Play date etiquette

Play date

When we had a baby, I knew that when she grew up and there would be play dates. What I didn’t realize is that — as with any social interaction — there would be etiquette involved. And, of course, Covid doesn’t help. Today, I’ll share some of my experiences with this social minefield.

Play dates

At first, babies barely acknowledge people. Then they start to laugh, and interact with you. When they’re toddlers, they start to play — if you’re lucky, sometimes by themselves. Interaction with other children, though, that’s restrained to crying ‘that other kid took my toy’ and running after other children to see what they’re doing. They don’t grasp that there is a world of ideas inside those other children’s head.

Toddlers are in some ways egotistical little psychopaths (well, okay, not for real, of course). They don’t care about others, don’t even seem to grasp that others might have feelings, and just do and say what they want at that moment. Which is almost by definition the toy that another child — especially a sibling — is playing with.

Wait, did I just describe a former President… Never mind.

When my daughter first went to school, she was just exiting that toddler phase, and during the Covid period she began talking about actually playing with other children from school at their house… Actual play dates. Gasp.


This is somewhat of a big deal, because up to that point you are the one in control as a parent. We’d usually meet up with people in our surroundings who also had children. Or people we’d met and liked at playgrounds or daycare. Partially because of Covid, most of the parents we’d see at school were strangers to us. So, suddenly, our daughter wanted us to go to people we’d barely spoken to ever and ask them ‘hey can our kid come over?’

Leaving your child in strangers’ care is a pretty scary thing to do. I mean, they’re not trained professionals, or family, or friends. Worse, you run into a second conundrum. You see, when you meet up with people you know, you usually go over for coffee and have a chat. When your child wants a play date with another child, well, what do you do? Stick around? Drop them off and go? Known etiquette fails! So you’re forced to do the politeness, should-I, shouldn’t-I play date dance until you can figure it out.

So, phew, you’ve crossed this bridge. You made it to the finish and… oh crap, now that your kid has been elsewhere, you’ll need to reciprocate. Yep, you’ll have to have somebody else’s kid over. Gasp, you’ll need to keep the child of unknown people alive for several hours. And return them more or less unharmed, and undamaged. And you have to do the same dance as above, in reverse!

Now, of course, you might be on the other end of the stick. In that case you live through the above two events in reverse order. You start with somebody else’s child in your home and then with your child at somebody else’s place.

The reality

So, in my mind, my daughter on a play date involved her playing with toys with another child. The reasonable assumption, you’d think. Guess again. Apparently, young children on play dates do exactly what they do at a younger age: ignore each other.

So, I had to blink when we had one of my daughter’s schoolmates over. First, that was two children over when I only signed on for a single child, but well, I can power through — and in fact, my daughter befriended twins in her class, so we’re now regularly have three girls over. You learn to accept these things. But, surprisingly, with that first play date, the young visitor mostly played by herself with my daughter’s toys. While my daughter played with some toys of her own. Mostly in the same room, but barely. Who’d have thunk. Apparently, it was a huge success, because said visitor screamed bloody murder when she had to leave.

Of course, after those first heady days — in the middle of the grim pandemic before vaccines were a thing — we’ve grown more accustomed to these kinds of things. It is what it is, I guess.

There’s still the matter of your children telling God knows what to other people. And vice versa. One time, we congratulated one parent with her new litter of puppies, only to hear they were non-existent. She was not pregnant with a third child either, it turned out.

Another fun fact about young children: you can hear it when they’re quoting their parents. They do that mostly when reciting rules and life lessons. Things like ‘you shouldn’t eat crayons’, but also more interesting tidbits ‘we don’t drop mommy’s phone’. But, like with Fight Club, you don’t talk about that. Because the bottom line is: when you have somebody else’s kid over, they also get to entertain your kid, and that means a moment of blessed peace during the everything-is-closed-because-pandemic times we live in.

In short

From baby to toddler to a social being; children grow up. Every phase has a new reality to navigate, such as play dates. And really, once you get over the initial etiquette bumps, there is no trouble.

It’s actually fun to see my daughter laughing with her friends — even if they’re laughing at making a mess of our living room. I am curious what the next bump will be.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands


  1. Sander
    June 11, 2021

    I _really_ like the quoting the parents bits when they show positive attitude. Both when I hear my own child consoling another child and uttering phrases we once told her to help her dealing with adversity, as when some strange child says something that makes me think “they raised you well!”

    • June 11, 2021

      But you know what you’re doing. I’m scared I’ll be outed as a bad parent đŸ™‚

      • Sander
        June 11, 2021

        Heh, the idea that any parent knows what they’re doing… It only looks that way from the outside! (Didn’t you write about that at some point?)
        I always consider it a privilege when you get to know people well enough to see inside their lives and recognize glimpses of “oh yeah, you’re flailing about nearly as much as we do”. đŸ™‚

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