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Play Date Etiquette: The Drop-Off

A few months ago Maddie had a play date at a friend’s house, someone whose mother I only casually knew from school. When she returned home a few hours later, her eyes were shining with happiness. “I had the best play date EVER!” she cried. “When can I go over again?”

I smiled. “I’ll talk to your friend’s mom and see what we can set up! What was so fun about this play date?”

Maddie sparkled. “We watched television the whole time, and her mom let us eat a LOT of candy!”


Contrast this with last week, when I dropped Maddie and Cora off at my friend Meg’s. “Come on in!” she answered the door. “We’ve got paper all set up; we’re going to do life-size self portraits!” When I picked the girls up a couple hours later, Meg greeted me with, “The girls were fantastic. We had a great time, and when they got hungry they had a granola bar and some apple slices.”

Play dates used to be a thing requiring constant supervision; when you invited someone over you weren’t just inviting the child, but the mommy. Often, I’d look at play dates as my chance to talk to an actual grown-up. Sure, it was physical work, chasing after the girls and keeping new friends out of our cabinets or knife drawer, but that was what life was all about.

Now, more often than not, play dates are a drop-off thing: sometimes you’re dropping the girls with a friend so you can get errands or a doctor’s appointment done. Sometimes your child wants to play with someone from school, and you’re not close enough with the parent for them to be comfortable with you lurking around the house. And sometimes, you simply need to let your child have her independence and figure out how she’s going to navigate her social world without you constantly hovering and correcting. Welcome to the world of drop-offs.

When you drop off your child at someone else’s house, you relinquish a lot of your control. I get that, and I’m grateful that I have friends willing to let me do that when I need to. But it’s also perfectly fine to want to have some boundaries for your family, and to ask a few gentle questions to figure out where in your comfort zone this particular family falls.

If I’m the one dropping off, I usually know a fair amount about the adult who will be supervising; she’s usually a good friend of mine who already knows my girls, how they eat, and what they’re comfortable watching on television. I’m lucky, I know.

But let’s assume this is someone I don’t really know. Here are a few of the things I feel comfortable asking about:

First, what will they be doing? I try to lay the groundwork ahead of time: when we speak to set up a play date, I might say, “What sort of things does Meredith like to do for fun?” If her mother answers, “She loves to surf YouTube,” I might say, “Maddie hasn’t discovered that yet and I’m not ready for her to; is there anything else they can do during their play date?” If, when I drop my child off, a movie or t.v. show is mentioned, I’ll try to say something about my daughter’s comfort zones: “Maddie’s easily scared during movies but loved the Muppet Movie!” Hopefully that will do the trick.

Second, who else will be home? Maddie’s had a play date that included dress-up, and I found out afterwards that the friend’s older brother was around and involved at least peripherally. Now that Maddie’s older, we’ve had the talk about not taking clothes off in front of boys or strangers, but that was a conversation I learned to have the hard way.

Third, if you have a child with allergies, it’s perfectly ok to talk about those allergies. Cora has a sensitivity to artificial food dyes, so I’ll sometimes mention that. This is not, though, the time to be a food Nazi: if you only allow organic whole grains and whole fruits and vegetables for your kids during snack time, it’s best to pack it yourself and send it with them. And send enough for your kids to share. You gotta let go a little here.

Finally, if this is a family I don’t know well, I’ll ask them if they have any guns in the house; how those guns are stored; and how aware their child is of the guns – completely ignorant? Informed, but doesn’t know where they are? Fascinated? Yes, it is true, I have had these conversations. This is Texas, y’all, and I know of one other friend in my circle who does NOT have a gun. Besides me. Yes, I hate asking, and sometimes it’s awkward, but that’s my kid I’m protecting and those sort of accidents don’t get a do-over.

If you’re the one hosting the play date, try helping out by offering information. When someone drops their child off I’ll say, “The girls will probably play dress-up all afternoon; do you want your daughter to dress up over her regular clothes? And if they get hungry I’ve got popcorn and strawberries and cheese sticks on hand; does that work?” And when a child is picked up I always fill the mom in: “We had a great time, the girls had a small tiff but worked it out, we finger-painted but washed up, and they had granola bars and an orange for a snack about an hour ago.”

So that’s how I roll with drop-off play dates. Keep communication open, be respectful of other families’ boundaries – especially if they’re tighter than yours – and realize you’re surrendering some control over this situation. If Cora eats red jell-o, she’ll climb the walls for a few hours, but we’ll get over it. If Maddie sees something scary on television, we’ll deal with the nightmares and serious conversations that will ensue. Our kids are learning independence and how to navigate in a world that we can’t always control perfectly, and that’s important. And you’re getting some kid-free time.

Which is also important.


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