Date: February 1, 2012
Playdates were anything but playful for Piper Leslie's two older children, 10-year-old Kaylee and 9-year-old Kyle. "When we first started playdates, Kaylee was usually the one to have friends over," she says. "Kyle has Asperger's syndrome and has a harder time making friends, and I never wanted him to feel left out, so I always made Kaylee include him."
But when fights started springing up between the normally close pair, Leslie knew she needed a new playdate plan of action.
In theory, playdates are supposed to be fun, but visits from friends can spark squabbles between even the friendliest of tween siblings. From "She always wrecks everything!" to "It's my room!" to "You always take his side!" scuffles abound as kids jockey for time alone with pals, stake claim to bedrooms, and one-up siblings in an attempt to appear cool in front of their friends. Brokering household peace can leave parents exhausted.
Michelle Maidenberg, a psychologist and mom of four, referees playdate problems on a regular basis with her three older boys: 11-year-old Addison, 8-year-old Foster and 6-year-old Wyatt. "Sometimes, we'll have several playdates in a week," she says. "It's a constant struggle keeping everyone happy."
Why are playdates such a pain? According to Maidenberg, there's often more to the problem than meets the eye. Though kids may fight over fairness and time alone with their friends, the real issue at stake is sibling rivalry. Playdates can set the stage for siblings to feel excluded and hurt, and conflicts ignite when one sibling thinks he's been wronged, especially if he perceives that another child is being favored.
When tempers flare, kids often set parents up to take sides: "Make him leave us alone!" or "Tell her that it's my room!" Parents should tread carefully, Maidenberg says, because the time-honored tactic of forcing one child to include a left-out sibling in her play can strain sibling relationships. A child who is forced to include a sibling in a playdate may feel resentful and angry and direct those feelings at the playdate-crashing brother or sister.
Happily, playdates can be exercises in family problem-solving, says Adele Faber,
co-author of the New York Times best-seller Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too. Since most playdates are planned in advance, Faber recommends that parents sit down with kids and draw up a pre-playdate action plan.
"You know your own kids; you know if one child is going to want alone time with their friend and the other child is going to be moping around," she says. "So sit down together and ask them, 'How can we make this playdate fun for everyone?'"
When kids are involved in creating a plan, they become invested in the solution, Faber says. Creating a shared plan of action also sends an important message to each sibling: One child doesn't get to have fun at the expense of another. Every family member has valid needs and ideas. Rivalry diffuses when kids see that they are valued and that one sibling isn't being favored, she says.
Ideas for inclusion
Planning ahead is ideal, but even the best-laid playdate plans aren't foolproof. Plans can fall through (for example, when a surprise rain shower keeps everyone indoors) and sometimes planning is impossible (such as when a neighbor knocks on the door for an impromptu visit).
Keep the peace by finding activities everyone can enjoy: bowling, ice skating, jumping rope, and active electronic gaming systems like the Nintendo Wii that allow kids of different ages and skill levels to participate together. Finding a special "job" for a younger child can help that sibling join in the fun.
Leslie found playdate peace when she stopped micromanaging friends' visits. Instead, she talked with her kids about the importance of kindness and inclusion — and then she stepped back and trusted her kids' judgment.
"I realized it wasn't Kaylee's responsibility to keep Kyle entertained. I let them know that while I expect Kaylee and her friend to be kind to Kyle (and vice versa), it's up to her to decide if she wants to include her brother," she says. "Overall, they're both good about including the other. They know it's not fun to be left out." n
Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mother of two.
Steps to the perfect playdate
1. Sit down with kids one to two days in advance. Ask each child to come up with ways to make the playdate fun for everyone — guests and siblings alike.
2. Write down all ideas, even ones that sound impractical and ridiculous, like "Eat cotton candy at the Space Needle!" and "Bake 1,000 cookies!"
3. Consider physical games for the entire group. Check websites like http://familyfitness.about.com and www.gameskidsplay.net for ideas.
4. Discuss why the ideas may or may not work. Together, come up with several options that enable everyone to have fun together. Then go play!