Playdates are a great opportunity for your child to fine-tune his social skills, but even at this age they require patience and conscientiousness on your part to run smoothly. When your grade-schooler gives his playmate a tongue-lashing for accidentally tearing his drawing, resist the urge to lecture, give him a time-out, or send his visitor home.
Negative approaches like these might curb the behaviour for the moment, but since you’re doing all the thinking and the enforcing, your youngster learns nothing about how to get along in the future. Besides, if he hears enough reprimands, he’ll start to tune them out. Instead, take a positive approach, one that encourages him to think for himself and sets the stage for problem solving in the future.
By keeping some guidelines in mind, you can help ensure that bruised feelings, dangerous dares, and playdate putdowns don’t mar your grade-schooler’s get-togethers.
Making a “date”
Let your child lead. At this age, children are starting to plan the time they spend together at school — who they’ll eat lunch with, for instance, and who they’ll meet up with during recess. So it makes sense to allow your grade-schooler the same freedom when it comes to making playdates.
The less you interfere in the planning process, the more control your child will feel over his social world — and the more he’ll learn about being a gracious host. So let him choose whom to invite, when to make the date, and what the children will do.
Keep it small: Three really can be a crowd when it comes to playdates, says Sara Wilford, an expert in early childhood education. Instead, try to limit playdates to one friend at a time. Otherwise it’s too easy for the third child to feel left out.
If your child does invite more than one friend over, aim for a group of four so the children can pair off. If the idea of several children tearing through your house makes you shudder, arrange to meet at a local playground or park.
Keep it short — at least at first. An hour is fine for a first visit, and two hours is plenty for after-school get-togethers, says Lisa Church, the author of Everyday Creative Play. Wait until the children are seasoned pals before you attempt longer weekend visits or sleepovers.
Get the facts on food
Because your guest will probably have a snack or two during the playdate, be sure to ask her parents about any potential food allergies, sensitivities, or preferences.
Playdate protocol: Scratch screen time. Playdates can help children polish their social skills — something that’s hard to do when they’re staring raptly at a screen. Save the show or game for the post-playdate wind-down, and plan activities children can do together instead.
Let your guest’s parents as well as your own child know about this no-screen policy ahead of time. That way, the playmate won’t show up expecting a private viewing of a new show your child’s been talking about.
As children get older and more adventurous, you may need to clearly limit the scope of their play area. You may want to tell them that playing in the backyard is fine, for example, but no shooting hoops in the driveway unless you’re there to watch.
Keep siblings away: Do your best to distract younger children when an older sibling has a friend over (better yet, pair a younger child with his own playmate). Much as you may welcome a playdate as easy entertainment for both of your children, being saddled with a little brother or sister isn’t fair to the child having the playdate — not to mention frustrating and possibly even unsafe for the younger one, who can’t keep up with the older children’s more advanced (and daring) play.
Resolving conflicts: Lay down “house rules.” Situations will undoubtedly arise that require you to correct your visitor’s behaviour. Rather than simply reprimanding him, remember that the rules may be different in his house and that he needs to understand the reasoning behind your requests. Instead of saying, “Don’t eat in there!” for instance, say, “We only eat in the kitchen at our house.”
If he’s running down the stairs, say “Those stairs are slippery, so please walk carefully on them.” This cuts down on the reprimands while still keeping the child in line.
If children don’t see eye-to-eye on something, resist the urge jump in right away. Small disagreements seldom last long, and if you hang back you’ll often find that children are capable of working out their own resolution.
Intervene if you have to. If a conflict is escalating into put-downs or physical confrontation, it’s time to step in. Remain calm and make firm statements like, “I can’t let you do that to Natalie.”
Remind both parties that words and actions that hurt are not acceptable, and then coach the children on coming up with a compromise to the original problem. If the fighting continues, separate the children for a while or introduce a new activity that’s less likely to cause conflict.