Why I Continue to Host Play Dates I Hate

I’m worried that my kids don’t have enough “down time” to make friends.

I am a mom of three young boys and I can’t stand hosting play dates for them at our house.  What’s so bad about having their friends over?   Let’s see – I hate breaking up fights between kids, prefer not to make six different snacks for picky eaters, and last but not least, dislike opening up my home to parents who decide to stay with their kids for the endless hours of a play date.

So, why do I continue to punish myself by hosting play dates for my kids?  The answer, for me, is surprisingly simple — I’m worried that my kids (and most kids) don’t have enough unstructured time to actually make real friends.  I believe that in order to forge deep friendship, you need quantities of opportunity for spontaneous play.  And, I think that playing around at home or at a friend’s house is about as unstructured and “natural” as it gets, these days.

There is a lot of hype about kids not having enough time to play (period), and don’t get me wrong, I’m worried about that too.  But I’m more concerned about the connection between play and friendship, about kids having enough relaxed and “casually-supervised” time to build friendships.  I’m worried because the childhood I remember – playing with neighborhood kids after school, knocking on a front door to find out if a friend was home – is not the life of my children.  I’m worried because my kids’ experiences of playing and “friending” seem so different to me than my own, that it might actually matter.

Apart from play dates, my children have very few opportunities for less-supervised spontaneous play with friends.  Recess at school is short.  My kids can’t walk down the street to see if any friends are around to play.  Can yours?  In my children’s world, where almost every activity is structured, closely-supervised and strictly limited in duration, there doesn’t seem to be much time to make real friendships.  There may be many recipes for deep friendship, but I think they all require lots of time hanging out (without structure and supervision) to get the hang of how to make a friend and be a friend.  Not to mention navigating the ups and downs of friendship, for which there is no substitute but experience itself.  

I’m not convinced that childhood friendships will be just the same if kids, as now, are rarely left to their own devices.  I’m not sure that the same sparks will fly if adults are always right there to intervene.  And those sparks matter.  Those sparks are what friendship is about; it isn’t always easy and comforting.  Friends may challenge, betray, and disappoint us.  Of course, friends can delight and interest us as well.  But are we giving our kids a chance to figure this out?  Are we depriving them of opportunities (i.e. time apart from adults) to learn how to build and sustain friendships?  Is it possible that since most child activities are now so confined and controlled, by time and space, many of the complexities of friendship simply cease to arrive?

You might say I’m making something out of nothing – kids still make friends all the time, at school and activities.  You might be right.  But I’m going to wager that there is something important about friendship that happens outside of a structured environment and close supervision.  Think about it – did you truly become friends with a co-worker during a boring conference or after it, when you had the chance to complain together over a drink?  That’s why I’m still hosting play dates for my kids, even if it takes multiple emails to schedule them.

About the author: Amy Vatner is an education lawyer in Connecticut and mother of three boys.