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"Playdating" Other Families: How to Make It Work

Andreas Brandt for Getty Images

You inspect the crowd, casually admiring and judging the people who pass by. Then someone catches your eye. You immediately zoom in. There's just something about her that seems intelligent, interesting, intriguing. Should you walk over there? If so, what do you say? After sparring with the timid version of yourself for a moment, you order a Venti-size cup of chutzpah and walk over. Heart thumping. Face flushing. You're right in front of her. The mouth opens. And you say, “Your boys love Go-Gurt, huh? I can't keep enough of it in our fridge.”

Ah, to date other parents. It's one of the great phenomena of the parenting world: People with kids gravitate to other people with kids. And we've behaved this way since taking our first bipedal steps out of the primordial soup. Our old-school hominid Homo erectus established band societies—small groups of families that hunted, gathered, and lived together—more than 1 million years ago. All these millennia later, it's basically the same. We hunt for great babysitters; we gather potty-training tips.

Having kids hits the reset button on your social life. It's like showing up at the freshman dorm all over again. Finding someone to relate to and commiserate with is essential. “A parent understands with every fiber of her being what another parent is going through,” says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and family counselor in New York City. “Not only does that relationship offer support, but also validation. When a parent feels like she's the only one in this situation, it can have a profoundly negative effect.”

But finding a PILF (Parent I'd Like to Friend) isn't simple. You don't vibe with another mom or dad simply because they've procreated. A family is composed of many different personalities, ages, and temperaments, which means there are a number of factors related to success and failure.

There is no eHarmony or for the sippy-cup and stroller set, so we've created Playdate My Family!—the ultimate guide to dating other families.

And, yes, there's a reason we call it “dating.” You may think the term isn't appropriate: It makes moms and dads sound like hormonal teenagers pining away for a crush. But from a psychological perspective, that is exactly what's going on. “Becoming a parent is a second adolescence,” says Dorfman. “You're not entirely comfortable in your new skin, and you're experiencing insecurity in this new role. As a result, you're very much yearning for peer contact, much like a teenager.”

Adolescence and parenthood share many of the same experiences: body and hormonal changes, mood swings, experiencing love in a new way. Despite our marital or romantic status, we're left to explore and master this new territory alone. That's why dating other parents is so important. It's less scary to ride the roller coaster with a friend at your side.