I have fielded quite a few emails and questions from mothers in my community about this issue, so I finally thought it was time for a blog post on the subject!
The question I get is from mothers who live in a neighborhood with lots of other children zooming about, and how the six year old girl or seven year old boy is all of the sudden very obsessed with playing with these neighborhood friends every minute.
This, by itself, may not be such a problem (I am sure those of you who grew up in neighborhoods, just like me, remember the “neighborhood gang” fondly), but what is happening in these cases is that the six and seven year old is picking up bad language, is acting surly towards their parents, is protesting vehemently when any kind of limit is set forth regarding not being able to go out and play. Sometimes the neighborhood children are at these mother’s doors the moment the school bus rumbles away. Sometimes the children of the mothers writing me are just waiting to play and staring at the neighborhood children’s door waiting for any signs of someone being home and therefore ready to play! Does any of this sound familiar?
I am all for community, but I do feel in this situation one needs to have boundaries for one’s child. Possibly very strong boundaries. The peak of this behavior truly can be the seven year old boy and six year old girl, and since children under the age of 9 are prone to “emotional excess”, they may need your help in balancing things out.
I can recommend several things:
1. Make it clear that playing with friends is dependent upon being nice within the family. We don’t take the ugly out of the house.
2. Some afternoons are “family only” or family outing kind of afternoons. And after our outing or playing at home, gee, it is time for dinner and getting ready for bed. We can play with friends tomorrow. Six to eight year olds are still very little, and the world will not stop turning if they do not play with peers all the time.
3. Communicate with the neighborhood children’s parents and work out a sign or signal that your children are available to play whether it is the garage door being up, children being outside, front door open with just screen door shut, etc. Sadly, sometimes the reason the children are at the door the moment the school bus rumbles away is because there is no one home at their house. Sometimes this has to be confronted between the adults of the families as well.
4. Plan things for the children to do before you they move into free play – I have had success in the past with juicing lots of oranges by hand, taking turns rolling and cutting out gingerbread men, setting up obstacle courses, etc. In this way we can all work on using kind words, taking turns, using good manners, including all children, before we go off to play on our own.
5. Look carefully at the children your child is playing with and your child’s behavior afterwards. There may need to be limits on how often your child plays with particular children, or where they play. Some friends just play better together outside. I find this to be especially true with eight year olds who will often take on the “persona” of the oldest child in a grouping and emulate that behavior, so again, limits are key.
6. Know the families of the children your child is playing with. Do try to ensure that if your child goes to a neighbor’s house that you know that family well, and that the playdate will not just turn into a screen fest when the children should be out and expending physical energy in the afternoon.
7. Do take the time to arrange play time with children of families that have similar values to yours. Build that community, and pick the activities outside of your home that involve these children. It may be easier to hang around with the children in the neighborhood (no driving to a park or whatnot), but as children grow they are able to tolerate going out a little bit more, and if your child never spends any time with the children you want to be that child’s community, the children that live closest will always be ranked as better friends in the eyes of the child.
These are just a few suggestions; I would love to hear your experiences in the comment box!