How I Navigate Playdates with My Quiet Child

Sometimes even the quietest of kids enjoy running around, hooting and hollering, blowing off steam after a long day in school. Our kids are kids, after all. A steady diet of giggles and smiles is as essential to their blossoming personalities as are leafy greens to their developing bodies. And although we may help our quiet kids find the peace they need after school or during the weekends, there come occasions when we also must arrange for the most dreaded of all introverted parenting activities: The Playdate. (Even just writing those words spins up a tornado of worry in my stomach!)

If your child becomes overwhelmed in crowded social situations or doesn’t quickly make friends with his or her peers, like my 6-year-old son, you’ve got to make careful arrangements. Having one familiar buddy to our place after school for an hour or so works great. But if Felix is invited to another child’s house along with a bunch of other kids he doesn’t know very well, I say no. My son is a sweet boy and, with adults, a more-than-capable conversationalist, but in a gaggle of children, he requires a parent’s calm presence to help him connect. So, for now, one-on-one is the only kind of date we do.

Also, before a playdate, I must confirm that both parties really want to play together, which I know sounds a little weird. But that’s because emulating his peers, who were discussing their extracurricular get-togethers, Felix has asked to see kids who actually don’t want to hang out with him. This is tricky and demonstrates just how far Felix has to go in his social development—he’s not always sure who really is and isn’t his friend or even what it means to have a friend. When I was his age, I didn’t either. The only children I saw with any regularity outside the classroom were my cousins, but times have changed. Just as our kids are required to do more advanced academics earlier in schools, so too are they required to figure out socializing at an increasingly early age.

One of the first questions Felix heard when he started pre-kindergarten was, “Are you making friends?” He wasn’t. Not every child will be a fluent reader their first few years of school, nor will every child make fast friends, especially at such a young age. In my case, I began hanging with neighbor kids around fifth grade and enjoyed playing with them on weekdays once my homework was done. Before that, I kept to myself. I was a loner, and no one pushed me to go against that instinct.

Here, in Brooklyn, playdates after school even for toddlers are the norm. That’s driven less by the kids and more by the parents, who either hang out together as the children play or else don’t mind having a couple more kids in the mix at home. That’s not me. I explained this to my son a couple of months ago, when at pickup, he began asking if we could bring this kid or that kid home with us. “I’m not the kind of daddy who does spontaneous playdates,” I told him as we walked home. “I need to plan it, to prepare. Otherwise, it drives me bonkers. Besides, I like spending quiet time with you after school.”

He thought about this a moment and then nodded. He said that made sense to him. Then I asked him if there was anyone in particular he’d like to have over because I could contact that child’s parent and arrange something in advance. There wasn’t.

I’m well aware this might come across to other parents as a Grinch-like, strict, anti-social attitude to take—especially if you’re looking at it from an up-for-anything, happy-to-chat-at-the-drop-of-a-hat extrovert point of view. But I need my space too, and it’s okay to pay attention to parental needs.  

Even with planning, I sometimes draw lines. Recently, Felix received an invitation to an afternoon birthday party at a popular Times Square arcade and restaurant. The thing is, neither my wife nor I wanted to go. The setting felt too loud, too bright, and too crowded, full of beeping machines and bright screens. So, we thanked the parents for inviting us and declined.

My wife and I fretted about this for a while. Are we holding him back? Do we need to push ourselves in order for him to have more opportunities to develop his social skills?

I don’t think so. It’s like in an airplane—we have to put our oxygen masks on before we can help Felix with his. I’ll manage my social needs first because it won’t do him any good if I’m snappy and unhappy. This isn’t to say I never move to the limits of my comfort zone. In the coming weeks, for instance, I’ll accompany Felix to another party, this one in a venue not nearly so overwhelming. The prospect of chaperoning him alone still stirs up butterflies in my belly, but not a twister.

People say that parenting requires sacrifice, and it does, for sure. But that doesn’t mean conforming in ways that compromise your mental health or putting yourself or your child in situations that don’t feel right. Make the sacrifices you want to make; take risks without acting reckless; and never act out of obligation or fear of being a bad parent.

A time will come (sooner than I’d like, I imagine) when my wife and I won’t have as many intimate moments with our son, when he will form friendships and be busy with his own social life. For now, the majority of playdates and parties can wait. I’ll take the lovely, quiet moments of family togetherness any day.