Play Date Etiquette 101
You asked, our expert answered: How to navigate your child's social invitations.
Get-togethers are vital for kids, and their parents — they help build social skills and facilitate healthy play while giving the adults time to bond and perhaps relax a bit. But what are the rules? Here are some tips to help make it a smooth experience, at every age.
Question: I love getting together with fellow moms and dads for play dates, but sometimes I’m not sure what to expect. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what is acceptable. I don’t want to be overprotective or judge other parenting styles, but have my own rules, too. What’s normal, so I can then decide when it’s time to speak up?
Expert: Dr. Tina Paone is the clinical director of the Counseling Center at Heritage in Montgomeryville, which provides full-service counseling services with a focus on Child-Centered Play Therapy. She is a National Certified Counselor, National Certified School Counselor, Approved Clinical Supervisor, Licensed Professional Counselor, Registered Play Therapist Supervisor, and a certified School Counselor for K-12 in Pennsylvania. Tina is also the mother of three and serves as assistant professor at Monmouth University.
Answer: Play dates today aren’t as cut and dried as they were when it was as simple as knocking on a neighbor’s door and kicking a ball around until dinnertime. While the most important thing to remember is that parents always know what is best for their own child, here are some rough tips and guidelines to navigate the world of the back-to-school social season.
Babies & Toddlers
For the most part, play dates prior to preschool are really intended for moms, dads, or caregivers more than babies or toddlers. However, that’s not to say they’re not important. At this age, children participate in parallel play as opposed to with one another, and it gives parents a chance to have some adult contact with other people who understand what they are going through.
Stay or go? It’s really “mom’s play date,” so parents should always plan to stay with their child if invited for a get-together.
Time Frame? Whatever’s decided between the organizing adults; always best if planned around naptime.
Snack? Parents should plan to bring a snack for their child that they know their little one likes. Your host may serve something that you can offer your baby/toddler, as well.
It is funny (and might catch you off guard) when a friend of your preschooler/kindergartner asks “Can I come over?” Usually, children this age have not mastered social decorum, and this is how they express that they would like to get together. It is parents’ responsibility to guide children through this and explain how invitations work. Some children may not be familiar with the idea of socializing at a friend’s house; they are typically more aware of play dates if they have older siblings. At this age, it may be helpful for children to play alone to get to know one another (while parents are hanging out in the next room).
Stay or go? At this age, it’s most appropriate for mom or dad to stay at the house with their child. Many kids are still potty training, or may not be used to being in an unfamiliar place without a parent. It is wise to confirm/establish parental invites prior to the start of the play date to avoid any awkward situations. If you have older kids, you may be more comfortable with dropping a child off for play dates, but the host may not be familiar with this.
Time Frame? 1.5 to 2 hours
Snack? It’s smart to discuss this with your guest’s parent prior to the play date, i.e. “I am going to have cheese crackers for a snack, is that OK for your child?” With so many allergies and specialized diets, it’s best to know ahead of time.
A lot of important developmental milestones take place during the elementary school years. Your child will meet peers they want to socialize with outside of school, they will begin to get friends’ phone numbers independent of their parents, and may make plans on their own (especially girls). It’s important to make sure all parents are informed of plans, even if their child says they’re aware.
Stay or go? During the early elementary years, it may or may not be appropriate for a parent to stay; it’s very important to address this up front with a simple, “Would you like me to stay, or just drop off?” After the fourth grade, it is safe to assume that an invitation means it’s just for your child and you do not need to stay during playtime.
Time Frame? Play dates at this age (especially from the fourth through sixth grades) can be anywhere from two to 18 hours with sleepovers. Regarding check-ins: You know your child and their responsibility level. You can ask your child to check in if they have a cellphone, or ask the other parent to check in with you at a convenient time.
Snack? Parents should notify other parents if a child has an allergy, however in terms of what they eat, you need to relinquish control when your child is not with you. If it is not going to cause your child pain or sickness, you need to be OK with what your child’s host serves.
Pet allergies? Parents need to be up front about any allergies to pets (as long as it’s a true allergy and not a preference that your child doesn’t play with Fido).
Middle and High School
In middle and high school, use the words “play date” and you can expect an eye roll from your pre-teens and teenagers. This age group thinks of their play dates as a “hang out,” and they most likely scheduled their plans with little to no parental involvement. The majority of adolescents have cellphones, and have the ability to communicate with one another whenever they please. Advantage: It also means you and your child can agree on how and when they should check in with you when they are socializing with friends, whether it is answering all of your calls or checking in at a certain time. At this age, children are ready to assume more responsibility, and you ultimately need to trust that you have instilled values and raised them right.
Time Frame? At this age, your child may be with friends for a few hours to a week (i.e., time at the shore or a weekend in the Poconos). If it’s anything longer than a sleepover, a call to the supervising parent is appropriate to offer thanks and see if there’s anything you should know or send with your child.
Snack/Meals? Your child should be aware and able to monitor any food allergies on their own.
The Wild World of Sleepovers
When it comes to readiness for sleepovers, there isn’t a “right age” that applies to every child. A lot of this depends upon your child’s life experiences. In the third grade, kids might be excited for their first sleepover and seem ready, but may not be emotionally prepared. The best way to learn if your child is ready for a sleepover is to let them go and see what happens. Your child might have a blast, or be fine all evening until it’s time for bed — and then start crying and want to come home. If this happens, the best thing you can do is to be supportive, go get them, and not make a big deal about the pick-up. Let them know that you are there for them and that they can try a sleepover again another time.
If your child wants to have a sleepover with a friend whose parents you do not know, suggest a play date first so you can meet the child and his/her parents.
If your child called you to come home in the middle of the night, wait two to three months before trying again. The behavior is not going to change overnight. If it happens in October, try again in December.
If you are the supervising parent and the visiting child seems sad or off, ask if they are OK and if they need anything. If they say they are OK, you need to take their word for it (you do not know them as well as your own child).
If your child is invited on a vacation or day trip with a friend’s family, it’s always a good idea to call the hosting parents to work out the details. Ask what your child will be doing, and what an appropriate amount of money would be to send with your child. If this is an overnight, you can either give the cash to your child or to the hosts ‘ you know your child’s responsibility level. For a long weekend or more, it might be wise to give the money for the weekend to the hosting parent(s). It’s always smart to make sure your child has a few dollars in their own pocket, as well.
Photograph by Latino Life for Canva.