Playgroup Etiquette?

Parents of small children enjoy the chance to create play groups for their children.  These play dates are often informal, fun outings which allow children to play together at one person’s house and allow the parents a chance to get to know each other better and have real conversations.  Definitely a pleasant atmosphere for all!

Playgroups can sometimes, however, be a little tricky.  If you do not know the other parents as well it can be difficult to know how to best approach the inevitable issues that will come up between your children. When groups of young children get together they will struggle over the social graces that the adults tend to handle smoothly.  When that happens, it can be easy for the parents to sometimes lose their social grace too!

The staff at Harley Family Center discussed proactive approaches to creating playgroup expectations and boundaries with other families.  It is most helpful to have open conversations about the discipline strategies you are comfortable with early, so everyone knows what to expect from each other, and knows how to handle a situation as it arises. Talk about methods of setting limits that you use, and ask others for their preferred methods. Settle on tactics that can be comfortably carried out by all families.

When inviting parents and children into your home for the first time, don’t be shy about approaching the subject of boundaries early.  A conversation about behavior expectations and methods of ensuring those limits is a clear way of getting everyone on the same page before any trouble begins.  For instance, with young children it is common to hit out of frustration. If all parents know at the start of the play date that hitting in your household is not allowed, and the child who hits should be removed quietly from the others for a chance to cool down, then all parents can address the issue when it does occur. By stating your general “house rules” clearly, it is easier for you to be consistent with your discipline, rather than feel a bit sheepish about carrying out what you would normally do if no one was at your house. It is important for your children to understand that the “house rules” are always the same–even if there are other children in the house.  If you are arriving at a house for the first time, and the host parent does not mention any house rules, don’t be shy about bringing up the subject yourself.  It will always be beneficial for the group to discuss limits and consequences before the children have an altercation.

Remember to discuss your expectations for behavior with your child before going to the play group.  If you think it is helpful, role play some situations that might come up and discuss ways to handle the situations peacefully. Create a plan with your child that involves coming to you if he feels that things are getting out of hand with the group of children. For instance, ask your child to let you know if there is hitting or fighting between the children, rather than allowing him to think he should handle it himself.  Often when there is anger involved in a group of children, it takes adult intervention to restore amicable relations. If you have an older child, remind him that he is a role model for the younger children and talk with him about what that means. Other children will be watching him, so his behavior should be what he expects of others. Older children tend to savor this “teaching” role when it is presented with enthusiasm. Do not make the mistake of assuming the older child is able to monitor and handle the younger children, however. He may be the oldest one in the group, but he is still too young to take on the responsibility of child care.

It is tempting during a play date for the parents to move to a separate area of the house in order to actually get a real conversation going.  This is not advisable with very young children.  They need constant supervision and often direction. This creates a very real obstacle to ever finishing a sentence in the early years.  However, by catching the escalating situations early and taking an active role in calming things down when necessary, the group of children are able to play longer with fewer blow-ups of temper–and the play date is ultimately more pleasant for all.

Parents often dread a “major incident” occurring at a playgroup.  However, it is realistic to assume that there will one day be a situation that involves an accident, or a hurtful action by another child. If your child is currently dealing with a behavior issue–such as biting when frustrated–be sure to let the other parents know about it right at the beginning of the play date. Lots of children go through a stage of biting, and it is respectful of all the families involved to make them aware that this is what you are currently dealing with.  Let parents know how you are handling the issue when it occurs, and invite them to handle the issue themselves in this way if it arises while they are watching. The other parents are most likely to smile sympathetically and you may even receive some excellent advice from parents who have already gone through the issue themselves.

Even with all the planning, discussing and supervision there is bound to be an issue during a play date.  When this occurs, don’t spend time blaming yourself or others.  When children play together, they learn about how to get along by sometimes not getting along. It is the normal trial and error progression of social learning. When addressing the child or the other parent, talk about the altercation from your perspective by sticking to messages and statements that begin with “I”.  Be sure to acknowledge the feelings of the parent of the injured child. It is upsetting to watch your child be harmed by another–even if you know that child had no real malicious intent other than a quick venting of frustration. Allow that parent to voice what she is feeling as a means of helping her move to the next stage of problem solving. If the child harmed was so young as to not have a voice yet, talk out loud about the feelings that you assume the child is currently feeling.  The child who inflicted harm can hear what those feelings must be and use that information to continue to build empathy for others.

If you must discipline your child for her part in an altercation, it is kind and soothing to move that child away from the rest of the group while doing so. This helps you to focus on your child, and the child to lose that sense of defensiveness that tends to build when being yelled at in front of other people. While calming your own child down, you can problem solve ways to help the hurt child feel better. Young children often do not have a full sense of the meaning of the words “I’m sorry” and so choosing an action that will help the other child feel better may be more appropriate.  Possibly asking the child if she feels better, or offering a hug, or offering a toy, or a gentle stroke on the shoulder can be enough to soothe the sad child.  Remember, the child who is the instigator often feels bad too, because she lost control. As a parent, working toward cooling off and providing a positive response to help the hurt child feel better will often be enough to get all the children–even those involved in the altercation–playing together joyfully in a very short time.

Play groups can be a very rich atmosphere for gaining insight into parenting, practical strategies for dealing with issues and joyful review of childhood stories.  However, sometimes these experience come with unsolicited advice from well-meaning others. It is always respectful to keep an open mind to listening to alternative opinions, but be confident about your own parenting strategies if you have found they work well for you and your family.  A kind response to someone offering a suggestion you don’t feel comfortable with could start with “Thank you for your suggestion…I have found that this works for us…..”  In this way you can stay in the conversation by adding to the content of what is being said.  Advice will always flow freely, you can feel just as free to pick and choose what you think is best for your family.

Enjoy the chances you and your children have to play with the people in your community–they will be the people you count on for years to come!

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