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Home > Research Articles > When the Children Play Well, but the Parents Don't

New York Times

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

By RANDI HUTTER EPSTEIN

It is a nasty little secret shared by many parents. When it comes to budding friendships among children, sometimes the grown-ups can be more of a problem than the children.

Sometimes, it turns out that parents are less than fond of the parents of their children's friends.

"It's definitely come up where I prefer my children to be with certain friends and not with others simply because I don't want to hang out with the parents," Dr. Sherry Marlowe, a pediatrician and mother of three in Montgomery Village, Md., said.

Specialists in child development and family relationships say the issue of animosity among parents is far from trivial. For many mothers and fathers, their social networks revolve around families connected to the same school. Afternoon get-togethers with a few adults and their children can serve as support groups for parents.

Women are often the ones shuffling youngsters through their social lives, but more fathers are chaperons, too. And now many working parents, and even nonworking parents, defer this task to baby sitters so that the parents never have to deal with cranky moms and dads.

There is no shortage of advice to settle feuds among squabbling children, but there is little advice for parents whose squabbles are more sophisticated and often fester beneath the surface.

"A generation ago your kids would hang out with the kids of your friends," Dr. Karen Zager, a New York City psychologist, said. "End of story. Now we have become very child-centered, for better or for worse."

The solution depends on age. Babies do not have friends. The very young do not need playmates; they need adult attention. One-year-olds focus on toys or the people who take care of them, not on one another.

Alex Gardner, a father of two preschoolers in New York City, said he and his wife arranged weekend play dates with families they liked. He said he was enjoying this window of what he called semicontrol until his son, Max, started kindergarten this fall. At that time, children are usually more likely to try to schedule their own playtime.

Dr. Lois Flaherty, chairwoman of the American Psychiatric Association's Council on Children, Adolescents and Their Families, said: "Two-year-olds do not really interact in a cooperative way. They start interacting more by the age of 3, but do not get attached."

So when the parents of young children are not hitting if off with other parents, there is no harm in dissolving the relationships, she added.

Dr. Flaherty said that play dates "at this young age should be a support network."

"If there is stress," she added, "it doesn't make sense."

When children are 7 and older, they usually choose their own friends, with parents excluded from the play dates. The issue focuses on children from 3 to 6, when the social scene is truly a mesh of children and mothers and fathers trying to connect and often disconnecting.

Relationships between parents of children's friends are seldom studied, but many parents have stories to tell about discouraging certain relationships.

Stephanie Payab, a mother of two young girls in Los Angeles, said she was warned when her daughter started nursery school about a clique of girls. "But it turned out to be a clique of mothers, who were excluding other mothers from the play groups," Ms. Payab said. "And naturally these were the girls my daughter adored. I guess I thought when I was done with high school these things would go away, but they didn't."

A New York City mother said she recently took her kindergartner to a play date, where her daughter had fun but where she was the outcast among a gaggle of gossipy mothers. "I went because my daughter likes the other girls, but next time I'm sending the baby sitter," she said.

It was the same situation for Judith Warner of Washington, a mother of a toddler, who is writing a book about contemporary motherhood.

Ms. Warner said sticky situations occurred when one parent suddenly stopped asking for play dates. "What do you say?" she said. "I notice our children are no longer having play dates? Is it me? It is my child? You feel like you are back in the sixth grade. I had a friend who had to talk about it with her therapist, she was so traumatized."

Psychologists say that when conflicts arise, parents must ask themselves: Is it an issue of family values or safety? Is it jealousy?

"You have to separate what is in the best interest for your child versus your own selfish reasons," said Dr. Alan Entin, a psychologist in Richmond, Va., who specializes in family relationships.

There are ways to manage a stressful encounter without dissolving a friendship between two children, a few authorities say. For example, parents can arrange play sessions with a few children so parents can gravitate to other adults whose company they prefer.

Another idea is to select a site on neutral territory like a playground or museum.

A few psychologists said that parents should be honest with children when they dislike another adult. Few parents agreed.

Years ago, Dr. Marlowe, the pediatrician, told her son: "I thought so-and-so was a bad parent because they didn't supervise their 2- and 4-year-olds, who were running in the street. All my son repeated, to my embarrassment, was that I said they were bad parents. So now I refrain from saying things like that."

There is another side: when parents force friendships with children of their own friends. By age 5, children clearly know whom they like and dislike. One mother said she had to stop family gatherings with certain friends because her daughter refused to spend time with their daughter.

"I think parents owe it to themselves and their children why they are making these choices," Dr. Zager, the New York psychologist, said. "We teach them very early on about being kind to animals, and we teach them compassion and kindness and manners. But the issue of how we choose friends is so important.

"Our friends are our social support in life and people really rely on friends for comfort and compassion. These are times to encourage your child to think about what it is they like in a friend. You may not get too far in the beginning, but it will open up needed discussions about what it is to choose a friend and what it means to be a good friend."