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Column Think playdates are all fun and games? Think again.

Playdates are basically the office parties of kid-land: the stakes are higher than they seem and opting out is harder than you think, writes Emily Hourican.

“CAN WE GET take-out from Eddie Rocket’s, because Paul doesn’t like the food in our house?” That was the six-year-old, clearly suffering social anxiety around the afternoon’s playdate. Naturally, my first reaction was ‘right, just for that, I’m going to serve snails and frog’s legs out of human skulls…’ But of course I didn’t. Because, not only do we have playdates these days – relentless, regulated social interaction for the under-12s – but we actually care whether the playdate child has a good time or not.

The idea that my mother, back in the day, would ever have altered the menu (cabbage leaves rolled into cigar shapes filled with brown rice and chopped lamb, anyone?) or schedule (lots of minding of small brothers and sisters and general ‘helping’) in order to cosy up to a visiting child, is a bit like thinking Mount Everest might bend down and help the dear little climbers to the summit. Impossible, and against nature. Back then, playdates were rare (and certainly didn’t have an actual name), and far more ‘take as you find.’

These days, they are such a minefield that I know one woman who has the whole thing laid out on a spreadsheet: who went where, when; who was asked back (who wasn’t…); and what various kids’ friends will or won’t eat. ‘It’s just much easier,’ she tells me. I guess it might be, but I still feel a strong urge to lie down and cry when I hear that.

Playdates are the office parties of kid-land

Socially, we pitch these playdates as no big deal. Relaxed, fun, a laugh. Just the same as corporate law firms do with their Team-Building Away Days, when everyone knows damn well that their abilities and commitment to the firm are being extrapolated from the way they react to swinging on a knotted rope across a muddy swamp. Yes, playdates are basically the office parties of kid-land: the stakes are higher than they seem, the waters more treacherous than they look, and opting out is harder than you think.

Food is the biggest hurdle. This is where the Eddie Rockets question comes in. How to handle the really fussy eaters? Ignore them? Lie down on the ground prostrate in front of them and grovel? I have one kid who regularly comes to the house who simply gives me the thumbs up or down, like a Roman Emperor deciding the fate of a gladiator. I put food in front of him, out comes the thumb – up, or down. Sometimes the thumb goes up, then turns slowly, rotates… down. Die, gladiator! (Or in this case, toasted bagel, because it has sesame seeds clinging to its underside). Luckily, I like him.

Another child eats only three things: plain pasta, salted peanuts and roast potatoes. Nothing else will cross his lips. Before his first ever visit to the house, his mother explained this to me, in some embarrassment, then added cheerfully, ‘but I wouldn’t worry too much. He doesn’t seem to starve…’ Most kids will happily consume pizza, burgers, chips and of course sugar in any form. But – before we all run away with that, don’t think they won’t tell their mother: ‘it was great, X’s mum just gave us jelly worms and sherbet for lunch!’ – at which point you will be judged as very irresponsible and possible undesirable.

The next minefield: food

If a child has food allergies – proper ones I mean, not the kind of ‘my little Xanthia only eats quinoa and goji berries’ type – it is entirely reasonable to ask for a detailed list, including brand names where possible, of foods that are OK. I have been badly caught out by a dairy intolerance and hot dogs in my time; because dairy lurks in the most unexpected places, and goes by a variety of sneaky names.

As for what activities they engage in, this is a little bit easier. Let them do what they want, within reason. Obviously they can’t spend the afternoon teasing the baby, or the cat, but neither must you feel obliged whip them into a series of choreographed North Korean-style rallies to showcase the gloriousness of the regime. If they want to bash toy cars together or just watch a DVD, let them at it.

And finally, resist competitive playdating as much as possible. When the mother comes to collect, do not tell her how you all played ‘Super Eye-Spy’ and Junior Scrabble, or how you ‘gave them all tofu but I was so surprised that Johnny has never seen an avocado before…’ because she will hate you. Rightly.

Emily Hourican is a journalist with the Sunday Independent and author of How To Really Be A Mother, a funny, honest examination of modern motherhood. Follow her on twitter @EmilyH71

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