Your toddler’s playdates can go brilliantly well or go horribly wrong. Mums and experts share their experiences and tips to get it right
Whatever playdate horror story you have to tell, it’s worth remembering that playdates are worthwhile for toddlers of all ages and stages.
Let’s face it, for toddlers who are under 24 months, playdates are more about us parents than our toddlers. But even though your toddler may lie on a mat while you drink tea and eat biscuits, she’s still learning basic social skills and may be experiencing an important developmental milestone.
“You’ll notice that when your baby is around other babies, she’ll be more attracted to them than to the adults,” says Penny Warner, author of Smart Start for Your Baby. “They quickly sense a connection, and begin interacting by watching and trying to grasp each other.” If you keep up the contact, you may see this slowly turn into friendship.
“I’ve been taking Jake to meet his friend, William, and his mum, Mary, since the boys were 4 months and now they’re great friends,” says Teresa, 32, mum to Jake, 21 months. “Jake gets so excited when I tell him he’s seeing William. They chase each other around and are now even trying to chat!”
As your toddler grows, playdates become more active and eventful, which means more mess. Don’t worry about the state of your house – a feeling of comfort and easiness will mean more to the other parents than an obsessively cleaned kitchen.
“This age marks the peak of aggressive behaviour in children, which can make playdates more stressful,” says Professor Peter Smith, head of the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths College, London.
“But bear in mind that this behaviour is normal. Pushing and poking other kids is all part of learning boundaries. Don’t be too alarmed – encourage sharing and use distraction techniques to lead them out of it,” says Professor Smith.
Very young children are egocentric – they can’t see others’ perspectives. So it’s a great surprise when they suddenly have to share their toys, hence the possessiveness and clinginess.
Penny Warner, author of Smart Start for Your Baby
Although no one wants their child to run riot at someone else’s house, a clingy toddler can be just as hard work. Alexandra, 45, mum to Ben, now 5, says, “From 1 to 3, Ben wouldn’t socialise. Wherever we went, he held on to my leg.”
Clinginess is a common problem for toddlers. “Very young children are egocentric – they can’t see others’ perspectives,” says Penny Warner. “So it’s a great surprise when they suddenly have to share their toys, hence the possessiveness and clinginess.”
Your child may now be at nursery and will be finding her own friends – and sometimes you might not like her choice!
“Ella asked if a little girl could come to play and I was delighted she was making friends,” says Barbara Hancock, 42, from Liverpool, mum to Toby, 6, and Ella, 4. “But it turns out this friend has, er, toilet issues. Twice now she’s made the most appalling mess in my bathroom – there was poo everywhere. I mentioned it casually to her mum when she came to pick her up, but she just laughed it off! I’d have been mortified.”
Around the age of 3 or 4, you may be invited to opt out of the playdate, leaving just the one parent as sole entertainer, police officer and peace-maker. This is when food can be a real issue, as many playdates involve lunch or tea. To avoid mealtime problems, it’s best to find out in advance what your guest will or will not eat – and if she’s allergic to anything.
“As I was making tea, my daughter’s friend came into the kitchen and said, ‘I hope we’re not having something yucky,’” recalls Katy, 37, mum to Jemima, 5. “My daughter promptly decided she wouldn’t eat her broccoli (which she usually loves), as her friend wasn’t eating hers, so tears started. Then there was a huge tantrum, as we only had one pink cup. It was a nightmare!”
Children are used to their own rules and are sometimes reluctant to conform to yours. “One little girl was adamant she didn’t have to wear a seatbelt in the car,” says Claire McCormick. “She wouldn’t put it on, so I refused to drive off until she’d done it. We waited 10 minutes, but she did it in the end.”
It can be difficult to discipline someone else’s child, but you have to remember that it’s your house and you’re in control. “Children have different temperaments and rules, and you have to deal with them accordingly,” says Professor Smith. “The main thing is to try and keep calm. And although you can’t tolerate bad behaviour, it’s best to try to distract them rather than shout at them.”
“Once Lottie and her friends were 2, I found it was best to play outside or to meet on neutral ground, such as the park or a play centre. She’d be really upset if visitors messed up her things.”
Diana, 38, mum to Lottie, now 5, and Millie, 3
“It’s always a challenge having a group of children over for a playdate, but I thought that by allowing them to play in the garden, nothing much could go wrong. Big mistake!
“They headed straight for our vegetable patch and began throwing soil and manure at each other until they were covered in the stuff. Then they kept coming indoors, and you couldn’t tell what had been trodden into the carpet – chocolate cake, soil or manure!
“In the end I was forced to have a few words with them and they finally left the vegetable patch alone, but then they started to rip out plants and clumps of turf.
“After four very stressful hours, which included a lot of shouting on my part, I began tidying up. But just as I sat down, one of the little boys pulled down his pants and did the most enormous poo on our patio. It was the final straw!”
Adalin, 30, mum to Debbie, 3
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