The Politics of Playgroup

Strategies for a successful session.

A favorite outfit. A beloved recipe. A timely entrance. Your first date? Sort of. It’s a playdate. And it can be just as nerve-wrecking as a romantic date.

As you arrive at the playground, simultaneously introducing your adorably-dressed baby and your potluck dish, you smile widely, silently rehearsing the next right thing to say. You have been looking forward to this outing, anxious to make new friends for yourself and your child. But what happens when personalities clash, children create chaos or dues become too demanding. Ah, the politics of playgroups— and you thought you were just going to the park.

Whether you’re anticipating meeting a few neighbors at the community square for a scheduled event or considering a national organization complete with initiation fees, you have probably made assumptions regarding playgroups. I certainly did. And while I’m usually a pretty confident person, joining a new women’s group brought up a lot of my old insecurities: Will they like me? Will I like them? Who will I sit with at lunch? But, despite my apprehension, I pulled myself together and ventured out to meet other new moms. Today I am a proud, card-carrying member of various parenting groups; but, like most things that have to do with my son, it’s nothing like I had expected.

Popularity Contests Have No Winners

You have scoped out the woman you want to get to know better and take the initiative to talk her. While your children play nearby, the two of you become engaged in a wonderful conversation. The connection is being made; the camaraderie you have been hoping for is (finally!) happening. All’s well until an uninvited, power hungry group leader saunters over, interrupts with an authoritative, “Anyway…” and redirects your new best friend’s attention. You’re crushed, left to wonder why you bothered coming in the first place.

Although grateful that our kids have the chance to make friends, many of us join playgroups because we too are looking for companionship. As an adult, it can be discouraging when our best efforts seem thwarted. However, no matter how friendly, kind or charismatic you are, not everyone is going to like you. And you are not going to like everyone. While being ignored will never feel good, retaliation won’t make you feel any better. Instead of rolling your eyes or looking for someone to commiserate with, take a deep breath, collect yourself and be the bigger person. Just because a group leader is disappointing doesn’t mean the whole group will be. Use this opportunity to approach some of the other women you may have been unknowingly ignoring. Take time to acquaint yourself with all the members of the group instead of zeroing in on just a few. You may be pleasantly surprised to find someone was waiting for the chance to meet you.

“He’s Never Like This”

Well-rested and well-fed, we head out to meet our new friends. I anticipate an afternoon of fun, friends and photo opportunities. But when we arrive, I find that my once charming and well-mannered son has been switched with a cranky, clingy crier who will not share, socialize or smile. I present a new toy, offer a special snack and attempt to engage him with other children. Nothing seems to help. I am becoming increasingly anxious as he becomes increasingly unmanageable: first grabbing at the toys, then grabbing at his playmates. Other moms offer friendly suggestions, but I realize they are moving their children away from us. With my son approaching meltdown status, we leave. He’s exhausted; I’m embarrassed. What went wrong?

Despite our best intentions to schedule lovely and meaningful outings for our children, their calendar doesn’t always match ours. Everyone’s child has an off day. You don’t need to stay in hopes of proving something. You don’t need to repeatedly apologize. But you should probably go. While there may not be a formal policy asking you to leave, doling out discipline and policing your playgroup can make everyone uncomfortable. Respect yourself, your child and the other families by bowing out gracefully and trying another time. You’ll be glad you did.

Priceless Pursuits

You plan for admission tickets, but didn’t consider the souvenir shop. Instead of potluck, it’s an overpriced restaurant. When friendly get-togethers become a financial burden, it can become increasingly difficult to attend group events, and even more difficult to discuss the reasons why. Children are big business. Many advertising dollars are spent soliciting itty bitty consumers to visit, eat and shop at the most popular venues. If your wallet demands a more watchful eye, consider taking matters into your own enterprising hands.

Instead of resenting pricey playdates, check with your group’s moderator regarding event procedures, and then use your talents to suggest alternative outings that are inexpensive and low maintenance. Love the outdoors? Scout out untapped hiking trails and propose a weekly walking group. Interested in service work? Research the necessary details and host a charity bake sale. Coordinating these innovative activities will provide new opportunities for like-minded families to socialize, helping bring attention to lesser known hobbies and pursuits and aiding in increasing your own sense of commitment. Become an active member of your playgroup by sharing your ideas and dedicating your time— a most precious commodity.

While policies, procedures and participants may never be perfect, remember that the purpose of a playgroup is to play. Give yourself and your children an opportunity to meet new people and try new experiences. This season, seek out the playgroup programs available and join the campaign for fun!