About half of parents have turned down a play date because they didn’t feel comfortable leaving their child with other parents, according to a new poll.
If you’re accustomed to tagging along to every play date, it may feel a little unnerving when one day — often when your child is around age 5 — you’re no longer invited.
But what happens then? As it turns out, many parents decide to turn down the play date altogether.
According to a nationally representative poll of 881 parents published on Monday, nearly half of parents with at least one child aged 4 through 9 said they had turned down a play date because they did not feel comfortable leaving their child in the other parents’ care.
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That number was “shocking” to Sarah J. Clark, the lead investigator of the study, which was conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The study also found that 43 percent of parents said they would stay with their child if the play date was at the home of someone they don’t know well.
Janna Swank-Mohney, 40, a mother of four in Vacaville, Calif., said she would allow play dates only at the homes of a small, trusted group of friends.
“I’m around them a lot,” she said. “I just kind of know their lifestyle and their choices. And I view those mothers to be actually good role models for my children.”
Her biggest fear, she said, was for the personal safety of her kids.
“The stats are staggering of how children can be victims, and that’s a really scary thing,” Ms. Swank-Mohney said. “It’s our ultimate goal as parents to protect our children and not to be one of the statistics.”
In certain situations — if, for example, you’re worried about unlocked guns in the home — it’s clear you should refuse the play date. But it’s more common to encounter gray areas, Ms. Clark said.
In those cases, parents need to ask themselves, “‘How much of this is about my anxiety as opposed to the actual situation out there?’” Ms. Clark said. “A parent who tends to be on the protective side, or maybe the overprotective side, will always be able to find a reason to say no.”
Why we avoid leaving our children on a play date.
The poll found that the primary reasons parents were concerned about leaving their children at an unfamiliar home included the possibility that the child would be left unsupervised, would be exposed to inappropriate language, would get into medications or other harmful substances, would be injured or would eat food the parents didn’t want the child to eat.
Sometimes the hesitation to accept a play date invitation can also stem from the ways parents tend to judge one another, said Tamara Mose, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of “The Playdate: Parents, Children and the New Expectations of Play,” who was not involved in the survey.
In her book, which featured interviews with 40 parents and 25 nannies in New York City, Dr. Mose found play dates were often held for the benefit of the parent, as a way to socialize and network with one another, which was one of the main reasons the parents stayed with their children.
“We do play dates because we want the interaction,” she said. “Nobody wants to sit alone with their kids all day long — that’s boring.”
The play date also becomes an opportunity for parents to showcase their economic and social class, Dr. Mose said. One parent will perform for another, for example, by serving organic fruits and vegetables or organizing special activities that can be signals of the middle or upper-middle class.
“Parents are coding constantly for social class,” she said, and often for race and religion.
They may also judge other parents over what food they provide and how they discipline their children.
Of the parents surveyed by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, only 22 percent said they would let their child have a play date without their being present at the home of a family they don’t know well.
They may be concerned about the rules the other family follows and the limits they set.
“If I found out my kids went to someone’s house for like three hours and played video games the entire time, I would not be happy,” said Ms. Swank-Mohney, who limits screen time and has no video games in her home. “Because that’s not how I want them using their minds.”
Why is a play date beneficial?
When a child goes to a friend’s house without their parent tagging along, “it’s a different kind of freedom,” Ms. Clark said.
Instead of being under surveillance by their usual authority figures, they’re required to navigate a new space where different people are in charge.
“If you never allow them to have that growth opportunity, they don’t get any practice figuring that side of the world out,” she said.
Anna Kauffman of Ann Arbor, Mich., whose oldest daughter is now 6, said her daughter has never had an independent play date with friends, only family members.
When her daughter Olive was 4 and was invited on play dates with friends,Ms. Kauffman “kind of just blew it off” to avoid having an awkward conversation with parents she didn’t know.
“As parents, it’s hard not to feel like people are always judging you or you’re always doing something wrong,” she said.
She worried about the food her daughter would be offered (the family is vegetarian), whether there were any large animals in the home (her daughter is scared of big dogs), and the possibility of secondhand smoke and unlocked guns.
“The expectation seemed to be that I drop her off, and I was uncomfortable with that and I didn’t have the confidence yet to ask for an alternative arrangement, like let’s meet at a park,” said Ms. Kauffman, 34, a database programmer at the University of Michigan Medical School.
So she ignored the invitations.
“The year went on and I realized that, ‘Oh, that child who was inviting kids to play dates is way more confident and playing with a lot of friends and they seem to have a lot of shared experience.’ And Olive is there reading and drawing by herself,” Ms. Kauffman said. “Every time I observed it, it broke my heart.”
Figure out your approach in advance.
When asking about subjects like gun safety or smoking habits, “The most awkward aspect is figuring out how to open the conversation,” Ms. Clark said.
Sometimes it’s easier to use self-deprecation, she said: “I am the nervous Nellie of my family, I admit it — they all laugh at me — but can you just humor me and let me go through my checklist?”
Other parents may favor a more direct approach without the preamble.
If the thought of having a potentially uncomfortable conversation is giving you pause, it may help to know that 73 percent of parents in the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital poll said they would not be offended if another parent asked them about safety concerns before a play date.
After all, it’s very likely that the parents you question may have the exact same queries about your home. If you’re hosting a play date at your home, you can kick-start the conversation by offering information on safety, planned activities and more before you are asked.
Don’t wait for an invitation.
Instead of waiting for another parent to invite your child over, be proactive about arranging play dates with other kids, either in a neutral setting, like a park, or at your own home.
This will allow you to get to know one another better, Ms. Clark said, which may put your mind at ease.
You can also consider arranging a couple of play dates at each other’s homes where you or the other parent tag along before you start dropping off your kids.
If your kid is nervous, do a little coaching.
Before they head into a potentially unfamiliar environment, coach your children on the various situations they might encounter.
For example, Ms. Clark, said, you can ask: “What would you do if you had to go to the bathroom?”
You can also let them know different houses have different rules or different layouts, Ms. Clark said. If there will be more than one bathroom, you can prompt your child to ask which bathroom he or she ought to use.
That’s something Ms. Kaufman has done as well — especially when her daughter has gone to a family member’s house that isn’t kid-proofed.
She still accompanies her kids to the homes of non-family members, however, or invites her daughter’s friends to her home.
“I don’t want to raise my kids in a bubble,” she said. “I want them to have friends and I want them to have experiences, and I want them to have a normal childhood, but I’m also aware that there are dangers that I don’t want them to have to worry about, so I kind of have to do the worrying for them to make sure that they’re safe.”
By Christina Caron, New York Times Parenting Reporter, October 22nd, 2019