Thoughts from the anti-playdate mom.
by Kindra Fehr
Sometime between when I was a child and when I had a child, a new phenomenon started. The first time I heard about it was while photographing some children for a painting commission and the mother threatened, “Behave or you won’t get a ‘playdate’ this afternoon.” As far as I was concerned she could have spoken in a foreign language. What on earth was a “playdate”?
I have come to learn the definition of the word. It is exactly that, a date for two or more children to play. It comes with all sorts of rules and regulations, if you follow the articles in the parenting books and magazines, including recommended time frames, how many children should be present, what kind of snacks to serve and when, activities that should be planned, and how often these dates should occur. Yes, I’ve succumbed to using the word but, mothers of my children’s friends, I must warn you, I am the Anti-Playdate Mom.
What I remember about being a kid was knocking on the neighbor’s door or making a phone call and asking, “Can Jillian play?” Sometimes she could and sometimes she couldn’t, in which case I’d ask the next friend. When we played, it was completely unstructured. We’d see what toys were available and make up our own games, we’d sit in the middle of a grouping of trees (which to me felt like a huge forest) and make mud pies and air tea at a pretend party with the invisible sprites that lived there. We’d have conflicts and learn to solve them or run out to the mom present and tattle. She would either take the toy of question away from both of us, suggest a way, such as sharing or taking turns, to resolve the issue, or tell us to figure it out or we wouldn’t be able to play anymore. We ran wild in the yard making new discoveries, digging holes and chasing each other. The last thing we wanted or needed was a parent present to guide our play.
So the question I ask myself is: When was it that our culture became so structured and scheduled that we felt that it was necessary to structure our children’s lives in the same manner? My feeling is that these kids are all going to grow up and have to surrender to a schedule soon enough. Let’s face it, being alive has its own schedule. They eat, sleep, take naps, go to preschool or daycare at specific times. Why is it necessary to have their downtime scheduled with “structured play”?
Here’s what your kid will get when they come to play with mine: They’ll get a snack if they mention they’re hungry or if I happen to be in the kitchen and think to ask them if they want one. I’ll be within earshot to make sure they don’t kill each other or themselves. If they argue over a toy and the volume raises to a point that I can’t take anymore, I may take the toy away from everyone unless they can solve the problem and lower the volume level quickly. If there’s lots of crying and arguing, I may separate them for awhile, and hitting or hair pulling is definitely cause for separation.
I may put out art supplies (after all, I have been an art teacher for many years) and give some simple instructions, or I might pull out a game or two. Other than that, they’re on their own.
This is when being a silent observer gets interesting. This is when I find two little girls each sitting on their own pillow on the kitchen floor pretending that they’re on boats in the river as they slide themselves around. Or maybe they pretend they’re following a map, while holding a plastic hanger in one hand (which I’m informed is a bow and arrow). Not one idea or project I could come up with would begin to compare to the creativity that they have just exhibited.
Don’t get me wrong. I love having kids come to play. I always wanted to have the house where all the neighborhood kids want to hang out. I guess it’s the “date” part that rubs me wrong. I absolutely respect other parents’ guidelines and if given to me, I will follow them. For I am the mom who strictly forbade refined sugar or watching any television until my child reached the age of two, sometimes to the point of being obsessive-compulsive about it.
I’m afraid the “playdate culture” is here to stay, and I do agree that it can have its benefits. But I feel a tinge of sadness as I look at the pages and pages of Google results that typing in “playdate etiquette” brings up. I’m a little bit envious of the freedom and innocence that our parents had as parents, to let us play without all those rules attached and expectations to live up to. And, I rebel against it in my own little way.
Kindra Fehr is an artist and mom to three-year-old Aria Hancock. She co-instructs the Salt Lake Art Center’s KidsmART program.