Why are parents of teens still scheduling play dates?

This will sound judgmental, because I’m judging...
By Art Q. Smith  Published on 01/08/2019 at 11:00 AM EDT
Illustration by Britton Korbel

I know the world is ever-changing and that phrases like “when I was a kid….” make me sound like a fossil, but those words reverberate in my mind every time a parent reaches out to make play date plans for our kids. I did not feel this way when my kids were too young to be plotting jaunts with friends on their calendars. Now, however, with two of my kids in middle school (one months away from entering high school) I am making it official: I am done with play dating.

I’ve never been an over-play dater (yes that’s a thing and, yes, you know who you are). When I had babies, I was happy spending time alone with them. I even napped with them—daily! My second child arrived just 15 months after my first, so I was not keen on the idea of “socializing” my girls by scheduling weekly floor time with another baby. My girls had each other. What play dates I did arrange were really social breaks for us parents. And they were fun! Laughs were had while the kids played, there was talk of TV, movies, recipes and gossip.

As school began, the parent “dates” morphed into lunches or running errands while the kids socialized their butts off. Play dates would happen on a spur of the moment basis at pickup from school. Weekends at my house were off limits, as that was the only time my husband and the kids and I were together. 

Now, the kids are usually in touch with friends on their own. It’s still necessary for parents to get involved just for the logistics of sandwiching playtime into our busy days, but at this point the kids are initiating the get togethers. So what I’m seeing as my girls grow into teenagers is making me scratch my head a bit more than usual. I’m getting play date requests for my 13-year-old, from parents, and it’s weird. Really weird, to me.

My kids are pretty busy with dance, sports and schoolwork but they always find time to meet up with friends. They don’t really talk on the phone but they do FaceTime, Snapchat and text to let each other know where they will be and when they can meet up. Plans are run by me for approval and transportation, but I cannot remember the last time I reached out to a mom to say, “Hey, when can our kids get together?” I’m in the minority. This will sound judgmental, because I’m judging, but why are parents of pre-teens and teenagers scheduling play dates on their behalf? I freely admit to being a pretty controlling personality, but even I draw the line at puppeteering the social calendars of middle schoolers. Are there kids I prefer to steer mine away from? Absolutely. Are there others I feel are better suited to them? Sure, but I’m not out there lobbying parents for those plans or initiating them for purposes of social engineering.

My girls very naturally learned, as we all did “back in the day,” that making friends was up to them. Why are parents so worried about constructing their kids’ social lives? Why are they pushing their kids to join activities just to put them shoulder to shoulder with the playmates they want them to clique with? In my own little southern Californian corner of suburbia, I’ve watched moms force kids into mini carpool gangs, rendering them incapable of ever entering something as lighthearted as a birthday party without a handful of mom-approved mates at their sides. I did partake of the carpool craziness for awhile when my kids were younger out of convenience, but there was too much drama. I’ve been on frantic text threads, side texts, emails and calls all built around the purpose of wedging the kids into groups. Even an SUV can only fit a limited number of people so the game of trying to place your child in a seat before the music stops is intense.

In my own little southern Californian corner of suburbia, I’ve watched moms force kids into mini carpool gangs, rendering them incapable of ever entering something as lighthearted as a birthday party without a handful of mom-approved mates at their sides.

I’ve watched well-intentioned people form select groups for everything from sports teams to art and dance classes just to avoid having their children come in contact with “randoms”—aka children from other classrooms, schools or neighborhoods. This has even extended to choosing which classes at school their children are placed in and with which hand-picked friends—at a public school!

This year’s Halloween parade at our elementary school was another reminder of the parental maneuvering. So many strolled by in group-themed costumes (i.e. superheroes, unicorns, babies, police officers) that the kids who actually came in individual costumes really stood out. I know sometimes children actually do come up with these group ideas, but more often it can be traced to a mom who was searching Pinterest since July looking for the perfect 5-8 person costume. In my particular L.A. suburb, a group of moms took it a step further this Halloween by dressing identically to their young daughters. 

If the end game is raising individuals with minds of their own, then why are so many of them being robbed of any chance at independence? Let them start making some decisions on their own now. Let kids make mistakes, let them get hurt and give them the opportunity to learn from all of it.

Micromanaging rarely works in any scenario and I wonder what the ramifications of it will be in this generation. None of us has a map of the right or wrong roads to take in parenting. It’s all a mystery, we are all looking for the answers and perhaps even I could be less judgmental about how my peers are proceeding. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that I’m no longer fielding play date requests so if your kid wants to hang with mine then I hope she has my kid’s number.

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