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The Competent Parent: Preschooler Needs Exit Strategies

Welcome to our online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.


Dear Dr. Debbie,

My darling four-year-old son has one or two play dates each week with friends from nursery school.  I am glad he is developing friendships and certainly welcome the time off since I have a one-year-old who needs lots of attention.  The problem is that when I come back to retrieve him, there is often a scene: pouting, pleading, then crying.  He doesn’t want to come home.   It’s frustrating and embarrassing since I certainly want the hosting mother to invite him to come again.  Sometimes I have to threaten to carry him out upside down, hoping to provide some comic relief to the audience as well as to him.

No Drama Please


Dear No Drama Please,

Ah, the four-year-old exit scene.  Your son is still in that magical stage of life where there is no time but Now.  Everything in his present experience is vivid – his thoughts, feelings and physical sensations – while ideas, experiences, and things beyond the present moment are hard to access, if not impossible.  When you show up, you may be interrupting an intense negotiation about who gets which role in the adventure at hand.  Two captains of community development may be using the Legos, train tracks, farm house, toy cars, etc. to mastermind a fantasy world of their own design.  Zoo over here by the lake.  Barn and stable by the park.  Hospital and police station at the center of town.  During a play date, he is immersed in his interactions with his friend – oblivious to the outside world of schedules, siblings, and social graces.  Here is a suggested sequence for helping your son disengage from a play date:

1)      Enter his world.  Get close.  Sit or squat so you are at his eye level.  Make a comment about what he’s doing.  “I see you are building a town.  Your train track passes by the farmhouse.  That will make it easy for the farmer to send eggs to the market.”

2)     Let him acknowledge your presence.  This might be a greeting, but more likely it will be a response to a comment you have made about his work in progress.  Remember, his focus on what he is doing is intense – let him notice you as part of his world (to which your comments have connected you), rather than abruptly slamming into his consciousness.

3)     Connect solidly.  Share some conversation about what he is doing with his friend.  Talk with his friend, too.  This shows respect for the playmate which is the main benefit your son is getting from these visits.  Being a good friend is based on mutual respect.  This will also give you more ideas for talking about the friend and the play date on the way home.

4)     Start the transition.  Weave the present into the future.  As you (and the hosting Mom) help the children close out the play session (clean up rules are up to her) you help your son “see” that this piece of time is ending.  Adults need to be clear about time limits since children cannot conceive of them.  Although this time is ending, there may be things he will take with him beyond now – a picture he drew, a leaf he found outside.  Ask about what he and his friend did together so that his experience, in the form of memories, can go with him to the car.

5)     Bridge to the future.  Objects, outerwear and child should now be heading in the direction of the car.  Lead him along with conversation about whatever comes next today – from his point of view, of course.  If you have errands to run, you’ll point out the highlights he looks forward to – a statue or fountain, for example.  Buttons to push on an elevator.  Choices he gets to make in the store – broccoli or string beans for dinner?

6)     Social niceties.  As you wave good-bye to your friend, the hosting Mom, be sure to speak for the both of you as you express your appreciation for the visit.  Express your own gratitude for her care of your son while you: took baby to the doctor/slept/ shopped/cleaned/studied.  Note the benefits to your son: had lunch/got an icepack for a boo boo/ took a spare sweatshirt from her son when the day turned chilly, but mostly enjoyed a good time with his friend.   This is part of the routine your son will come to expect as he separates from social engagements.  You can coach him to be courteous to his friend with such comments as, “Delray certainly enjoyed playing with you today.  He will see you tomorrow at school.”

7)     Follow up.  Reinforce his memories as you head off into the rest of the day.


Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds 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 www.drdebbiewood.com

Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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