Play Date Etiquette

Around the age of 4 or 5 children enter a developmental stage of play known as ‘cooperative play.’  It is at this stage that children are able to, and want to interact with one another for the purpose of play. Prior to this stage children would have played alone, or alongside (but not interacting with) their peers.

The opportunity to play cooperatively in different areas of a child’s life, such as at school and at home is so important to their well-being and development.

What are the pros and cons of play dates?

Pros Cons
Encourage friendships

Opportunity to enhance social skills

Much needed time off for parents of the visitors

Can be an alternative to aftercare for parents that work

Parents enjoy the company of other adults (if they’re also part of the visit)

Lots of work for parents!

Possible exposure to inappropriate movies/games

If too rigidly scheduled, play dates can become laborious or ‘chores’ – no spontaneity

Possible inconsistency of parenting standards or expectations – leads to parental conflict

Some playdate rules and guidelines:

  • Let your child take the lead and decide who he/she wants to invite. Otherwise provide options of children he may have spoken about or whose house he has visited before.
  • Your child’s visitor doesn’t have to be the same age – sometimes playing with younger or older children can have benefits.
  • Only invite one friend at a time – three’s company and a playdate can easily turn nasty.
  • Rule of thumb – one hour for the first few visits, and two hours thereafter.
  • Consider inviting parents too if possible – it’s always good to meet your child’s friend’s parents.
  • Find out what foods your visitor cannot eat – the last thing you want is a trip to the emergency room after some peanut butter sandwiches.
  • Hide your child’s favourite toys, or those that only allow for one participant or player
  • Limit or eliminate screen (television, PlayStation) time
  • Be available to your child and their friend.
  • If your visitor sits on her cell phone or reads her own book, remind her that she is at your house to play with your child, and suggest some alternative activities for them both to do.
  • Tell the parents of your visitor if somebody else, such as an older brother or domestic worker, will be looking after the children at home – what is acceptable for you at home may not be acceptable for other parents.
  • Don’t be late in fetching your child
  • If you know the host parents will be taking your child out for the day, offer to send money or food if necessary.

When is a good age for sleepovers? Are these even advisable today?

I would suggest knowing the parents well before allowing your child to spend the night at a friend’s place.  Socialising with the family on a regular basis would give a good indication of whether you feel your child would be safe.  On the other hand, Dr James Dobson is strongly against sleepovers, explaining that the world has become too dangerous to leave your child out of sight for that long.  This is debatable, as they are often out of sight during day visits, or at school, or school camps and tours.  If you are worried, I would suggest asking your child to have their sleepovers at your home.  Alternatively discuss with your child about boundaries, and what is acceptable for an adult to do.

Should you decide that you feel comfortable sending your child to a friend for a sleepover, there is no hard and fast rule about when they can begin.  If a child is asking to go to a sleepover they’re probably ready.  However, it is advisable that your child be toilet trained, and preferably does not wet the bed at night – this can create unnecessary anxiety for your child and possibly embarrassment (not to mention a relative inconvenience for the parents of the child they’re visiting).
As a hosting parent, make sure that you are aware of your visitor’s sleep habits and needs – such as whether they need a light on during the night. In addition, be aware of the rules implemented in your visitor’s home, or make the other family aware of your rules – such as bed time, what’s allowed to be watched on television, whether sweets or dessert is allowed.  When your child visits a friend be prepared to relinquish some control over what they can and cannot get up to (such as eating sweets or staying up a little later) provided it does not go against your values.

Girls vs. boys – why are the rules different?

Some parents may be reluctant to host or send their child to ‘boy/girl playdates.’  The reality is that often boys and girls play differently and may be interested in different activities.  That being said, if the child has a sibling of the opposite sex they have probably been exposed to, and included in these types of play anyway.  In addition, if your child is choosing a play date with a child of the opposite sex, the likelihood is that they probably get along at school and it shouldn’t necessarily be any different at home.

It is thought that if a child would prefer to have a play date with somebody of the opposite sex, let them. Unless your children are going through puberty, which may provide different challenges for parents, it is easy for girls and boys to be friends and for them to want to play in the afternoons with these friends.  A play date of this sort does not mean it is romantic, and parents should avoid calling the playmate ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ as this will imply two children of the opposite sex cannot play together, and will possibly embarrass your child or your visitor.

However, mixed playdates can often open up the possibility of a ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ discussion, husband and wife games, or ‘Doctor Doctor’.  Children are generally curious about the bodies of the opposite sex.  In these situations it is important to discuss with your child (and the play date) that it is ok to be curious, but that there are certain activities and parts of their bodies that they shouldn’t be showing one another.  They should be encouraged to ask questions if they are unsure about things (and if they do ask, you need to tell them! Although that is another topic altogether!)

Are play dates more important for parents? What to do when parents get competitive?

Play dates are also important for parents in that it provides them with an opportunity to meet with other parents (if the parents come along), but also to give their child some time with friends, and the opportunity to build friendships outside of academic life, which will hopefully flow into the school environment.  On the other hand, allowing your child to go on playdates also gives you an afternoon off (let’s be honest, we all need it!)

There will inevitably be some level of competition or comparison on playdates.  A child visiting your house may express that they were given treats at Michael’s house, so wants to know if you will also give them treats.  Another child may express to you, or your child, that their house is boring because you don’t let them play TV games.  In these situations it is important not to get ‘sucked in’ to the rivalry.  You should not bend or change your house rules for the sake of your child making friends (unless of course, on reflection, your rules are too strict).

Parents on both the ‘visitor’ and ‘visited’ end need to be careful not to compare their children with their visitors.  Parents will not want to send their children for visits if they are told about their child’s inadequacies in comparison to yours – whether it be as simple as who concentrates better in a game, or who could complete a puzzle faster.  This comparison is a boost of your ego in comparison to another parent, and not a boost of your child’s self-confidence. Be aware of the distinction.  Children who are ‘parented’ by another parent during playdates (outside of the acceptable playdate rules) will be reluctant to visit again which is to the detriment of your child.

How protective is too protective? Conversely, how lenient is too lenient?

Socialising with other children is a natural part of a child’s development, and parents should be thrilled to discover that their child wants to make friends and socialise.  However, if this socialising involves going to a PG 16 movie when your child is 11, rules and boundaries need to be put into place.

Your child will need to learn from his experiences, so even when there is a friend that you’re not so sure of, let your child make the decision for themselves.  They will soon learn whether they enjoy hanging out with certain people.  Parents who are too protective or who make it obvious that they do not want their child to go on playdates, or to have visitors will end up with children who rebel. A balance is needed.

That being said, it is within your jurisdiction as parents to know who will be at home when your child visits a friend, what activities they might get up to, whether there is a pool on the premises, or a dog, whether they will watch movies or be exposed to alcohol.  Even with some of these ‘scarier; elements in place, it may still be necessary to allow your child to visit, trusting that they will do what they know to be right, and call you if they feel uncomfortable.

Play and socialising are an important part of a child’s development.  Parents need to be encouraging factors in this facet of their child’s life, and ensure that they are able to make friends.  However, there is much to be considered in this area.  Parents need to work with what their gut tells them, while being careful not to be too protective or too lenient of their children.

Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine

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