Q: My 8-year-old daughter only seems to want to do things with friends her age. I take her to do fun things all the time, too, just the two of us. We go to the park, the children’s museum, botanical gardens, everything you could think of, and it’s like pulling teeth. She only wants to do things on play dates. For instance, she’ll complain all day at the park, but if I bring my friend’s daughter, she’ll enjoy herself all day and ask to stay late. I know she’s a social butterfly, but I need her to learn how to entertain herself. I can’t organize a play date every day, even if I wanted to. Any advice?
A: When you said it is like pulling teeth to take your child to botanical gardens, museums and parks every day, I thought: “Can I be your child?” You sound like an awesome parent who is doing their best to enrich their child’s life. And so, I say this with love: Slow it down.
You are not alone in this push and pull of trying to spend time with your child alone, as well as trying to satisfy her need to be with friends. I know countless parents who complain of their extroverted children begging them daily for play dates, even when the parents have said no, or the schedule doesn’t allow it. This dynamic is even harder when the parent is more introverted than the child. Introverted parents can often feel exhausted by their own children, so add another child and her needs to the mix? The parent can feel overwhelmed and not positive about the outing.
Even if you are not introverted, there are other reasons a child should not have constant play dates. First, children benefit from playing with others, but there comes a point where a lack of leadership and wisdom can creep in. This means whichever child has the stronger personality (and one always wins out) will unconsciously seek to dominate the other child. This is when play can turn bossy and controlling rather than collaborative and fun. I am not saying every play date turns into this, but when children spend too much time together without adult supervision, this dynamic is more likely.
The second reason you shouldn’t give in to every play date is because an 8-year-old is not in charge of the family. Whether it is because of travel time, cost or simply being sick of dragging other children around, the parent sets the boundaries, not the child. By telling your child, “No, we are not bringing Janet to the park with us today,” without apology or wavering, you are teaching her to deal with a boundary. Of course we want our children to have fun, but we create a nightmare when we don’t enforce simple and clear rules.
If your daughter is pushing your boundary with begging, pushing or throwing fits, she is (unconsciously) trying to wear you down. Don’t give in. The small boundary held now will lead to an ease in holding bigger boundaries later, and trust me, you want that ease.
The third reason your child doesn’t need play dates is that boredom is the window to creativity, and whenever your daughter has someone with her, her mind doesn’t have a break to wander. Between school and technology, our children have an ever-growing need to simply “be,” but this is difficult when the child is both extroverted and conditioned to having someone with her at all times. The whining and tantrums for play dates and entertainment can wear down even the most patient parent. The reason your child cannot entertain herself is because she is being constantly entertained, either through play dates or even with activities with just the two of you.
So, what are you supposed to do? Not allow anymore play dates? Of course not. We want to strike a balance between your child enjoying her growing friendships and finding her own creativity. Here are a couple of ideas:
• Stop trying to impress her with outings. You are not a cruise director, so although parks are awesome, you don’t have to go to a museum or fancy garden every time you take her somewhere. Whether you bring her friend or not, pare down the outings to activities around your community, neighborhood or backyard. If you live in an area with gardens and museums, awesome; just don’t go out of your way to make everything “special.” Keep activities simple (kicking soccer balls, making slime, baking, bike riding), and give her time to experience her own creativity. The burden of making sure your child loves every structured experience is unfair to both of you.
• Call a meeting with your daughter, take out your calendar and make a plan. There are weekends and after-school time, and between you and your child, decide what makes sense for your family and schedule. Your daughter may not love that she cannot invite Irene to every outing, but having a meeting gives your daughter a voice — a way to offer her opinions and desires in a way that is respected and heard by you. Creating a calendar together can also head off some of the “pulling teeth” feelings, because you both decided the plan ahead of time. These meetings are by no means a cure-all, but they offer a calm, organized and kind way to communicate.