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A Mom's Guide to Playdates

We're 17 minutes into a Monday-morning playdate and bickering has broken out among the gang of four: my twins, Drew and Claire, 4, and their pals Josie, 4, and Bella, 3. Repetitive complaint syndrome has surfaced. A pinching incident is reported. What happened to the "play" in "playdate"? Where's the part where Mom reads while the children amuse themselves? Why oh why did I agree to a four-hour playdate?

I agreed because I didn't know any better. I didn't know that four kids who get along fabulously at preschool might not play contentedly at our house. For one thing, we lack a dedicated staff ready to guide two kids into gluing while the third cooks in the play kitchen and the fourth strings beads. For another, the playdate guests weren't familiar with our house, so they were anxious. Mostly, I didn't know that four hours is an insane amount of time.

We survived  -- the mac-and-cheese lunch had a calming, unifying effect  -- but it was a long time before I was ready to face a playdate again. As your child heads into the world of friendship and socializing, remember this reality-tested advice on how to handle  -- and even prevent  -- tricky playdate situations.

He Won't Share

One strong-willed child is an interesting challenge. Two strong-willed children makes for a tough playdate. Dan Wickberg of Dallas has noticed that when his 4-year-old, Ellie, has an equally strong-minded friend over, Ellie finds it excruciating to share her toys, even though she's able to with more easygoing pals. "You get two kids who are used to controlling their own stuff, and it can lead to trouble," says Wickberg.


To handle the sharing-challenged:
  • Play matchmaker. Maybe your bossy girl is more comfortable playing with kids who are younger and will let her call the shots. Or perhaps she finds it easier to play with older kids, who are indisputably in charge. While playdates are a way to teach sharing, there's no need to make them extra hard by having two kids with personalities that don't match. Rest assured that your child will stop being so possessive. Playgroups and kindergarten don't let anyone skip this lesson. 
  • Talk it up. Explain the concept of sharing ahead of time: If she lets a friend use her Magna Doodle, she can go to someone else's house and play with her toys. Let your child choose a few favorite things to put out of reach, and explain that if she doesn't share the rest, there will be a consequence, such as no playdate this weekend. 
  • Help them work it out. Arguments about toys are a chance to teach kids how to solve problems, says Lynn Marotz, Ph.D., assistant professor of human development and family life at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Get their attention, and encourage them to figure out what to do. Ask each of them for an idea. Making each child feel as if she has some authority may help defuse the situation. 
  • Or just tell them what to do. If they can't come up with a solution on their own, be ready with one yourself. Stella Frankl, mom of 3-year-old Rivka in Potomac, Maryland, has tried time limits: When she says so (or when the kitchen timer goes off), the kids have to switch toys. End of story. Kids like rules when they feel fair.


If all else fails:

Take away the toy. Or make a beeline for distractions: stickers, markers, different toys. Fortunately, kids' attention span is short. Often, the longed-for toy will soon be put aside, allowing the other child to play with it, if she's even still interested.

Somebody's Left Out

Three-year-old Isabella Garcia and her friend Marcy usually play together beautifully, but they didn't when they were on a recent playdate with a mutual friend, Loren. Since Loren and Marcy share a babysitter, they have well-defined routines, including who gets to play the mommy and who gets to play the baby. The result: Isabella was left on the sidelines. "She was clearly a 'third wheel,'" says mom Julie Garcia of Bethesda, Maryland. "The other two girls spend every day together, and it was hard for Isabella to break in."

Three is a tough number in a social situation, even for adults, says Sherry Cleary, a mom of one and director of the Child Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. "It can get to be two against one," says Cleary. "Someone always emerges as the leader." Girls, in particular, tend to have a harder time including an extra. Her suggestion: Stick to one-on-one playdates.


But when that's not in the cards:
  • Lay down the law. Want your child to be nice? Tell him so. Sarah Behunin, a mom of five in Twin Falls, Idaho, makes sure her kids, ages 2 to 9, know she expects everyone to be included. She delivers this message at least a day before the playdate so they'll have a chance to absorb it before the guests arrive. "I say that if they can't agree on what to play, they'll have to think of something else," she says.
  • Step in. For kids who can't manage this, moms should be ready to end the game and start something new. And if one child is excluded repeatedly, Behunin tries diversion: She pulls out a surprise she's stashed in the closet. "It might be new glitter glue or a bunch of stickers," she says. "Once, I brought in a box of old Beanie Babies from the garage and the kids played with them for hours."


If all else fails:

Call it off. Behunin's been known to put an end to a playdate that's making a guest miserable, thereby saving the poor excluded child and teaching the other kids a little lesson. "There are days when it's just not going to happen," she says.

They're Running Wild

"I have to hang up," says my friend Karin Evans, a mom of two in Berkeley, California, who's attempting to talk to me on the phone in the midst of a three-girl playdate. "They're running through the house soaking wet."

Kids' energy during a playdate can be quirky: too much and they're out of control, too little and they start getting restless.


What to do?
  • Set ground rules. Are some parts of the house off-limits? Are they allowed to eat in the living room? Is it okay to run through the house soaking wet?
  • If they're rowdy, get them out of the house. When kids are outside, they burn up energy and don't have to defend their indoor turf. While parents might think the living room is "public," kids often feel they have a private relationship with certain corners and don't want to share.
  • Don't use the tube to counter boredom. "When kids come over, I explain: no videos, no TV, no computer games," says Julie Schissel, a mom of two in Port Washington, New York. Instead, she tells them that playdates are for playing. In fact, when energy drags, it's often because the kids are parked in front of the computer or the TV, vegging out.
  • Mix things up. Anything new and unexpected will help boost the mood  -- or calm it down. Try a change of scenery or offer food: You could suggest they color in the kitchen while you make popcorn. I've had good luck bringing out the video camera. When a pack of cousins, ages 2 to 6, started getting disgruntled, I suggested that they practice screaming. While they screamed their heads off, I recorded the scene for posterity.


If all else fails:

Take a break. A "no TV" rule is great most of the time, but an interlude spent watching a short video can restore harmony to a playdate that's gone bad. Chances are you'll be able to start the playdate from scratch afterward.

Your Child Can't Say Goodbye

Sometimes, you think you're off the hook for an hour because another mom is hosting. But then you both get there and your kid clutches your leg in a viselike grip.


To help him let go:
  • Before the playdate, ask him if he wants to go. If he says no, ask him why. Maybe he's afraid of the dog at the other house or hates the way the other mom makes him finish all of his milk. If it's a specific problem, you can ask that the dog be kept in another part of the house or mention that your son likes a quarter of a cup of milk.
  • Make the transition more fun. Karen De Mara of Salt Lake City gives her 3-year-old, Hunter, snacks or toys that he can share as soon as he arrives at his pal's house. Having something to show his friend makes it easier for Hunter to settle in.
  • Play for a minute or two. If Hunter still wants his mom to stick around, De Mara will hang out for a bit and play with him and his pal. "Sometimes he'll just need a minute to adjust and then he'll say to me, 'Okay, Mom, you can go,'" she says.
  • Gauge whether you should stay longer  -- or call the whole thing off. You're the expert on your child, so if he gets jittery, you'll know best whether he'll relax once you're gone or remain inconsolable. It's perfectly fine to stay for a playdate or two  -- or more  -- until he gets comfortable. "If Hunter really seems out of sorts and frightened, I have to defer to him," De Mara says. "I don't think it does him any good  -- or the other parent and child  -- to make him stay."
  • Keep it short. The first time you drop off your child at a playdate, try a short absence; even 20 minutes while you finish up one errand can be a good test run.


If all else fails:

Be the perfect hostess. Stick to having playdates at your house for the time being. Drawing on the comfort of home, your child can get the hang of what a playdate is all about. Eventually, he'll want you to leave him alone.

Since that first interminable playdate for four at our house, the kids have had lots of friends over, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. The happy playdates are a sneak preview of their growing independence  -- meaning I don't have to run interference as much. The other day, I walked by the living room and glimpsed Drew, Claire, and their pal Josie wrapped up in blankets, playing an intricate game of family/hospital/vacation, thoroughly absorbed in their imaginary world. Claire saw me and said, "We want privacy!" I was glad to oblige.

Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams, a mom of two, also writes for Health.