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'Playdating' other families: How to make It work

By Shawn Bean, Parenting.com
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Mon September 12, 2011
Meeting and socializing with other parents can create a great playdate for your kids.
Meeting and socializing with other parents can create a great playdate for your kids.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's important for parents to befriend other parents because of shared resources and trust
  • Parents can help each other out, socialize and organize playdates for their kids
  • Parents can "break up" if the friendship isn't working and maintain their kids' relationship

(Parenting.com) -- You inspect the crowd, casually admiring and judging the people who pass by. Then someone catches your eye. You immediately zoom in. There's just something about her that seems intelligent, interesting, intriguing. Should you walk over there? If so, what do you say?

After sparring with the timid version of yourself for a moment, you order a Venti-size cup of chutzpah and walk over. Heart thumping. Face flushing. You're right in front of her. The mouth opens. And you say, "Your boys love Go-Gurt, huh? I can't keep enough of it in our fridge."

Ah, to date other parents. It's one of the great phenomena of the parenting world: People with kids gravitate to other people with kids. And we've behaved this way since taking our first bipedal steps out of the primordial soup.

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Our old-school hominid Homo erectus established band societies -- small groups of families that hunted, gathered, and lived together -- more than 1 million years ago. All these millennia later, it's basically the same. We hunt for great babysitters; we gather potty-training tips.

Having kids hits the reset button on your social life. It's like showing up at the freshman dorm all over again. Finding someone to relate to and commiserate with is essential.

"A parent understands with every fiber of her being what another parent is going through," says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and family counselor in New York City. "Not only does that relationship offer support, but also validation. When a parent feels like she's the only one in this situation, it can have a profoundly negative effect."

But finding a PILF (Parent I'd Like to Friend) isn't simple. You don't vibe with another mom or dad simply because they've procreated. A family is composed of many different personalities, ages, and temperaments, which means there are a number of factors related to success and failure.

There is no eHarmony or Match.com for the sippy-cup and stroller set, so we've created Playdate My Family! -- the ultimate guide to dating other families.

And, yes, there's a reason we call it "dating." You may think the term isn't appropriate: It makes moms and dads sound like hormonal teenagers pining away for a crush. But from a psychological perspective, that is exactly what's going on.

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"Becoming a parent is a second adolescence," says Dorfman. "You're not entirely comfortable in your new skin, and you're experiencing insecurity in this new role. As a result, you're very much yearning for peer contact, much like a teenager."

Adolescence and parenthood share many of the same experiences: body and hormonal changes, mood swings, experiencing love in a new way. Despite our marital or romantic status, we're left to explore and master this new territory alone. That's why dating other parents is so important. It's less scary to ride the roller coaster with a friend at your side.

You need a PILF (Parent I'd Like to Friend). Here's why.

Similar levels of expectation

If Play-Doh ends up in the DVD player or the decibel level at dinner reaches something similar to Metallica live at the Coliseum, no one walks away shell-shocked or surprised. Your college gal pal who's living like Carrie Bradshaw probably won't be very sympathetic.

Shared resources

"Families can share clothes, furniture, gear, and information about health care providers, teachers, and schools," says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist in Long Beach, CA, and author of "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage."

Trust is a must

Even if she comes highly recommended, leaving your child with a new babysitter can be unsettling. You need to know the people spending quality time with your kid. Through the dating process, you can vet other parents before trusting them with your precious cargo.

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Jessica Denay, mother of 11-year-old son Gabriel

Los Angeles, California

Author of: The Hot Mom's Handbook

Likes: Green tea, Modern Family, cocktail rings

Dislikes: Fast food, cold weather, waking up early

Best part of having mom friends: They are more compassionate. You don't need to explain if you are ten minutes late. They know how hard it is to get out the door.

Her story: Ten years ago, Denay told a bunch of moms at the local playground about her supercool playgroup. Cell-phone numbers were exchanged; dates were scheduled. There was one problem: There was no playgroup.

"I didn't have any friends with kids, and there wasn't Facebook," recalls Denay. "So I hustled those moms." That first improvised gathering was the seed for the Hot Moms Club (don't be a hater -- her brother coined the name), which has grown from a single playgroup to a website to a book series. Her latest is "The Hot Mom's Handbook."

"Women are wired to be more connection-oriented than men," explains Dorfman. "It was an evolutionary necessity." In other words, women are the "gatherers": Sharing materials to survive a harsh winter has evolved into sharing information about preschools they like, products they don't, and parenting tips that have worked for them.

Lance Somerfeld, father of 3-year-old son Jake

New York

Founder of: nycdadsgroup.com

Likes: Fantasy football, U2, New York Yankees

Dislikes: Sports teams from Boston, mayonnaise

Best part of having dad friends: Not going through the challenges of parent-hood alone. Let's face it, guys do not like to ask for directions.

His story: Once the obligatory strolls through Central Park got tiresome, New York stay-at-home dad Somerfeld founded NYC Dads Group (nycdadsgroup.com), a dudes-only playgroup that plans four to five activities every week (from peewee soccer to afternoon sing-alongs with a local musician). Over the past couple of years, NYC Dads has grown from Somerfeld and a handful of neighborhood fathers to 400 guys citywide.

"At a mom playgroup, the discussion is often about best practices, like how to breastfeed," says Somerfeld. "Most of the time we're talking about sports, art, and politics. Although I must admit, I get the best parenting advice from these guys." Most recently, he's been collecting tips to get his son to use his new Boon potty.

But it's not all about the kids. They socialize as grownups as well. NYC Dads hosts regular get-togethers at local sports bars. For Mom, knowing that Dad is out with a group of involved fathers seems beneficial. Adds Somerfeld: "We've got one dad who gets a pass to go out every time because it's with us."

Compatibility Quiz

Have a family you like spending time with, but aren't sure if they're The One? Answer our Q's and find out.

1. If we were a TV family, we would be:

A. The Huxtables on The Cosby Show

B. The Dunphys on Modern Family

C. The Gosselins

2. If they were a TV family, they would be:

A. The Huxtables on The Cosby Show

B. The Dunphys on Modern Family

C. The Gosselins

3. When the kids get into a squabble, we:

A. Work it out together

B. Take them into respective corners

C. Redirect! Start the Monsters vs Aliens DVD again

4. Among the two families, who are the biggest BFFs?

A. We all get along pretty well

B. The moms

C. The kids

5. When it comes to making plans, who initiates?

A. It's 50--50

B. I do

C. It's hard to say -- we're pretty spontaneous

6. The last time you saw each other was at:

A. A playdate at the park

B. Dinner at our home

C. A birthday party for a mutual friend's kid

7. Have you talked about vacationing together?

A. Yes, we've got one in the works right now

B. Yes, but it's been all talk so far

C. Uh, no

8. What do you like most about them?

A. They're easygoing

B. They live close by

C. They have an awesome playground in their yard

If you answered mostly A's ... You're a productive, considerate crew that's easy to get along with and knows how to handle sticky situations. Luckily, you've found a family to match. Go ahead and book that vacay.

If you answered mostly B's... It sounds like you're still on the fence. There's a lot going right here, but an equal partnership and sense of trust hasn't been established. If you're going to date, everyone must bring something to the table.

If you answered mostly C's... The kids are the driving force, and that's okay unless you had high expectations for the grown-ups. Plus, a PILF should inspire you to raise your game, not accept the path of least resistance. Keep playing the field.

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How to break up

You gave it your best effort, but it's not clicking. So what to do when it's time to say you're just not that into them?

For starters, don't feel guilty. "It's a misguided notion that the adults must be friends if the children are friends," says Dorfman. "That said, it's important to maintain a cordial relationship. It's a great model for kids to see."

The breakup strategy depends on the age of your child. If he's very young (baby or toddler), make a clean break. At this stage of development, any child in his age group can provide an adequate social outlet. However, for older kids (kindergartners and up), friendships are more meaningful.

Unless you have a fundamental problem with the other parent (discipline style, lack of supervision), dropping off your child for a get-together or hosting the kids at your home is the best option.

"The general principle is that parental involvement diminishes as the children get older," Dorfman notes. If the other parent invites your family over for a barbecue, politely decline, but say "We'd love to have Jayden over next week. He and Owen have such fun together."

Of course, kids are known to break up, too. But this doesn't mean it has to be over for everyone. The parents can see each other sans kids. Remember: When a couple dates, there are two personalities; when a family dates, there can be upward of a dozen. So manage your expectations, and be realistic.

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