Had any good play dates lately? Me neither. Well, except for the one that was at the other kid’s house. That one was pretty painless. I arrived a few minutes late to pick up my kindergartener, invigorated by all that I’d accomplished with the extra two hours to myself. The other mom greeted me at the door before I had made it all the way down the walkway, unconsciously looking at her watch. She had a smile on her face but had developed a slight facial tic that I hadn’t noticed before. She had my son’s shoes and backpack right by the door to expedite our departure and seemed to visibly relax as we headed to the car. She’d served her time.
Let’s face it — play dates are brutal. And they stay brutal until the kids start calling them something else. By the time my kids say, “Can Ryan come over to hang out?”, the pain of the play date is over. Kids that come over to hang out are old enough to entertain themselves and solve their own conflicts. Since hangouts are scheduled by kids, and not parents, the kids have selected each other based on compatibility. The success of a hang out doesn’t generally hinge on magic markers, costume changes, or me posing as a mummy while they wrap me in toilet paper.
The play date set, which I will define loosely as ages 3 to 8, is all about satisfying immediate needs and really not at all about decorum. They open up my refrigerator and pull out the gallon of orange juice, declaring, “I need a cup.” . They take a bite of their lunch and say they’re full and then ask for a snack, almost all in one breath. If you tell them you don’t have any snacks, they go into your pantry to prove you’re a liar: “You’ve got cookies!” If the play date starts to get a little boring, they come right out and call it: “Your house is boring.” Little kids have no filter.
And then there’s always the kid who needs a little more help in the bathroom than I’m entirely comfortable giving. He finds nothing awkward about the situation and seems to find it strange that I do. I’ve already said too much.
The most exhausting thing about play dates with little ones is that you really cannot take your eyes off them, even for a second. It seems to be some sort of rite of passage for every child under the age of 6 to come into my home and find the heaviest toy possible and drop it from the highest point on my staircase onto my (now dented) hardwood floors. Worse, I once caught a 5 year old out on the railing of a second-floor balcony attempting a pretty impressive balance beam performance. I pulled him to safety and tried to explain how dangerous that was. His eyes told me that if he knew the phrase “buzz kill,” he would have used it.
So, if the play date is going to last two hours, you have to get off the phone, shut down the computer, and be vigilant. But it’s totally worth it because you will have accomplished two things: 1) You have exposed your small child to an experiment in socializing, compromising, and sharing (yawn); and 2) You have just bought yourself two hours of free time when that other kid’s mom reciprocates. It’s like a modern-day barter system, a co-op parenting strategy.
I’ve recently taken things up a notch. Please try to follow my math, as I am about to blow your mind. Because I know that I am going to be watching over two children for two hours in order to purchase two hours of free time, why not watch over three children for two hours to purchase four hours of free time? This is identical in concept to syndicating a column: you work once and get paid multiple times. About halfway through kindergarten, I broke through to another dimension. I started inviting four boys for a play date at the same time. The math: I supervise five boys for two mind-bending hours to purchase eight hours of free time. The Nobel Prize people should be calling any day now.
The play dates have gotten easier as kindergarten has gone along, just as they did with my older sons and their friends. The kids get to be more relaxed with each other and they’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. This time around, I take none of it personally, because I know that all of this stuff is age-appropriate. The big kids who come to hang out at my house now clear their own plates and thank me six times for every meal. They like my pork chops and inquire about my choice of seasoning. These are the same kids who told me my sandwiches tasted yucky years ago, and I can’t wait for the next time they come to hang out.