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This week, I followed a Facebook link to the New York Post and read the following sentence:
“Posh Manhattan moms and dads are taking parental obsessiveness to new heights — by hiring $400-an-hour recreation ‘experts’ to organize play dates for their children.”
Parents! What is going on? Have we forgotten how to be responsible for teaching our children the basics of how to behave, to act, to be? If this is a thing, well then parents, you could be making a lot of money doing what you do every day and marketing it correctly. (You can thank me later.)
The article goes on to state that this professional socialization coaching is meant to help the kids get into fancy private schools (think Gossip Girl). But what about the fundamentals of childhood, a.k.a. just being a kid and playing freely?
Again from the New York Post: “Experts said that kids may need the play-date tutoring because their young lives have become so regimented, with classes in subjects like Mandarin and violin, that they don’t know how to play with others.” Really? This is the level of expectation for a child in Manhattan now? No thanks.
For the past two weekends, I have taken my kids camping with groups of friends who also have children. I let my kids run freely through the forest, I let them take the lead as we hiked, I let them take chances in the water — all within my supervision. I didn’t intervene unless I had to (there was one tenuous bout of turning the hammock into a swing that seemed dangerous enough to raise my voice). There were no experts there to instruct us, just mother nature to explore, friends to giggle with and more marshmallows than this nutrition-obsessed parent was comfortable with. But I was able to calm the eff down and let them make their own choices. Why? Because having the freedom of unstructured play makes kids take risks, so that they can understand how to navigate their comfort levels, their boundaries and exercise their knowledge of all you’ve taught them.
Dear rich parents of Manhattan − and anyone else who’s interested − I’m about to save you several hundred dollars (which I’ll gladly take in shoes, thank you very much). Here are my 10 rules for playdates:
1. Let them play.
3. Invite children over who are about the same age. Try to scope out complementary temperaments and parents who are your people (I prefer parents who bring wine and like to laugh).
4. Accept that conflict will happen. When conflict happens, as it inevitably will, calmly and gently teach your child the best way to deal with the situation. Reinforce the lesson each time the same situation arises (hitting and not sharing are probably the most common in the under-six set).
5. Be consistent with the house rules. Explain them clearly and don’t waffle. In my house it’s, “No playing or being silly on or near the stairs.” In my friend Kate’s house it’s, “No running or playing with food in your mouth.” Figure out what you’re not OK with and make sure all the kids know it. Learning and following the rules is an important life skill.
6. Use the following catchphrases:
“Try before you cry.”
“Hands to yourself.” — unless you’re giving hugs or hi-fives (but even then, you should be gentle and ask first).
“Use your inside voice please.”
“If you can’t share the toy, I will take it away and no one can play with it.”
7. “If there’s no blood, don’t get up.” I just read this in French Twist, an American mom’s view of French parents in Brooklyn, and it rings true. Engaging and intervening every time a kid whines or cries will only lead to more of that behaviour from the child. Figure out how much backing off you’re comfortable with and avoid the temptation to intervene. I tell my kids, “If there is no damage or harm to property or person, I don’t want to hear about it.”
8. When things get nuts, consider the TV.
If they’ve run around all day and need some chill time to avoid a meltdown, and if all parents are consenting, a little tube time goes a long way. I’ve found that a short educational program does wonders for reminding small kids that “Hey, we’re on the same team! We both love Toopy and Binoo! And if we sit here really nicely, we may even get to watch another show!”
9. Don’t forget the snacks. If the playdate crosses a mealtime, make sure to have it covered to avoid tantrums. Once you’ve done the allergy check, offer healthy food as a break period between activities.
Read more: 10 ridiculously easy-to-make snacks >
Have fun! That’s what playing is about. Kids learn from watching you. A relaxed attitude to parenting might not get you into some crazy fancy preschool, but it will help to raise confident children who know about cause and effect and can take that with them into grownupland. And above all, they’ll learn that not everything can be solved by throwing money at it.
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