The Story of 4 Playdates

We’ve been on the playdate circuit these past few weeks. I’ve been spared from playdates until now because when we were in the city, everyone just met up at the playground. Even after we moved to the suburbs, we live on a dead end street with a ton of kids, so my kid just plays outside. However, I felt that my kid needed some extra time with the kids in his class, so I started arranging playdates.

Two weeks ago, we had playdate number #1. Two boys, Bored and Hyper, came over on a Sunday afternoon. They walked in the house, dumped their coats on the floor, and cased the joint for video games. Didn’t find any. Suspected that there might be some on the computers, but we said that it was off limits. So, they retired to the basement with the trampoline for Ian’s sensory problems. They trashed the room and came upstairs.

Bored looks me in the face and says “I’m bored.”
“Well, play Lego, play a game, go outside, kick a ball, draw, build something, play Yu-Gi-Oh cards.”
“No, all that’s boring. Do you have soda?”
“No.”
“I’m bored.”
“No, you’re an asshole.” OK, I didn’t say that.

I think that they thought I was holding out on the video games and if they kept demanding, I would pull the magic X-box from under a bed or something. Bored and Hyper whined for an hour and a half, until they finally got into a board game and then didn’t want to leave when their parents arrived.

Playdate #2. Jonah goes to the Wonder Twins’ house. They played video games for 2-1/2 hours straight. When I picked him up, the three kids were staring at the TV vacantly. Thanked the babysitter and we drove straight to playdate #3 for pizza night at Bored’s house.

Playdate #3. For two hours, Jonah watched Bored play Gameboy.

Playdate #4. The Wonder Twins and Mr. Popular came to our house Sunday after church. Started off with pancakes and bacon. The Wonder Twins didn’t want pancakes. They turned on the TV and demanded that I make them popcorn. I did.

Steve flips off the TV and says, “It’s a beautiful day. Everybody outside. Go play kickball.”

They did. And eventually, all the other kids from the block came outside and there were now 15 seven year olds in front of our house playing ball. Great. Except that the game kept falling apart. They kept fighting over where exactly second base was, how to get someone out, whether or not the ball touched them, what the definition of a foul ball was, who was on what team, and whether or not Al Gore was robbed of the 2000 election.

Mr. Popular had to be stopped from pounding the smaller kids three or four times. Jonah cried twice. The Wonder Kids boycotted the whole affair twice. They were unable to play this simple game on their own.

Steve went outside to play ump and things improved dramatically. In fact, Mr. Popular refused to leave when his dad came to pick him up. The dad had to do the kid toss in the SUV in order to leave. Kid tossing is a sport that I excel at as well.

Why were these kids so bad at playing kickball? Why did negotiating the rules so completely destroy them? The problem with video games is that the machine does all the negotiating. It determines who’s in or out, foul or fair. And in all these organized sports, there’s always an adult to oversee the games.

I really am not a video game hater. There are some very fun, interesting, creative games out there. We might give in at some point about this X-Box thing, though we would impose severe regulations.

However, I see some real problems with kids’ ability to negotiate when raised on a diet of organized sports and video games. Negotiating is such an important life skill. How will they ever learn to co-author a paper, agree who gets the dog after a divorce, decide who should get the crying baby at 2:00 am?

24 thoughts on “The Story of 4 Playdates

  1. Honestly, I don’t really read mommy blogs, but whenever I do read a post about people’s children these days, I freak out. From the infants preventing any sort of normal REM sleep to toddlers screaming no to the popularity trials of school-aged kids, well, it just doesn’t make it look all that appealing to me.
    Maybe if I stay in NYC things will be a little better (Wishful thinking. But at least I get the playground.)

  2. Why were these kids so bad at playing kickball? Why did negotiating the rules so completely destroy them? I think because Mr. Popular wasn’t allowed to pound the smaller kids.
    Okay, I’m being facetious, but I do think that one reason kids can’t negotiate on their own is because parents constantly intercede when their “negotiating” doesn’t seem nice. I see this all the time at the playground. I try not to intercede too much with my two climbers. They’re both pretty good at giving and taking some bumps and not getting upset. But once some other kid’s parent jumps in, I figure I have to as well.
    It’s like the organized sports arena you mention, but at the rudimentary level.

  3. Please don’t get an X-Box. I’ll admit I’m being completely and utterly selfish here (i.e., not thinking of you or your kids): I just don’t want to be the only family that does not and will not own a gaming system. Computers, sure. But no gaming systems with their attendant $50-plus games.

  4. I’ve held the line on no Playstation or X-Box and so far, I’m glad I did. (Mine’s nine.)
    But I’m pretty liberal about computer time.
    I think you’re doing Jonah a great service by going with the program here — just like he needs your help with homework, you’ve got to support his efforts to find himself socially. Though there’s no need to get hysterically competitive or go to extremes to conform, I think you’re doing the right thing. If you raise your kid in a certain environment, I think it’s not right to deny them a survival level of social skills.
    I grew up in an intellectual Jewish home in a WASP New England suburb (Barrington, RI, made famous by playwright Spalding Gray) where what counted was belonging to the Yacht Club and Country Club and golf and tennis. And I remember telling my parents that it was all right for them to enjoy the nice house beautiful scenery and live their life and commute to Brown campus for their jobs — I was stuck in WASPland in school all day long.
    Eventually I guilted them into ponying up the big bucks so I could go to private high school in Providence where there was some diversity.
    But what I’m saying is that your kids didn’t get to pick where they are being raised so it’s right that you are trying to help them fit in enough so that they are reasonably well-adjusted.

  5. Laura,
    why didn’t you tell the kid he was an asshole? If a kid says they are bored at my house (it happens rarely) they get a very unpleasant stare and a lecture about how boring people are how say they are bored. Not quite “asshole” but not far off. Frankly, if parents have not taught a child how to be a polite guest, then host is obliged to do so.

  6. I think you need to test the waters first with an XBOX or Nintendo before writing them off. There are alot of games that are age specific for younger kids, especially for the Nintendo. Like everything, it needs to be done in moderation but don’t rule it out. I think because its in between seasons that getting geared up for sports has yet to really occur. Most of the time kids have to wear hats and mittens when they go out so its as if they forget how to paly outside.
    Anyhow, don;t write off some video games. The problem is that there is no moderation these days with them or computer usage. I’m sure if you had your kids doing Dance Dance revolution that they would be excercising and payign video games at the same time.

  7. There are a couple of traps here. First is just that your kids and other kids may not hit it off that well and there’s nothing more complicated than that. I can remember going over to the houses of some kids when I was young and though I thought maybe that kid was my friend, it turned out less that way when I was over at his house. Sometimes too I can remember I liked the kid but not his folks, or I liked the kid but not the culture of his house. Sometimes it’s also just the funny dynamics of the moment. My daughter and a friend’s daughter have on four or five previous playdates been oddly “off”, clinging to the grownups and so on. Suddenly the last time we got them together, they took off and played spectacularly with each other, without anybody needing to watch them. Why? I have no idea.
    Second is that sometimes kickball or anything similar just doesn’t turn out that well. I mean, don’t forget the times that you were with a mob of kids unsupervised by a grown-up and somehow everything didn’t gel that well. Especially with sports and similar things. I think about the only thing I can remember usually working out was when I got together with some friends of mine in the empty space between their two houses and we threw dirtclods at each other behind “forts”. Anything more elaborate than that and it was pretty well hit-or-miss. Most of us have a tendency to misremember the everyday patterning of our childhoods in favor of the highly memorable moments where everything “clicked” (and the equally memorable moments where everything went super-bad).
    Third, if there’s anything here about contemporary parenting and contemporary childhood, I’d think it’s not so much video games as it is the greater extent to which most middle-class suburban kids today are dependent upon grownup supervision much more than we were in the 1960s and 1970s. I mean, by the time I was eight or so, I was walking by myself to elementary school, walking over to friend’s houses, going to the park by myself, and so on. Not so many kids do that now. Even many kids are used to be watched and interacted with within their own homes to a greater extent. That’s partly smaller families, partly changed norms. So it’s not that surprising to me when kids don’t know quite what to do outside of parental or grownup instruction. Unfortunately this also involves bullying, etc.–I have to say that when large groups of boys who were not my small circle of good friends got together when I was a kid, usually some nasty shit went down at some point (sometimes with me as target). If you want kids not to be dependent on you for entertainment, the price may be that you have to put up with knowing that kids are getting bullied, etc.–that they’re working out their own sociality.
    Videogames are to some extent this generation of parents’ scapegoats for these other issues. Like everything else, done in moderation and with parental involvement and knowledge, they’re essentially neutral in their impact on childhood. Bored and Hyper would have been looking for something other than videogames in the 1960s or 1940s or 1920s; they wouldn’t have somehow been converted to self-actualizing social butterflies who played with Jonah with a good will.

  8. Third, if there’s anything here about contemporary parenting and contemporary childhood, I’d think it’s not so much video games as it is the greater extent to which most middle-class suburban kids today are dependent upon grownup supervision much more than we were in the 1960s and 1970s.
    Yes and No. Yes, I think kids today aren’t allowed to walk to school any more and have more scheduled activities. They may have less free time with kids from the block. But I’m not sure that parents are more involved in their lives. The twins that my kid plays with are only vaguely watched by their babysitter. The kids play video games and karate classes, so that the parents don’t have to talk to them. Clearly, nobody is telling the kids that shouldn’t announce that they are bored at someone’s house or demand special food or turn on the TV without permission. Outside our hyper-intellectual families, I am not sure how much communication is going on. Remember we’re not normal.
    re: X-Box. Like I said I’m not dead set against them. I’m not sure why it’s okay for my kid to play computer games, but not x-box. With time limitations, it will probably be fine.
    I’m not seeing a lot of time limitations at other kids’ homes. Limitless computer games has to have some impact on a kid’s development. It’s just a blog post and not science or anything, but I have to wonder if limitless computer games affects the ability to negotiate rules.

  9. I think your observations and analysis is right on target. Send a kid to my house for about an hour, and I can tell you whether or not he spends most of his free time at home playing computer games….

  10. Depends on the type of computer or video game. If a child plays online games against other opponents, in certain respects, they may be much more aware of the variance in rules between different “households” and of the importance of accepting rules that other households insist on.
    Another thing I can say that strikes me as different is the relative formality of the distance between kids and adults has eroded somewhat. I called my parents friends “Mrs. Smith” or “Mr. Smith” until I was an adult. My daughter’s friends call me “Emma’s Dad”, or in a few cases (not by my encouragement, but I haven’t asked them not to either), Tim. That strikes me as a little good and a little not so good.
    Same in general with manners. I suppose it’s why I tend to be rather laconic and distanced at times when these kinds of discussions of middle-class manners pops up–I’m aware of just how transitory and relatively arbitrary some of them can be, how mutable over time. If a kid is kind, gentle, considerate, funny, or imaginative, I can deal with a pretty wide variance of mannerly behavior. If a kid is a little shit of a person but happens to be mannerly, it doesn’t excuse them.

  11. Kids need to argue. Kids need to grow. Kids go through difficult times and learn to negotiate difficult problems. It is your job to let them argue, let them learn, provided of course, you do take a stand when it gets out of hand and/or disrespectful.
    The parent in this blog might consider growing up a bit herself.
    Is it right to limit them by calling them names? (even if it is only in a blog)

  12. I’m not sure why it’s okay for my kid to play computer games, but not x-box.
    I’m not sure either, but I’ve made the same choice. He plays (or watches) kids play video games at their houses, but not here. And usually the kids who come over here to play do fine–they all like to play imaginative games, or cards (!), or go outside, or do messy crafts (especially with the messy crafts). So I’m holding the line with my 8-year-old. My teenage daughter begs me to: “Don’t let him play video games, Mom. He’ll end up sitting in the basement all by himself and smoking pot in order to have some friends.” Seriously, that’s what she said. Who am I to argue?

  13. I think you’re absolutely on to something, in several respects. I have a class of 4th graders who recently discovered a very visually stimulating computer game (basically a video game for the iMac) and were suddenly announcing that they were “bored” and there was “nothing else to do” if the computers weren’t available to play with. They would rather stand and passively watch someone else play than go get a board game, draw a picture, make up a story, watch the class pet, etc. We quickly drew up a schedule for the computer to avoid the arguments about who had 30 more seconds with the game because his bus wasn’t called first, and made an absolute rule that “computer theater” was off limits.
    My theory is that the games are so engrossing and visually stimulating that young kids habituate to them, making other pursuits seem less exciting. It’s important to break them out of that hypnotic lull, and once they’re out, they can function again, as you observed.
    I’ve also had the experience of informing parents that their children have extremely low frustration tolerance and tendencies to get into verbal arguments with other kids, and to be told, “But he gets along really well with the other kids in the neighborhood! He had playdates all the time!” On closer inspection, however, the playdates consisted of playing video games – no real social interaction or negotiations necessary, as you observed. Then the light bulb went on for the parents: “Now that you mention it, he did scream and turn red when the first baseman tagged him out… and he threw the ball down the street when he missed the kick…”
    I was the only child in my peer group who didn’t have cable TV or video games growing up (video games were in the beginning stages then) but now that I am an adult, I prefer it. I have had years to build up interests and pursuits that I never would have had time for if my parents had allowed video games into my childhood world. The superficial connections I would have made with my peers wouldn’t have justified the lifestyle changing effects of video games. I don’t think it was an accident that my highest achieving peers in college or afterwards (aside from the computer people) rarely or never played video games or sat in front of the TV.

  14. Sigh. Another push of the rock up the hill for old Sisyphus here. Media scapegoating is, as always, the easier way out for lots of people. Especially when it involves inferring your own superiority based on your own nonconsumption of the media being scapegoated, and the sleight-of-hand that allows anecdotal impressions to become encompassing sociological theories. Other messy but less spectacular hypotheses get discarded or overlooked in favor of the seductively easy, one-size-fits-all, theory about demonic media, such as:
    1) This kid who is exhibiting short attention span, etc., is a just not a nice person–or he’s not very smart
    2) This kid doesn’t like your kid or your kid doesn’t like that kid and both of them know it even if you don’t
    3) This kid comes out of a family culture that clashes with yours; your sensibilities and his family’s sensibilities are just different
    4) This kid authentically thinks what you’re offering as a preferable alternative pasttime or activity to video games is unattractive, boring or stupid, and the kid may in fact be right (I think this last one is especially hard to face)
    5) Video games may be a way to buffer unpleasant social interactions between peers or between peers and adults–that children who prefer video games are not telling you that they don’t want to make crafts or play sports period, but that they don’t want to do those things with the particular group of other children available
    In a way, I’m fascinated by the fact that the standardized middle-class tropes of anxiety that were projected onto television a generation ago are ported over so intact to video games given that as media, they’re really extremely different in terms of experience, content, and so on. Among other things, the interactivity of video games often lets children experience a sense of power and control in a social world that frequently denies both to them (denied both by adults and peers). Now *that* may be part of what draws many children to the medium, and it may indeed have hidden implications, not the least of which is that the power that interactivity offers is no substitute for learning to negotiate one’s relative powerlessness or subordinated status within the social worlds around you. But that’s a really different take than “It’s hypnotic” or other demon-media tropes.

  15. Timothy
    as a cultural historian, can you give some actual examples of times and places when whining about being bored to a responsible adult who is looking after you with a smile and a good will was widely considered acceptable behaviour? I’m curious.

  16. I am quite certain that computer games are totally much more fun than playing outside. I love computer games. I love the computer. I love the Internet.
    But I also had to make a rule for myself that I’m not allowed to blog on the weekend and to spend undistracted time with my kids. I just think that real life is better than virtual life. As much as I love you all so much I could pinch your cheeks, I would much rather be talking to you in person than on the computer.
    Computers are fun. They teach kids and people all sorts of good things. You don’t have to convince me of that. I just think that real life is a good thing, too. We need a diversity of experiences.

  17. Sure, you need a diversity of experiences. For some of your commentators, that might include playing an X-Box game, just to complicate their antiseptic horror of the entire concept.
    Harry, you actually grasp my point perfectly. It’s not that a kid saying he’s bored to an adult is somehow a harbinger of the coming apocalypse because at last the next generation is succumbing to Demon Media: it’s that a kid who says he’s bored is in all probability a jerk and would have been a jerk in the 1970s or 1950s or 1930s. What planet did the people who think otherwise grow up on? There were jerks when I was a kid, that’s for sure, and if you read enough novels and inquire into enough history, you’ll readily grasp that there were boorish or rude children in earlier eras as well. Indeed, the boorish child who doesn’t respect boundaries between adults and children has been a driving obsession of middle-class manners in Western Europe and the US since the early 19th Century. Try reading Laura Ingalls Wilder for just one set of examples. It’s almost an intrinsic consequence of a conception of childhood that makes children a precious thing to be protected at all costs from adult influence and of various concepts of individual development that come with middle-class ideas about personhood.
    Now I would suggest as a modest observation that sometimes the kid who says he is bored really is BORED, not because he’s a video-game addict, but because what a given adult is offering is authentically boring. He’s still rude for saying it, but the possibility that the kid is making an empirically accurate observation never seems to occur in some of these conversations. I think this is especially pertinent in education, where K-12 teachers sometimes think that boring the crap out of kids is somehow a professional birthright, and that any kid who wants an alternative is somehow seduced by Demon Media.

  18. As a teacher, I have to express my skepticism of the word “bored”. Children use it frequently, sure, but they often mean different things.
    “I’m bored” can mean:
    -I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep last night and I can’t stay alert.
    -I don’t understand.
    -You’re asking me to do something hard.
    -I can’t do the things I normally like to do, and I don’t want to try something new.
    When I hear the word “bored” in the classroom, I pounce. I tell the student that it amounts to complaining and that s/he needs to DO something. If it’s a lack of understanding or not knowing how to do something, then ask. If it’s reluctance to try something new, try it with a friend. If it’s being tired and not being alert, stand up, get a drink, walk around, and wake your body up. (And tell your parents to turn off all electronic media at a decent hour so that you’re not a zombie during valuable learning time!)
    I agree with the above commenters that there have always been rude or boisterous children. The difference now, to me, is that many people who usually would have corrected or taught their children otherwise are now accepting these behaviors out of a need to please their children, make their children “happy”, or out of a philosophical belief that their children are “expressing themselves” and that it would be wrong to suppress that.
    I don’t think it’s wise to throw up our hands and say “Oh well, there have always been jerks”. I wouldn’t want someone to assume that a child’s impulsive comment or lack of social skills is evidence of being a “jerk” – rather to take the opportunity to instruct the child about how to get along with people.

  19. Lisa, I think you need to include among your hypotheses that a kid who says he’s bored is in fact bored, and has some justification for feeling bored because the activity being offered is boring. Especially because you’re a teacher. There are things which are boring that we all have to be taught to endure as politely as we can–waiting on line, studying rote knowledge that we need to acquire, and so on. But then there are things which could be exciting but are offered to us in ways that kill or mute their excitement. You could say that a child should learn to hide his or her honest reaction that that, and I’d agree. In the case of another child’s parents, because it’s polite to hide it. In the case of a teacher or authority figure, because it’s pragmatic to hide it. But especially as a teacher, I try to have my antenna tuned for when what I’m doing is in fact boring. If I think it HAS to be done, I’ll try to justify it. If I think it could be more engaging, I’ll fiddle with my own presentation or method for doing it.
    For parents, some of this is about playing to our strengths and the strengths of our children when they have playmates over. If I’m going to get involved with them during a playdate, I’m either going to offer myself as a prop in my daughter’s elaborated scripted narrative play or I’m going to offer to lead an insect safari or something where I know I can make it exciting. I’m not going to get out construction paper and suggest we all make origami together or something that I’m not very good at myself. If I’m not going to get involved in play, then I don’t especially welcome criticism from the peanut gallery–I’m no more open to that than Laura is. I think the worst situation is when a parent gets involved in play but directs play to some “proper” or “enriching” end that neither the kids nor the parent especially enjoy, and I’ve definitely seen that happen.

  20. Tim. Have you written anything about these tired old middle-class tropes, manners, and all things engineered to constrict the independence and brilliance of young minds? I have a lot of questions — what are the alternatives, if you restrict these behaviors to the middle class, does that mean the upper and lower classes are doing a better job, and so on. Can you point me to an article or blog post on the topic?
    Right now, I would rather talk about boredom. Being bored in the classroom, I’m fairly sympathetic to. The bored child is held captive. I also think that schools should be restructured to make the day faster paced with less time spent in a classroom.
    Being bored at home or on a playdate is another story. When offered the option of virtually every toy made for six years olds (except for one), a huge old house with excellent hiding places, a supervisor who will tolerate nearly any mess in the name of creativity, a street without traffic, a garage full of toys, a street full of other playmates with a variety of temperaments, a child should find something to do. If that child is only capable of playing with one toy and is unable to adjust, then that child lacks imagination, creativity, independence, flexibility, curiosity, and basically every other characteristic that I value in a human being.
    Sometimes bored kids are just unimaginative brats.
    And maybe I’m showing my parents’ working class roots here, but I don’t think it is my job to entertain six year olds. My kid can play by himself. I expect that other kids can do the same. I might facilitate a project or come in to chitchat for a while, but kids should be able to make their own fun. In fact, they shouldn’t want me around all the time.
    As you said, Tim, the bored kid is most likely a jerk. The video games didn’t make him a jerk; he was already a jerk. (I didn’t really get that people were making the counter argument, but it’s okay.) Maybe his parents could have helped him be less jerkish by getting him to do other things than play video games and having him less dependent on their orchestration of fun.
    I guess I don’t know if anything is authentically boring or not. One kid looks at a set of Lincoln logs and sees a punch of sticks; the other sees a castle. I would rather hang with the castle kid.

  21. I’ll try to work up something on manners and middle-class anxieties about childhood–but the book you’re blogging about now contains some potential wisdom on this point (e.g., that certain conceptions of mannerly behavior are as much markers of cultural distinction as they are self-evident benchmarks of social goodness).
    Vz. imagination, I guess I’d be a lot more cautious about assuming that a kid who doesn’t demonstrate it in my presence lacks it otherwise. I sure knew better than to go off on imaginative spiels with adults I didn’t know well–or kids I didn’t like that much. I can already see my daughter is learning that a bit; some kids don’t enjoy the elaborately scripted narrative play that she likes; her teachers sometimes don’t seem to play along with it entirely either. But I guess I’d also assume that some people (including kids) have dreamworlds which are largely internal, or that they can’t articulate, that might not show up with Lincoln Logs or some such.
    And yeah, some kids are just little mean turds with no imagination. Which, again, has nothing to do with the X-Box.

  22. If I had a nickle for every kid who wanted to sit in front of the computer during a playdate…..
    The point of the playdate [to me] is to interact with someone, doing something you can’t do on your own. My son can play on the computer or watch TV without my going through the trouble of hosting the whole thing.
    After six months of the playdate mania in kindergarden, I’ve finally come up with ground rules so I can get through it with less annoyance.
    1. MAXIUM THREE playdates in a two week period.
    2. Since our playdates are after 1/2 day kindergarden….they must all stay at the table until lunch time is over. (Otherwise the visitor tends to lead my kids away from the table and ruins our meal schedule).
    3. They can only spend 30 minutes playing with the computer or watching TV – and that is only if the playdate is more than three hours. Of course this is contingent on all toys/games being put away.
    The true TV/VIDEO GAME addicts probably don’t want to come back anyway – whew!
    My son loves to have them, but honestly I am TIRED of the whole thing. I feel like we’re getting bombarded with invitations and I am always trying to ‘catch-up’ and reciprocate when someone has my son over.

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