Play Dates

Jessica Rowe

Play dates do my head in.

Oh to be one of those mothers who can calmly deal with a house full of other people's children. Of course I want my girls to have fun hanging out with their friends, but does it have to be on my downtime? Maybe, just maybe, I don't want to plan anything when there is the lure of daytime pyjama parties with my little girls. And the thought of keeping more than two small people entertained for longer than the length of The Muppets Take Manhattan movie fills me with panic.

What else fills me with me creeping unease is when your child is invited for a play date and you're unsure if you're also included on the invitation. Do I stay or do I go? And if I do decide to stay, I've learnt the ugly way that my parenting skills will be put to the test.

"I want the panda," said my six-year old.

"You can't have the panda. It doesn't belong to you."

"I want it."

"It belongs to Lucy. You can't just come around for a play and take her toys with you."

"I want it!"

My daughter's grip on the giant fluffy panda is strong. Her little friend looks surprised at this superhero strength from her new classmate. It is out first play date together. I had wanted it to go smoothly but instead it has gone to shit. I drag my little girl downstairs to have a talk, despite my too firm grip she will not let go of the black button eyed panda. We sit on the spotless, cream couch, and already I'm thinking about our escape plan. How can we leave this tidy house with the harbour view calmly and quietly, without the prized panda?

"You have a choice, either you play for a bit longer with Lucy or we go now?"

"I want the PANDA!"

"It doesn't belong to you. Either you play or we leave now."

"Why does she have bigger toys than us? Why does Lucy have so many toys? It's not fair."

Thankfully Lucy's mum disappears into the kitchen to loudly unpack the dishwasher.

"Right, we're going," I say.

Muttering my apologies to the very nice mother, who has calm children, I manage to wrestle the giant panda out of my daughter's arms and throw it back through the front door as we leave. The pair of us get through the wrought iron gate before tumbling onto the nature strip.

I don't remember fighting over pandas when I was little, and I have no recollection of having play dates either. According to Mum we played with our school friends at school and we would visit our neighbour's daughter to play with her Baby Alive doll. However, I do recall wanting to take that fancy doll home with me! Other times we might cross our narrow lane to visit the other family whose tabby cat had just given birth to twelve kittens. However, most afternoons my sisters and I would stage ABBA concerts, lining up our sunflower yellow chairs to use as a stage. That was the extent of our social lives.

Now some small people I know have a more jam packed diary than me.

Have our lives become so frantically busy that there's no time for messy, spontaneous fun? Do our kids need us to mark down dates in their diary, weeks in advance, to make time to catch up with their friends?

Perhaps some of my uncertainty around play dates also comes from my dislike of the word. It's American and sounds obnoxious coming out of the mouths of those tween Disney channel stars who never leave anyone out of their dancing competitions. What are the rules in the real world? If you're the hostess, what is the right number of children to invite around? A friend told me that her daughter's school has warned parents about the risks of having three girls playing together. Someone always gets left out. Apparently even numbers of children work best. And what is the politest (shortest) length of time for a play date? Is it rude to specify a pick up time?

I need to take my own advice, stop trying to keep up with everyone else, and make pyjama parties compulsory. But while I do that, please don't cancel that play date we've pencilled in for next Friday afternoon. I don't want my girls to miss out, and I've also got a giant panda to track down at the toy shop.

First appeared in Sunday Life magazine