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The Playdate Problem

Maya has made many friends in pre-k this year. For her that means girls to play dress-up and paint with and boys to chase and jump on. (Sometimes the girls also chase each other but the boys never seem to want to play "mommy and baby" with her. Nurture my ass!) For me this means sometimes there is another child in my house besides my own, and other times there is no child in my house and I can clean up or write or watch reruns of 90210. (Brenda and Dylan and Kelly oh my!) I honestly love both versions of the playdate. Maya's friends are cute, mostly nice and they can entertain each other for hours, coming out of her room only when they get hungry. As for when she goes to someone else's house, well what is not to love about someone else picking my child up from school, feeding her and keeping her busy all afternoon?

The only problem is that Maya's large circle of friends includes the dreaded group of three, Maya and two other girls. They are all friends with each other. But sometimes Maya has a playdate with one girl, and sometimes with the other, and sometimes the two get together with each other without Maya. What all this math adds up to is someone in tears at 3:00.

For these four year olds, getting left out of the playdate is an emotional disaster akin to marital infidelity. (Not that they know what that is yet.) Last Monday one of her buddies cried all morning when she learned that the other two were getting together. This week it was the other girl, furious, stomping out of the playground with this parting announcement: "I am going to MY house and you two can NOT come!". As for Maya, she usually handles the disappointment the way she handles everything else, stubbornly pretending nothing has happened, with unshed tears glistening in her eyes. It helps that she is often in the power position all women dream of: with two people fighting over her.

The main problem with the playdate triangle is that four year olds have no tact whatsoever. They run to each other in the morning squealing about all the fun things they are going to do together after school.  And that is when they are being nice. Every so often one of the girls (to be honest, it is usually the same one) purposely says something to the other one to hurt her feelings. ("I am going to play at Maya's house ALL DAY!" Thankfully, four year olds also are not yet very creative with their insults.)

And what do we parents do about this? (Other than stand there helplessly while our child blubbers about how everyone is mean to her?) Well one time I felt so bad that I had both girls come over to my house. It was fine but it turns out three kids make quite a bit more noise than two. So now I tell Maya to not talk about her playdates at school. I tell the girl who is sad that she can come over next week. I force them to stay at the playground for at least half an hour so they can all play together before only two of them get to disappear to the magical place that is Maya's room. Maya's room has toys and dress-up clothes and markers and crayons and paint and Play Doh, yet for the past three playdates this is the scene that has unfolded:
 Me: "Maya what are you doing?"
(Maya has come out of her room dressed as Snow White with plastic heels carrying a sparkly pocketbook. She has closed the door behind her. Her friend is nowhere in sight.)
Maya: "It is _____'s (friend's name omitted to protect the innocent) naptime. She is sleeping and I am going to the store."
Me: "Where is ____?"
Maya: "In my bed."
Me: "Is she ok with being locked in your room?"

I can think of many more questions to ask. Most importantly, if you are going to the store, who is watching your child? (I know I have my bad mommy moments but I do not usually leave Maya alone in bed while I go shopping.) Instead I just smile and remind her to let her friend have a turn being the mom too.

So far this year Maya has had three different friends over. Every one of them ended up in her bed "napping." Clearly she is trying to tell me something.

I guess the playdate problem is the first step in navigating the complex social world that is girlhood. There will be mean girls and bullies, secrets and gossip. At some point Maya and a friend will both like the same boy and he will choose one of them. Playdates will become slumber parties, playing will morph into "hanging out", BFF's will become roommates. It is nearly impossible to emerge from this journey unscathed.  My goal is to help Maya develop two things; empathy and thick skin.  While she is still four this means not bragging about her afterschool plans. It also means understanding that if it is not her turn today it will be next time. When she is seventeen it will mean knowing herself enough to not let anyone try to change her and trusting herself enough to not give up on her dreams even if some other girl tells her she is stupid for having them. Most of all, it means loving herself enough to not let anyone ever hurt her.

Thankfully, if all else fails, Maya has a very loud voice (a fact that we are often reminded of when she does not get her way) and a vicious right hand that is only going to get stronger with age.


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