To Play Date or Not to Play Date?

While cleaning my son Tristan’s room I found a piece of scrap paper with his distinct pencil scrawl.

Things I hate:

1. When my brother talks during my computer turn.

2. Parsnips.

3. Play dates.

I knew my son was annoyed when other children came over, but I had no idea his disdain was such that it necessitated the making of a written list.

My 8-year-old twin boys are managing their sensory processing disorder (SPD) very well these days, but its presence still infiltrates every fiber of our lives. Will is more of an extrovert; he loves play dates and pesters me to schedule more of them, while Tristan can barely get through one every couple weeks without melting down or shouting at his guest as if they were an intruder.

Play dates have always been an issue for us. Both prefer to play at other people’s houses, with different toys and new experience, and they usually behave better out than on their home turf. But we don’t get invited to other’s homes as often as our neurotypical friends, and when we do, we’re not always invited back a second time. Thankfully, my boys haven’t noticed yet. The lack of play dates on our social calendar has puzzled me. I want confirmation from other parents. Is it their behavior (or mine :))? Is it because the chemistry isn’t right between the kids? Is it because you’re perplexed by my son’s SPD and/or anxiety? I try not to take it personally, but inside it hurts a little when I see regular play date photos on Facebook and we’re not in their loop.

Instead of talking about feeling left out, I tell my boys, “If you want to be invited to someone else’s house for a play date, the first step is to invite them over to yours.” But I’m struggling to balance Will’s desire for a daily play date with Tristan’s complete contempt for them.

I can see both perspectives. Will makes friends easily, is flexible, and generally resolves issues without much fuss. Play dates are fun for him. Tristan, an introverted book worm, doesn’t seem to need friends, and is bothered by guests who touch and move his toys, play noisily, and make a mess that he has to clean up afterward. For him, there is no upside. Despite Tristan’s dislike, I viewed play dates as good practice for him, forcing him to manage his feelings through challenging social situations with his peers. But in public school, he gets that practice all day long.

I want to accept that Tristan doesn’t need friends, that he might be a content loner as an adult. But as an introverted scientist and writer who, even in her 40’s, is still yearning for deeper, meaningful friendships, I also want Tristan to have the skills to make and enjoy friends, even if he chooses not to use those tools as an adult.

Inside I know that we’ll all be fine, no matter how many or few play dates we have. But so far, none of us is completely satisfied with our journey through the complex world of the elementary school play date. I can’t even let myself think about how this will morph as we head into middle and high school. Have play dates been an issue for your family? I’d love to hear your hopes, fears, and suggestions, so please post them here, and thanks in advance for being a supportive member of this ETL community.

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10 thoughts on “To Play Date or Not to Play Date?

  1. We’ve had similar struggles, especially when my kids were in Pandas flairs. Now that they’re healthier, play dates go much better. We still seem to make more than half of the invitations, but reciprocity is starting to grow. My once introverted, rigid son is now my social butterfly. So sometimes we have to remember that today’s reality may not be forever. After all, kids wait until you think you have it figured out and then do a 180 on you. It seems to be in their job descriptions.

    • Ha! Laura, you’re right about the potential 180. My wise sister-in-law used to say, “Feeling overwhelmed? Wait a week and it will be something totally different.” Thanks for reminding me that things won’t always be as they are right now.

      • But this does raise an interesting question: at what age are social personality traits starting to solidify? I know that no trait is set in stone, but some are there strongly from the beginning and don’t change unless the person really wants them to change. Sometimes I feel like 8 is on the cusp, where I can see who they will be in high school, not in stone, but a solid center.

  2. Echoing Laura here: Lil Miss used to retreat during playdates and end up ignoring her guests or fighting tooth and nail with them. Now shes going on five and she LOVES playdates and the worst thing a friend can do is not play with her. She will follow them around begging for attention. On upcycle days playdates are a godsend as they will tire her out like nothing else can but downcycling is a terrible time for playdates as her friends often think the constant crying is somehow their fault. I try to reschedule playdates if I think she’s going down.

  3. You didn’t mention if you accompany your boys on the play dates. As my children got older a play-date, when we were hosting, was a great way for my kids to be entertained with a friend while I got some housework done (of course always in earshot but I would be able to fold laundry in my room while the kids played in their room). I didn’t want to have to entertain a mom, I didn’t need a play-date with another mom, I wanted my kids to have the social interaction. I also don’t want to be expected to remain with my child when he/she is at someone else’s house. & not that I’m being unsocial, its just this is not my social time. I’m not sure if that could be an issue with your boys situation. Another thing is when my kids are friends with twins you feel it is always a package deal. Having 2 guests over can be a little overwhelming sometimes. Especially since Tristan may be perfectly ok with staying home with you, maybe next time the boys are invited to a friend you could ask if it would be ok if just Will went. Eventually they will find friends who they fit with and it may not be the same friends, and thats ok. ( I totally get Tristan not wanting kids messing with his stuff, thats how my son is).

    • Christine! Thanks for posting. I do usually stay with my kids during the play date at least the first time to check out the other parents home and style (is it a safe, supportive environment?). When I’m sure the parent is comfortable and the boys will be content enough, I just drop off, unless the other mom has suggested friend time as well. Play dates at my house usually go well, but Tristan speaks so negatively afterward that I wonder why I try. You’re right about twins too. I’ve tried to split them up, but my boys see it as some unfair punishment I am bestowing if one goes without the other, like they’re missing out on something, although occasionally Tristan has declined to attend if he’s got a new book. Tristan does love to stay home with me, but only if he thinks Will is doing something boring. Thanks for your support and comment.

  4. I’m not sure I was who I am today when I was 8. For most of my life, I was quite shy. But when I got to graduate school, my apartment burned to the ground and amid a hundred young professionals trying to impress one another, I was homeless, possession-less and filled out insurance forms in my smoke-perfumed clothing. That was when I finally stopped caring so much about any voice other than my own. But I was 24 before I think I became (mostly) who I am today. It’s only now that I can be like the stereotypical girl on the playground and walk up to you and say “wanna be friends?” and be ok with it if you say “No thanks”. Some of us are just late bloomers : ) Tristan may surprise you yet!

  5. My son is 14 and still doesn’t have a very active social calendar. When he was a toddler I would take him to play with other kids and we both ended up frustrated. He was always the more active kid and I ‘m sure left other parents shaking their heads in disbelief. It became easier to avoid it. When he was about 5 or 6 a neighbor kid who is 4 years older started hanging out with him (this kid has severe food allergies so was never really allowed to venture far from home to play with kids his own age). He and my son really bonded and spent a tremendous amount of time together, they are still best friends (my son is now 14 and he is 18 and luckily a great kid with a good head on his shoulders). While this was wonderful for him to have a best friend it limited his interaction with same age kids. Recently his best friend went off to college and they have very little time together (of course they use social networking and xbox live to talk still). I have noticed my son is starting to reach out to others now, he actually said he might go to a friend’s house this weekend (someone from school), so that is great. He really just isn’t very social and often wants to be alone. I am kind of the same way. I have a few close friends who I have known since grade school but I don’t want to make new friends, I have what I need and I think he is figuring out what he needs. I couldn’t do it for him.

    • Thanks for commenting Crystal. Glad to hear your son has at least one close friend. My boys are still a little young for electronic friendships but maybe that will fill any gap for them down the road. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I know this is an old entry, but my son is 7, and he has begun to figure out that we invite children over for play dates, but they very rarely ever reciprocate. The exception seems to be other children who are “socially awkward.” I tend to know if a child is also on the spectrum or gifted or has a 504 plan or an IEP, that our playdate will be reciprocated. Usually neurotypical children appear to have a good time at our house, but then — nothing. We invite them back and things go fine, but my child asks why he doesn’t ever get invited to the other child’s house. Or we he comes home from school saying he likes a particular child and I extend an invitation a month for three months, and am usually met with “so sorry we’re just really over scheduled.” But like you, I can’t figure out if it’s the child doesn’t really like my child, or if the parent really doesn’t like my child, or if the parent doesn’t really like me. My child once walked up to a parent and asked point blank why he doesn’t have playdates with the woman’s son any more (they played all the time from 2-5). She said, “You know, we’ve just been so busy.” Who knows, maybe it’s the truth, but when it comes from five different NT families, it feels more like exclusion.

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