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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceEnding a playdate on a good note — Good Parenting

Ending a playdate on a good note — Good Parenting

PlaydateDear Dr. Debbie,

I went to pick up my son from a playdate, and he whined and cried all the way to the car. He is 5 years old. The other mom was very nice about it, inviting him to come back soon, but I was embarrassed.


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Dear Embarrassed,

Ending a playdate can be difficult for children. At that age, children are still very much “in the moment” and not in good control of their emotions.

A playdate needs to be well-timed so that children aren’t too tired or hungry at its end. A lunch or snack can be a nice interlude to playing together, which can get intense at times. Playtime is when children learn so many things, including how to take turns and follow each other’s ideas. Too long a playdate and they may exhaust their ability to cooperate with each other (and with their parents).

A routine can help the visit to go well and end well. Since their focus is very short, young children depend on routines to let them know what’s coming next. Many parents start having playdates soon after their babies are born, using the time to compare parenting experiences with each other while the babies do their thing — maybe looking every now and then at the other baby. The routine is pretty much according to the social needs of the parents, working around the feeding, diapering and sleeping needs of the infants. The playdate is over with a few minutes’ warning, “We should probably head home soon. Our next feeding is likely to be a long one.” This is followed by the adults helping one another to put the place back in order and pack up the visiting mother and baby. Then there are mutual exchanges of how nice it has been to visit, with promises or plans for getting together again soon.

If you are fortunate to find families whose children are close in age to yours, and whose company you have enjoyed since the babies’ infancy or soon after, these friendships should be cultivated for the playmate value the children will one day find in each other.

By age 2, children are getting to know the people they see often, and with close supervision, will play happily alongside another child. Parents should stick close for the whole visit. By age 3, a child can be expected to have short periods, gradually stretching from 10 minutes to an hour or so, during which he can enjoy some make-believe, coloring or block building with another child. An adult, however, should keep a close watch to smooth out any difficulties that may arise.

A huge leap in social skills occurs by age 4, at which time a playdate with a steady playmate needs only for an adult to stay within earshot and peek in every so often. The snack or lunch break helps to remind the children that adults are always nearby if needed. If your son has been on many playdates in his life, then by age 5 a two to three-hour block is a reasonable length of time for the friends to enjoy each other’s company (with an intermission in the kitchen). The visiting child’s parent can leave to go home or runs errands.

The end of the visit needs to follow the routine set since infancy. Plan your pick up so that you and the other mom can have 10 minutes to chat. The arrival of the picking up parent accompanies the announcement that the end is coming soon. The adults exchange news and pleasantries, then start offering to help the children clean up. Clean up routines can include a simple song, a challenge to carry as many blocks or cars as they can, or a countdown of “10, 9, 8 . . .” to encourage swiftness for the specific clean-up job at hand. The clean-up routine should be one that the hosting parent uses regularly so that her child is likely to automatically follow it. If both parents and the hosting child are cooperatively engaged in wrapping up the visit, the visiting child will see that the playdate is ending.

Remember to time the playdate to address the children’s needs for food and rest. (A snack “for the ride home” is a nice way to transition if needed.) Good timing also prevents parents from having to rush children, preventing a lot of whining. Finish grandly with gracious thank yous and offers of reciprocation that pleasant company deserves. And coach the children to follow suit. It may help your son as you walk out to be putting the next date in your phone (or a reminder to make one) as you deftly change the subject to what’s next for him.

A consistent routine at the end of a well-timed playdate, gives children a chance to wind up the visit, switch gears, and move ahead with the day, assured that he and his friend will get together again soon.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

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