my sons out in public, stuff still happened sometimes. It was my turn to be judged.
And yet, as a stay at home mom, I longed for opportunities to connect with friends old and new, and to talk about something other than my children’s poop. Enter the playdate. In my mind, the kids would play peacefully with cars and babies and puzzles while I carried on a meaningful conversation with my friend. The reality is different.
PLAYDATES WITH BABIES
In some ways, playdates with babies are the easiest of all. You can hand them their favorite toy and put them down on a blanket. But caring for two or more babies, even happy, well-rested ones, takes a lot of time and attention no matter where you are. If your friend will pitch in when a random baby starts crying or spits up, you’re golden. If your friend pays attention only to her own singleton and watches as you alternate between your babies, shaking her head and marveling, “I just don’t know how you do it!”, you’re going to need to coach her. “Do you mind running out to my car and grabbing the gray bag? I’ll keep an eye on your baby while I’m taking this wet onesie off of mine.” If she doesn’t respond well, it’s best to make your future visits with her kid-free.
PLAYDATES WITH TODDLERS
Once your kids are mobile, the parenting awe of your friends shifts into a more uncomfortable mode (like my own former outlook), especially if it’s their first child. They feel protective, and your kids are probably more assertive and accustomed to sharing than theirs are. My kids had spent their entire lives wanting the same toy at the same time; we’d developed a certain skill set that our friends hadn’t yet. Sometimes I warned them in advance and told them how we handled disputes: redirecting, finding a similar toy, taking turns, taking a snack or book break.
Parents of singleton toddlers can just pick up a child, remove him or her from a tough situation, and murmur lovingly into a little ear like they are Mr. Rogers himself. I suspect this grab-and-go maneuver is the reason that singleton toddlers can sometimes seem more well-behaved than multiples. Alas, the grab-and-go is not universally available to us. It is dang near impossible to hold one toddler and successfully chase after another. I have done it, but felt I deserved recognition on Fox 10 News afterward. This is why I only had playdates at my house, at the homes of other twin moms with similar quantities of safety gates, or at parks with the toddler area fenced in. I would not put myself in a situation where I had to replace a Ming vase, no matter how much my friends were “ totally used to kids” and “absolutely adored” my toddlers.
PLAYDATES WITH PRESCHOOLERS
Once the preschool years begin, you can no longer throw your kids together with some other kids because you like the mom. They must like the kids. Your children spend enough time with annoying people at preschool; they don’t want to be forced into it after hours. Our family had the difficulty of one twin having lots of friends, while the other none. Oh, the drama! Should I just arrange playdates for one child, or should I try to find somebody my less outgoing son would like? In the end, when one son asked for a playdate, I asked the other if he wanted to invite anyone. If he did, I’d invite two kids over. If not, he’d just play on his own. My quiet son got extra social practice tagging along on his brother’s invites too. My favorite playdates are the after school park meet-ups. Each of my sons has had a room parent willing to regularly organize these activities. The downside is that their introvert mother must engage in exhausting chit chat with numerous parents and grandparents. But hey, I need the practice too.
PLAYDATES WITH SCHOOL-AGED KIDS
Once my daughter hit grade school, I started letting her go to friends’ houses without me. Because she attends our assigned elementary school, her friends are right in the neighborhood, and she can walk to their houses. I get to know their caregivers by hanging out at the bus stop. For the first playdate with a friend, I go with her and see how the parent interacts with the children and if it is clean and safe. I make sure the pool is fenced, and ask how the family stores their guns. I also give her a very basic phone that she can use in emergencies. When neighborhood kids come to our house, I set out tortilla chips and a pitcher of water and let them play and graze and hit all our whiffle balls over the fence. I’ve had to let go of my embarrassment over not having a spotless house when people are here; it’s a small price to pay for easygoing friendships.
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