The Dreaded “Playdate”

#2’s “playdate” today has prompted me to wonder about this odd social encounter between parents with little in common beyond having had successfully reproductive sex at some similar time in the past. I did not grow up with the “playdate” and still have an uneasy relationship with it.[1]

Apparently, “playdate” is a relatively recent term describing yet another way parents schedule their children’s free time.[2] We justify the “playdate” by invoking “safety.” The world is, we fear, too dangerous to leave children unattended. Unattended children are targets for abduction. Unattended children injure themselves and others. This anxiety has pruned childhood of its autonomy and adventure.[3]

There might be other contributing reasons for the rise of the “playdate.” On the one hand we parents no longer wander cities. If we are unlucky enough to arrive somewhere without a pre-arranged ride from the airport or train station to our destination, we hail a taxi. When we travel further afield, we increasingly prefer the full-serve tour packages, which often include organized transfers from airport to hotel. Tour buses filled with other tourists conduct us around the city while we listen to some expert describe the scene passing by our windows. We have acquired a taste for the sanitized, timetabled, air-conditioned door-to-door service, so our children must too prefer the same service. We schedule their “playdates,” load them into the car parked in the attached garage, drive them to their “playdate” in climate-controlled comfort and a DVD playing on the in-dash or in-seat screen. Whether that drive is just a few block or across town.

On the other hand, children’s quotidian experiences have changed. When I was young all the kids on the block as well as the next four blocks down attended the same school. We all walked to school the same way. We all walked home the same way. We cut through the same grumpy old woman’s yard who threatened us each afternoon. Childhood was defined by neighborhoods which were linked to our school by trails of kids walking to school each morning and home each afternoon. Today, as I see more and more parents sending their kids to charter schools or private schools or home schooling their kids, that sense of neighborhood as shared social and academic experience is fading. By necessity and by design kids are bused around incredibly complex networks of bus routes or driven to school by their parents. Today, for example, #2 and I were in the city for a “playdate” with a classmate.[4] While #2 and her friend spend much of their day together, they have no shared sense of neighborhood or social experience. They don’t ride the same bus. They don’t walk the same routes.[5] The kids our street attend more than a half dozen different schools—only two families send their children to the same local school. Even those kids who attend the closest of the schools, a private school roughly at the end of the block, are driven there by parents.

We parents have changed childhood’s topography.[6] In the process, we have also thrust ourselves into strange, sometimes awkward social situations. For me, because I am the more visible parent, other mothers typically arrange the “playdate” with me. I find myself at homes with very nice mothers with whom I have little in common other than, as mentioned, having been guilty of procreation about the same time. The whole experience reminds me of some double date arranged by a friend whose boy/girlfriend had a friend who needed a date. Once again I am fumbling for topics of shared interest, grasping for threads of the conversation when one unravels, trying to be interesting while not revealing so much that might look like a lunatic. Maybe mother-mother “playdates” are less awkward. Perhaps mothers can more naturally find common interests and topics of conversation.

Despite the latent discomfort, I am generally happy to have the chance to get to know these mothers. I have found most of them to be nice, smart people with interesting lives and experiences. In some cases, we the parents have become friends, which is more than I can say for any of the blind dates I endured.[7] I will never be comfortable with the “playdate” and I look forward to when I can stop “playdating,” but I have come to appreciate what it can offer.

  1. For example, I find it hard to say. I prefer convoluted circumlocutions like “I’ve agreed to take #2 to play with a friend today.” or “#1 has arranged to spend a couple hours with so-and-so this afternoon. I’ll take him. Do you want to pick him up or shall I?” I find it equally difficult to write without surrounding it with scare quotes. Just this evening, when responding to an email about my day, I couldn’t bring myself to write the efficient but viscerally off-putting “We were at a ‘playdate’” and wrote, instead, “#2 and I were at her friend’s house in the city.” My discomfort was aggravated recently when I heard two couples arranging another “playdate” for their parrots.  ↩

  2. The OED traces it back to ’70s U.S. parenting (according to Wikipedia, the playdate remains primarily a U.S. term). Like so many compound words, early orthography favored the hyphenated pair. Today, perhaps out of some primal need to fill empty spaces, orthographic convention seems to favor a single word.  ↩

  3. Michael Chabon offers a wonderful reflection on how we have curtailed childhood in “The Wilderness of Childhood.” For anybody over 40, Chabon’s essay evokes memories of an unsupervised childhood. Alone or in small bands children marauded around, played, or just loitered in parks and empty lots for hours day after day. After dinner, streets became once again a cacophony of shouts, skidding bicycle tires, and the “whumpf” of somebody kicking an under-inflated ball. Tonight was beautiful and yet none of the more than 20 kids who live on our block were playing in the street or in each other’s front yards. Now and then you catch a glimpse of siblings playing in a side yard. Now and then I can coax some of the kids out when I’m out playing ball or frisbee with #1 and #2. My presence, apparently, allays neighbors’ anxieties and somehow makes the street a safe place to play.  ↩

  4. For the record: we took the local regional train line into the city and walked from the station to the “playdate.”  ↩

  5. Again, for the record: #2 could perhaps ride her bike to school but it is too far to walk. Her friend lives too far to ride a bike or to walk. Tellingly, however, the school discourages students from riding bikes by providing no place to park and lock bikes. By contrast, my grammar school had racks and racks for bikes, which racks were filled most days.  ↩

  6. Or, we middle and upper middle class parents have changed our progeny’s childhood topography. I would be interested to know if “playdates” are as common in lower income neighborhoods.  ↩

  7. Yet again, for the record: whatever I endured almost surely paled in comparison to what the unfortunate woman suffered. My aversion to “playdates” is merely the latest manifestation of my aversion to dating. I was not only awkward, I rarely hid my indifference and made little or no effort to participate in the social conventions that structure a date, blind or otherwise.  ↩


Getting into College w/o the SAT

Getting into college has always required more than intelligence and good grades. For the last 50 or so years, it has also required performing well on a test—usually the feared SAT. Far from leveling the playing field, the SAT and colleges’ reliance on the SAT[1] have created yet another mechanism for affluent families to reassert their status and ensure their own privilege. Families that can afford it hire test-preparation tutors to coach Little Johnny or Little Jane—here on the Main Line, rates start at the unimaginable $150/hour and extend beyond $400/hour if you want your tutor to be called “Dr. So-and-So.”[2]

I applaud Bard College’s effort to upend the admissions process by offering applicants an alternative route to admission. Bard hasn’t rejected the SAT and GPA, but now allows students who worry that their scores or grades are not high enough to write research essays. Bard provides a choice of questions and all the material necessary to write a good essay. These essays are then evaluated according to Bard’s standards and all students performing well enough will be admitted. Or so Bard promises.

Bard hasn’t solved all the problems with college admissions, but as a parent I welcome Bard’s effort to undermine the hegemony of the SAT. I would like to see other “liberal arts” colleges combat the SAT’s dominance in the admissions process.[3] As a parent who wants to believe in education but who cannot afford to spend $5,000 or more on subject tutors, academic coaches, test-preparation tutors or test-preparation camp,[4] or college-admissions coaching, I hope Bard sets a trend.

  1. Even colleges that claim to look for markers of a well rounded student or that claim to use the SAT along with other criteria continue to reinforce the test’s importance by highlighting the scores on publicly available documents that go by names such as ‘Characteristics of Entering Class’ or ‘Facts about Incoming Freshmen’. Any parent guiding their progeny toward these schools will find tables and tables of SAT and ACT scores. And students in high school already recognize the importance of those tests.  ↩

  2. It takes little thought to see why people with advanced degrees start tutoring businesses. In at least one case a person with a law degree from a nationally recognized school has recognized that tutoring is more lucrative. Since few parents will issue IRS 1099 forms to tutors, that $150-$400/hour translates into a considerably higher real-world wage. Assuming full-time work, which most tutors probably don’t enjoy, some back-of-the-envelop calculations suggest that those hourly rates put a person in the 33–39% federal tax bracket. Ignoring state, social security, and other taxes, that increases the real-world wage to $200-$550/hour. Sure, test preparation/tutoring centers will, we hope, report all revenue and have to pay their tutors, no doubt at a lower rate and they probably treat them as contract labor so they don’t withhold taxes. An energetic and purportedly qualified (whatever qualified means in this context) tutor could hustle up a healthy $100,000+ annually working part-time. This number would nearly triple if those “qualifications” include “Dr.”
    Along with the test-preparation industry is the college-admissions coaching industry that plays on parental fears and traffics in platitudes and publicly available knowledge typically redescribed as “expert” or “private and privileged” knowledge. Rates for these coaching sessions, while not yet as high as test-preparation tutoring are stratospheric for the services offered.  ↩

  3. I use scare quotes around “liberal arts” because that term no longer accurately describes many of the colleges we think provide a liberal arts education. Increasingly, the small, elite “liberal arts” colleges have given up on the ideal, broad-based educational program we typically associate with that term. Ever diminishing distribution requirements no longer ensure that students take classes outside their chosen major. Now students can and do track their academic career from the first semester, even at colleges where they cannot officially declare a major until their second year. Increasingly, students graduate having focused the vast majority of their coursework in whatever subject they chose as 18-year-olds. Graduating seniors are well educated but only in a single, narrow field.  ↩

  4. Yes, there are test-preparation camps, which run ca. $1,000/week. No, that price doesn’t include room and board. I assume everybody gets a T-shirt.  ↩

iPhones, Forks, and Conversations

At one table a young mothered typed furiously on her iPhone using only her left thumb. Her right arm cantilevered out over the table toward her diaper-wearing daughter. In her right hand she brandished a plastic fork on which she had skewered a piece of egg. Without looking up she urged her daughter to eat. In a brilliant demonstration of reciprocity, the daughter ignored her mother and the forkful of egg, and instead danced happily on the bench. And so it went until the mother collected the breakfast carnage so the little girl could “finish it in the car.”

At another table, an older father was sitting with his late teen daughter. He spoke fondly to her, almost doting her. At one point he asked, “Can you carry the bagel and drink, or do you need help?” They looked at each other as the ate and talked about what her plans for the day. No smartphone or other electronic device intervened between them. He held the door for her as they left.

How do we understand these different parenting styles? Different generations? Different relationships—mother-daughter vs. father-daughter? Different expectations? Different habits? And what effects will these different parenting styles have on the parent-daughter relationships?

Extracting a Tooth

#1’s tenuous grasp on courage was strained when he noticed a beaker full of 100mL syringes. “Those are big shots…” his voice trailed off from the chair where two assistants were strapping electrodes to his wrists. His eyes revealed anguish and gave him the look of a scared young animal. He looked quickly at me for reassurance. I tried to smile comfortingly as one assistant explains “We only use those for distilled water if we need to flush out your mouth during the procedure.” #1 was relieved but still not happy.

#1 was being prepped for a “procedure.” He was not duped by the innocuous term “procedure,” which he knew was a euphemism for extracting forcibly and violently a tooth that was firmly rooted in his jaw and trapped under neighboring teeth. As he sat there, he slowly realized that this “procedure” would involve general anesthesia, local anesthesia, an I.V. drip, a drill and grinder that look like an industrial grade Dremel tool, what we would call in any other context vice grip pliers, and various expensive monitoring systems. Standing in the corner, I was thankful he hadn’t seen Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello, D.D.S., in “Little Shop of Horrors”.

The room was not comforting. The white linoleum floor and white walls glared brightly in the harsh fluorescent light. The large black “procedure” chair seemed like an altar on which the patient is offered up as a sacrifice to some mechanical mantis of devices and instruments poised over #1 as he sits there. The few times the assistants spoke, they did so in quiet voices and clipped sentences. They wore black uniforms and walked deliberately around the room. Their pastel-colored masks, classic Kimberly Clark Procedure Masks complete with earloops, resembled 8-bit-lo-res colored squares floating around an otherwise monochrome scene.

The physician, Dr. B., walked in and asked jocularly to nobody in particular: “How’re we doing?” The assistants said nothing so #1 answered tentatively “I’m a little nervous.” Dr. B. didn’t try to comfort him. Instead, Dr. B. instructed one of the assistants to “Energize” the gas that would put #1 to sleep and then told me to stand by #1 while he administered the gas. As he went to sleep, #1 seemed to shrink as the spirit that animates him diminished.[1] As Dr. B. pulled up an eyelid I see just the white of an eye that has rolled back into #1’s head. Suddenly #1 involuntarily clinched both his hands into fists. The assistants stationed on either side instinctively spring forward and restrained his hands. Dr. B. immediately dismissed me: “Alright dad. We’ll take care of this. You can leave now.”[2] An assistant ushered me to the door, closing it firmly behind me as soon as I had exited the room.

I’m sitting now in the waiting room. Although I know that everything will be fine, somewhere deep down inside me festers that last image of #1’s fists clinching. Is that normal? Why did that happen? What does it mean?

I text the Mother: “If all goes well, #1 will wake in 15 minutes lacking a tooth.”

Although I know #1 will be fine, I worry about him in a way I would never worry about me or even about the Mother. Perhaps it’s the unadulterated trust and faith he has that I won’t hurt him. Perhaps it’s the responsibility I feel to take care of him. While such explanations are certainly true, they misprize what binds me to him (and I hope him to me). The ineffable, breathtaking, staggering love I feel for him—that’s why I worry about him.

Although I know #1 will be fine, I will worry until he is.

  1. I have wondered before about how #1 and #2 seem smaller when they have fallen asleep. It’s odd how their personality seems to inflate them, making them larger than their physical being. Usually, this happens slowly and naturally, as they fall asleep. Today, the harsh room, the gas mask over #1’s face, the silent assistants restraining his hands, the metal instruments, the drills and lights cantilevered over the “procedure” chair added a sinister quality #1’s inanimate body.  ↩

  2. Let me be clear, I have no doubt about Dr. B.’s qualifications and skill. He exudes confidence and experience. He promises to “tell it like it is.” As a patient, this is precisely the type of physician I want working on me. As a parent, I found that I wanted Dr. B. to comport himself with more compassion. Looking at #1 and knowing that he was anxious, I wanted to be able to console and reassure him. But in that space, I could offer only platitudes and generic encouragement. So I was looking to the Dr. B. to supplement my banal words of support.  ↩

Entropy and Family Life

Yesterday was a tough day. Previous commitments (inter alia volunteering in #2’s class) had already truncated my workday when the Mother dragooned me into running an errand for her in the morning, which errand pruned yet another hour out of my day. The Mother thought she was being helpful. In principle, she reasoned, making me run this errand would allow her to work from home, which was the Mother’s primary goal yesterday. She could, therefore, retrieve #1 and #2 from school, which in turn would allow me to work longer. In point of fact, however, making me run this errand cost me time and put me in a sour mood.[1] A series of unfortunate events (which had nothing to do with Lemony Snicket) conspired against me. By dinner time I was irretrievably pissed off because my day had gone from tidily ordered to a disordered mess.

I think there’s a lesson here.

Just for giggles, let’s think about an analogy between thermodynamics and families. If we think of a family as an entropic system, we need to put energy into it if we want to decrease the disorder in the system. In other words, we need to work to make sure family life remains ordered and arranged. Work to ensure that our plans don’t upend somebody else’s and cause them more work. Work to postpone or forego our own goals for somebody else’s. Work to realize that reducing one person’s labor will increase another person’s, or the overall chaos in the family. Work to accept with equanimity when our best laid plans go awry, as they often do.[2]

  1. Let’s not dwell on the many ways this plan was destined to fail, not the least of which was the complete lack of anything resembling consultation before it was unilaterally hatched. Let’s also not conclude that the Mother is somehow uniquely guilty of such autocratic decision making. I am sure many of my plans have seemed like win-win situations to me but win-lose scenarios for her.  ↩

  2. If I were a real nerd, I would work up some equation that related familial entropy to work and the number of family members. Something like: ∆Sf ∝ dW/#f where Sf is the familial entropy, dW is the incremental work put into the system, and #f is the number of family members. But I’m not sufficiently nerdy to work out the details.  ↩

No Dads but Moms in Workout Clothes

This afternoon I volunteered in #2’s class to help with different math games , i.e., games involving numbers. One day each week over the next couple months, parents will come in to oversee one of these math games. Two observations that don’t surprise me at all:

  1. Only I and one other father signed up for any of the days. Mothers: 24 Volunteer Hour Equivalents — Fathers: 6 VHE’s (5 of which are me).
  2. Today, two of the mothers there were in full workout regalia despite clearly not having worked out.

Everybody would benefit if more fathers were involved in the educational aspects of their children’s lives. And everybody would benefit if mothers would stop wearing their workout clothes to school functions. Both patterns of behavior send negative problematic messages to children.

Don’t Cheer for Average …

Dadmissions worries that Cheering for Average (cross-posted here) sugarcoats the truth (about sports? about life in general?). He is right: sporting events are competitions defined by winning and losing and, by extension, winners and losers. And he’s right, you can’t hide that fact from the players. Kids know whether they won or lost, whether they are winners or losers. Average players are rarely winners. Parents shouldn’t be cheering for average.[1]

But I fear that invoking “average” might be missing the point. That already frames the issue in terms of success and failure as measured by winning and losing. Parents should be cheering for and rewarding and thereby fostering “habits of success” and dedication and perseverance (Seth Godin’s “Red Latern winners”).

While Dadmissions might have been sufficiently motivated to persevere through basketball and football, despite lacking the typical markers of success (e.g., making baskets), most people are not so motivated. Perhaps his motivation stemmed, at least in part, from his fortunate experience of being neither berated nor rewarded for his mediocrity.[2] Maybe his parents, friends, and coaches recognized that demonstrable skill is not as interesting or worthwhile as effort, determination, and commitment. Maybe they helped him develop those “habits of success.”

As a parent, I don’t cheer for average. I also don’t reward “success,” if by success we mean nothing more than having scored lots of goals or baskets, having won a game, having placed first in a running race, or having triumphed at any of the many other competitions that fill children’s lives. I have been seen to reward “failure,” if by failure we mean having missed a shot on goal or a basket, having been defeated in a game, having placed 2nd–10th in a running race, or having otherwise not triumphed at some competition. For me, winning and losing is incidental. What matters to me is learning, developing habits of success, improving.

So don’t cheer for average. Likewise, don’t cheer for excellent. Cheer for tenacity, dedication, doggedness, and stick-to-itiveness. Cheer for the effort and the labor and that seemingly interminable slog—habits that will help kids succeed in life.

  1. Dadmissions is absolutely correct, at least in my experience, that most parents are mindlessly cheering for average. Like some parody of Monty Python’s Every Sperm is Sacred, parents now consider a child’s every performance, every piece of “art,” every word and deed as sacred, good, and priceless.  ↩

  2. This seems a childhood utopia somehow devoid of typical Little League Dads, Beauty Pageant Moms, and peer hierarchies based on athletic prowess.  ↩