There are good play dates and so-so play dates. And then there are those meltdown, can’t-get-out-of-there-soon-enough play dates.
Preschoolers may battle over a toy, engage in name-calling, refuse to acknowledge one another, or even push, bite, or hit their playmate. Older kids may tease, taunt, or torment one another. Or they may get into trouble or even into dangerous situations.
Of course, as a parent, your child's health, safety, and well-being have to be your primary concern.
Child psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman, co-director of the New York Psychoanalytic Society's Pacella Parent Child Center, says, "You have to protect your kid, and you don’t want to put your kid in a situation where he or she is uncomfortable. If your kid doesn’t want to play with another child, you have to take that very seriously."
But how do you know if you're reading the situation correctly? When should you express your concerns to the other child's parent? And how can you do it diplomatically?
When Your Child Is Young
If your child is young enough that you are in charge of his or her social calendar, you can always stop making play dates. But if you value the relationship with the parent, this can strain, if not ruin, that relationship, Hoffman says.
Elizabeth J. Short, PhD, a psychology professor and associate director of the Schubert Center at Case Western Reserve University, says, "If your friend pushes you about getting together, you can say something like, 'Your son is really rough and aggressive, and he scares my son.'"
She also points out you can take steps to control the play environment.
"Make sure you are present to monitor the play dates so that all kids stay safe," Short says. She suggests that you host the play date if you're uncomfortable with other options.
However, there is a caution you need to observe. "If you think your kid is at risk, then I would not take a second chance," Short says. "Always be open-minded. But when you feel it might jeopardize your child’s safety, go with your instinct because instincts don’t lie."
When Your Child Is Older
Nancy Darling, a psychology professor at Oberlin College, says if your older child has a friend you think is a bad influence, you should limit how much time they can spend together.
But be careful not to judge older kids by their behavior when they were younger. Someone who was a bully or a biter at age 5 isn't necessarily a bad teen. Short says we have long memories as parents, but kids change.
And one bad play date does not mean the other kid's a bad kid, nor should it doom a friendship. We all have off days, and so you shouldn't think one bad afternoon tells you everything you need to know about the other kid. But issues that keep coming up over a period of time suggest a pattern of behavior that needs to be noted and watched.
Expressing your concerns about someone else's child is not easy and should not be taken lightly. "This may actually be harder than telling someone something about their husband or wife," Hoffman says. "It’s a very tough situation."
His advice is to wait for an opening. "If the other person says, ‘I don’t know what to do with Johnny,’ it may be a good time to delicately express your concerns," Hoffman says.
But be warned. Saying something, even when prompted, may affect your friendship. And be careful that you're stating the facts and sharing your feelings rather than diagnosing or labeling someone else's child.