Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Played Out


Notes from today's WALK...

I never liked the term "playdate." The first time I heard it, it seemed like a contrivance; a needless adult convention to describe something that didn't need describing. Two children playing together is no more a "date" than a puddle is a rain "event" or a tear is an eye "emission." Some things just occur naturally. 

A playdate differs from actual play in that it is a sanctioned and organized event. It must be scheduled and hosted, like a fundraiser. The hours and activities are prescribed and agreed upon in advance. Food is usually provided. Allergies are disclosed and willingly accounted for. Locations rotate, so as to avoid any inequity or the implication that one child's home is more fun than the other. Most importantly, a playdate requires permission. And permission equals parents. 

It's possible that, "Mom, can Sofia and I have a playdate," is the second most commonly spoken phrase by American children under 10. Right after, "Dad, when will you be done with the iPad?"

Ultimately, the playdate is the enemy of spontaneity; just one more brick in the wall we are building between our children and self-reliance. It is the invention of parents who seem to depend on their children’s dependence.

Or maybe that’s all bullshit. Maybe I’m just bitter. Maybe none of this explains why I don't like playdates.

On the WALK today, I strolled past a house that sits above the street that leads to the trail. I've often heard kids playing there, but they've never stood close enough to the retaining wall for me to see them. Today I heard the sounds of brothers playing catch. An errant throw rolled to the edge of the yard. A freckle-faced boy chased after it. He saw me below.

"Hey, you're E's dad, aren't you?" he called down.

"Yeah, you're Owen, aren't you?" I said, recognizing him as one of my daughter's classmates; one whom I happen to like.

"Yeah."

"I didn't realize you lived so close to us," I said enthusiastically. 

He didn't answer. Kids, of course, don't view this kind of serendipity as particularly serendipitous. 

"Yeah," he repeated blithely.

"I'll have to tell E that we're neighbors."

"Okay."

And we were done.

As I walked, relocating banana slugs that had strayed into the sun on a hot day, I thought about how I might arrange for my daughter and Owen to play together. They liked each other, as far as I knew; as much as second grade boys and girls can like each other. He was always nice to her when I dropped her off at school. Come to think of it, he was always nice to me when I volunteered in art class. I imagined broaching the subject with my daughter over dinner. 

"Did you know that Owen lives in that house just past the fire gate?" I’d offer in a leading voice.

"No," she'd say, looking at her dangling feet through the tempered glass tabletop. 

"Do you want to see if he wants to come over sometime?"

She'd hesitate, trying to find a way to answer that saved us both from awkwardness. "That's okay," she'd finally say. And I'd know what she meant.

My daughter doesn't have many playdates. At school, all the kids know her and, so far as I can tell, they like her well enough. She gravitates toward the boys, joining in their games of tag or wallball, but the girls are nice to her, too. She is not a playground ringleader, but I never see the other kids excluding her in the cruel ways that my generation devised to ostracize kids who were branded as outcasts. She has friends and, despite marching to her own drumbeat, she gets along.

But when I pick her up, I hear other children asking, “Can Sydney and I have a playdate?” “When can I have a playdate with Trevor?” “I want a playdate with Julia.” Playdate, playdate, playdate. And no one ever asks her.

I know it bothers her, though perhaps not as much as it bothers me. She plays all day long with these kids. They know and like her. But playdates are different. They are publicly calendared acknowledgements of friendship. They are the way that children make it known that they do, in fact, like some kids more than others. And my daughter isn’t anyone’s first choice.

If I’m honest, I probably can’t blame this on the advent of the playdate. Lord knows I didn’t need a coined phrase to reinforce that I wasn’t anybody’s best friend. Kids know these things about themselves.

But the saving grace of my childhood was that no one put a name to my loneliness. I went home from school alone most days, but I didn’t have to hear other kids advertising that they were not.

My daughter is eight now. I can see her fragile confidence starting to falter. She doesn't know how quickly the social wheel can turn. She could meet a friend at camp this summer and they'll be attached at the hip. Third grade might pair her with a new classmate who will become her lifelong confidant; the stuff of sitcoms and wedding toasts. I want to tell her this, but she wouldn't believe me. Sometimes it's harder to imagine the future when you have so much of it. 

Instead, I tell her that she’s my first choice. She smiles, but I know she's only humoring me. A playdate with your father just isn’t the same. 

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