As a kid in the ‘80s, my playdates were spent in wood-paneled basements slurping juice boxes and playing Super Mario Bros. Occasionally a mom would break out some Shrinky-Dinks, but then she’d disappear, and we’d go back to cutting worms in half or sliding down the stairs head-first in a sleeping bag.
Those days are over.
Last week, my 7-year-old daughter, Nora, returned from a friend’s house armed with a homemade snow globe, puffy painted socks and warm chocolate chip cookies. This is the new normal. Playdates are now like birthday parties, where no one leaves empty handed.
“Mrs. S baked those cookies from scratch,” Nora exclaimed. “Oh, oh! And she jumped on their trampoline with us. Can you do a somersault? Mrs. S. can.”
“I can do a somersault,” I replied, even though I can’t. I was just feeling inferior to Mrs. S., playdate mom extraordinaire, with her clean white furniture and bare kitchen countertops. That’s another thing about playdates: At pickup, you see how the others live. You realize that not everyone has 12 junk drawers. Oh, what the children must report back about our house ….
“They leave their shoes everywhere! None of their towels match and a chipmunk keeps breaking into the playroom."
So lately, I've been making up excuses when my girls ask to have a new friend over. "Let's do it next Monday, OK? The cleaners come on Monday." My husband doesn't get it, but parenting and youth development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa does. She agrees that things have gotten out of hand.
“Your job at a playdate is not to entertain, educate or impress your children’s friends,” Gilboa told TODAY Parents. “Your job is to keep them safe and give them an opportunity for social interaction with each other. And maybe a snack. That’s it.”
“You’re not a preschool teacher, you’re not a camp counselor, it’s not a photo shoot for Better Homes and Gardens magazine,” she added.
Gilboa noted that there will always be parents who go overboard and treat playdates like a competitive sport. We only control how we respond.
"You can’t get into a tug of war if you don’t pick up the rope,” she said. “You get to decide what competitions you enter.”
According to Gilboa, moms in the ‘80s had it right. When I had friends over, my mom would prep dinner, pay bills and talk on the phone. If we needed something, we knew where to find her.
“Playdates are supposed to make your life easier,” Gilboa said.
Of course, you can’t throw on a pair of headphones and entirely check out. A watchful eye is important at any age.
“When they’re 4 or 5 you want to make sure they’re not like, jumping on a hot radiator and when they’re teens, you want to make sure they’re not watching inappropriate videos,” Gilboa said.
Gilboa understands the temptation some moms feel to play cruise director. They want to be the known as the fun mom; they want to show your child a good time. They want to be liked.
But sometimes it's important to just sit back and watch.
"The skill of relieving boredom requires children to improve their communication, self-communication, self-regulation and creativity," Gilboa said. "When parents step in to offer endless options, entertain or soothe, we rob kids of the discomfort that will push them to learn those skills."