We have all been there: The friend whom your child begs to have over. The friend who also likes dried fruit! The friend who also has the same pink pencil skirt! She went to Hershey Park too last summer! And so we acquiesce. What could be wrong with a Shabbat afternoon playdate? The child is called and plans are made.
But this friendship is shallow. It is rooted in a shared excitement over “things” and not a strong emotional connection. The children are too young to discern this difference and, as parents, we are too optimistic to squash their enthusiasm. And so, “Ayala” comes over on Shabbat afternoon.
“Can we have a snack?” Ayala asks, as soon as she walks in, wearing her matching pink pencil skirt (Ayala is a made up name/person and in no way mimics anyone real...so there is no need to guess if this is your kid who I am writing about here). The girls go through an entire box of dried mango, as per their request, reminisce about Hershey Park, then run upstairs to my daughter’s room. For a brief moment, I sit on the couch and put my feet up, excited to make some progress in the latest book I am reading.
But it is a mere three minutes before I begin to see blurred figures hovering just beyond the pages of my book. I lift my eyes and glance at the girls, expectantly. “We don’t know what to do....”
My worst words. If it were my child alone professing her boredom, I’d shrug my shoulders and point to the toy closet. I’d open my arms and invite the child to relax with me. I’d welcome the boredom, as psychologists say, as an opportunity for endless creativity. Boredom is good! But when there is a less enthusiastic child, who is not in the mood for any creative play, it is more of a challenge.
“Barbies? American Girl Dolls? Littlest Pet Shop?” I offer. They shake their heads. “Play with your new guinea pig! A board game! Go outside on the swings?”
“I want to play ‘store,’ and Ayala only wants to play jump rope,” my daughter says, and I see Ayala standing solemnly to the side, clutching the rope. She doesn’t look like she is about to change her mind. Neither does my child. There is no room for compromise.
“Who wants to play dodgeball with me?” I announce, throwing my book back onto the couch. Only Ayala wants to, and I am joined by some of my other kids and their friends outside. I am hopeful that my daughter will join in, will be lured by the laughter and nascent excitement of the game, and I grab some balls from the closet and head to the yard.
My daughter, the hostess, is actively engaged in a game of pretend-to-look-like-a-corpse on the couch. So authentic are her moves that her arms flop down when I try to lift her up to join us. She stares glumly at the wall, and so I head on outside with the others, feigning my enthusiasm when I’d rather be reading.
The dodge ball ends up being a little fun. So much fun, that after I beat everyone three times (it wouldn’t have been fun if I let them win...), I see my daughter lurking by the door, and slowly, she makes her way out to the grass and reaches for a ball. The earlier tension has dissolved and I have succeeded in engaging the entire group of kids in a rowdy game. This is my exit cue. “I’m just going to go check on the baby,” I say. Incidentally, this is the best excuse to escape any situation. If you don’t have a baby, you can still say this, just substitute with any other noun. I’m just going to check on my flowering orchid plant. It hasn’t needed water all week, but it might be very thirsty right this second, has gotten me out of many a social scenario or endless game of dodge ball.
I peek from the window as the girls move on to the swings. Now I know I cannot emerge from the house because swings are like a trap for grown-ups. Walk near them and you will be forced to stand there pushing kids back and forth endlessly, unless you can fake a kick-in-the-face injury. I was so blessed to only have to play dodge ball and to not be in the swing-prison. I pick up my book, but find it difficult to read because I cannot stop looking at the clock, counting down the minutes until the parents come and this playdate is over.
I had specified to the parents what time to pick up their child. I do this all the time because some playdates have no ending, and some parents just forget about their child, probably hoping I will adopt them. I do not want to be pushing kids on swings for the rest of my life. And yet, the parents are late on the curfew I imposed, and the clock is moving so slowly, I wonder if it has stopped. I am nervous that the girls will come back inside, freshly bored and out of ideas, and the only game I will be able to think of will be Duck-Duck-Goose.
When I hear a knock at the door, I jump in excitement, and happily usher Ayala back into the arms of her mother. “They played so nicely!” I lie, because it’s better than saying, “We played so nicely!” And I know that the next time my kids ask for playdates, I will be a little bit more discerning. Or we will come armed with a list of mutually fun games and activities in advance.
Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer living with her husband and four children in Teaneck. She is working on her first book. More of her essays can be read at www.writersblackout.wordpress.com.
By Sarah Abenaim