- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

Soon after Kim Finkel's son, Max, turned 3, a friend from preschool invited him to come over and play. It would be an important milestone for Max as Mrs. Finkel would not accompany him.

But Mrs. Finkel was still nervous. She wanted her son to have social independence, but this was new territory for her.

"I think you have to try and allow children to have the independence of a playdate without mom around," says Mrs. Finkel, who lives in Rockville. "But in the back of your mind, you are hoping you don't get that call that he harmed someone. The bottom line is, you hope other parents are watching your children the way you would."

In a way, playdates are unchartered waters for many people, says Steven E. Tobias, a Morristown, N.J., child psychologist and co-author of the book "Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child."

The term "playdate" hardly existed a generation ago. You wanted to play, you went downstairs to find your siblings or out in the yard to round up the neighborhood gang, most of whom you had known forever.

These days, parents are working more hours and moving more often, making those connections harder to find. Playing often has to be scheduled in between music lessons and sports practices. Often, our children's playdates and their parents are strangers.

"When did the word 'playdate' even enter our vocabulary?" Mr. Tobias says. "When we were kids, if you wanted to play, you went and played. Today, because of our hectic lives, we have to schedule in playtime. In soccer and dance classes, children are learning a lot, but not how to play. A lot of important social skills are learned through play. It is important to give children opportunities for supervised, but unstructured free play."

There is no set age for a child to begin going on playdates. A confident 3-year-old might do great, while a shy 6-year-old still might not be ready, Mr. Tobias says.

"It depends on the child," he says. "You should only give your child as much responsibility as they are able to handle."

Bettina Forman, a Reston mother of two girls, ages 8 and 6, began letting her older daughter, Eva, go on playdates when she was in kindergarten. Mrs. Forman set rules for herself ahead of time.

"She was only allowed to go to someone's house if I had had conversations with the parents and I could sense we were on the same wavelength," she says.

The conversations should go both ways, Mrs. Forman says. The other child's parents should be as equally interested in you and your child.

"There was one child who wanted a playdate and I just wasn't sure," she says. "I didn't know the parents and the girl wasn't very well behaved. The girl came over, and I didn't like how disinterested her parents were in checking me out. Then Eva went there one day and the mom was basically ignoring the kids. She was going to send them over to the tot lot by themselves. I didn't leave Eva there, and we haven't had more playdates with that child."

The level of supervision is a hot topic for playdates. What counts as supervision in one home might not be up to the standards of another home. When Max Finkel went on that first playdate, he and his friend found their way into a bathroom, stripped off their clothes and were playing in the tub. The children couldn't turn on the water, but it made Mrs. Finkel think.

"The other mom has four children," Mrs. Finkel says. "She must be a lot more laid-back than I am about supervision."

Anne Glauberman, a Fairfax mother of two, has general supervision rules that are different for her 8-year-old daughter and her 5-year-old son.

"I let the girls go off in the house on their own," Mrs. Glauberman says. "They are in her room, dancing and making up shows. That's fine as long as an adult is in the house."

For her son, Noah, though, she tends to stay in the same room or nearby. She checks on them every 10 or 15 minutes.

Getting to know you

Mrs. Glauberman says she feels pretty confident when her children play at other houses. That is because she has made it a point to get to know the other families. Even in this transient age, building a family network can begin when children are babies and continue through the school years. The more parents are involved with activities such as play groups, the PTA or volunteering at school, the more families they will get to know and, hopefully, trust.

"We had a neighborhood play group," she says. "So when my daughter, Abby, has playdates even now, she rarely goes out of the neighborhood. There are five or six girls who she plays with who live right here."

But a friend from the chess club recently invited Abby to play after school. Mrs. Glauberman is still thinking about it.

"I don't know the family at all," she says. "I probably will invite the girl to my house first to see how they do. To see if they have the same kind of values and behavior."

Seeing, rather than asking, can be a valuable tool in understanding other families, says Dr. Stanley I. Greenspan, a Bethesda child psychiatrist and author of several books on child development and behavior.

"If you want to get to know someone, hang out with them for a bit," he says. "You can get an idea of their judgment and nurturing in a way that is hard to understand by asking questions."

Even if you know your child's friend's parents, there are still questions to ask before sending a child on a playdate.

Some of the questions are easy. Mrs. Glauberman says she always asks if a visiting child has any food allergies. Before sending her own children to someone's home, she asks if the family has pets so she can prepare her children.

But there are tougher questions, too. The hardest seems to be about whether guns are in the house. Many parents say they know they should ask, but feel funny doing so.

"It is definitely something I need to think about more," Mrs. Finkel says. "The whole subject is such a powerhouse topic. It evokes so much emotion. You are either pro- or anti-gun. You hardly ever see people in the middle. And it seems like a sensitive topic, like you are questioning their character to ask."

Mrs. Forman doesn't ask, either.

"I know, I should," she says. "It is a good question, but also an awkward question. Partly, I guess, it is kind of sexist. Having girls, I guess, they just wouldn't be interested in guns."

Then also is the question of discipline. Foul language and disrespectful behavior might be all right in one home, but not yours. That is why it is important to have house rules, says Jane Nelsen, a Utah child psychologist and author of several books on discipline.

House rules

A good way to ensure your own children know the rules of the house is to ask them for help in formulating them, Ms. Nelsen says.

"House rules that kids helped create are part of teaching them life skills," she says. "Instead of saying 'We don't talk disrespectfully,' ask them 'Why would we not want to talk disrespectfully?' When children are involved, they feel empowered and use their thinking skills."

But just because the rule might be to not talk or act disrespectfully, that does not mean all children will follow it. If a visitor is misbehaving, the best way to handle it is to review the rule of your house, Ms. Nelsen says.

"Say 'In my house, we do it differently,'" Ms. Nelsen says. "Don't put them down. You can be kind and firm at the same time."

If a parent does not know what rules a child has in his home, it is a good idea to go over the rules of your home in advance, Dr. Greenspan says.

Mrs. Glauberman agrees with that, even if it is going over something as simple as taking your shoes off in the foyer or not fiddling with the remote controls of the television set.

If children do get into a squabble, for instance, parents can get involved in two ways, Dr. Greenspan says. They can move in and help negotiate by urging children to use words, rather than violence, to work it out. Parents can also redirect behavior by offering a new activity such as a structured game or a snack break.

If there is any real issue, though, parents should share what happened with the other parents, he says.

Mrs. Finkel was in that situation recently. Another 3-year-old came over to play, and when Mrs. Finkel briefly left the room, he became hysterical and wanted to go home. It turns out that Max, along with Mrs. Finkel's 18-month-old, Sam, were hitting the boy.

"When they are little, you have to intervene," she says. "I took them out of the situation. Max and Sam got a timeout, and the boy went home. I called to check on him. I was honest with the parents about what happened. I was appalled. Here I had someone in my home who I was responsible for, and I wasn't doing my job 100 percent."

Parents still have control over who their children play with when children are as young as Mrs. Finkel's. As they mature, though, there are going to be some playdates parents approve of, and some they don't. What's a parent to do if they just don't like a certain friend?

That is another hard question, says Jolene Ivey, a Cheverly mother of five sons, ranging from ages 2 to 12.

"You can discourage them playing together by not making it easy," she says. "Your child can always have a chore that needs to be done or something. But it is a tough call whether the friend has done something really bad, or if it is just a personality issue. We are lucky. We haven't had a really bad influence, yet. Most of my children's friends I generally like."

Dr. Greenspan says parents should take stock of what it is they don't like about a particular child.

"You have to do what is in the child's best interest," he says. "If you have a good reason, such as he could hurt your child, then you can encourage playing with someone else. If it is just a personal preference, then figure out what the problem is and adapt."

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