Should I Make My Son Go On Playdates If He Doesn’t Want To?

Dear Mamas,

This might sound silly but it’s about to cause World War III in my family — my son doesn’t really want to play at his cousin’s and my sister’s really mad at me! The boys are nine years old and have known each other since they were babies but are pretty different as far as their interests and personalities go. I love my nephew and so does my son but he is a busy kid — he has his own friends, his homework and is on a soccer team and plays the drums and just doesn’t want to spend the night etc. there that often.

I have explained to my sister that he already has plans when she asks him to come over (it has actually been true) but I know she’s mad. Do I have to make him go to keep the peace even if he doesn’t want to?

Worried in Seattle

Dear Worried,

The short answer is no, you don’t. But before going any further I would encourage you to sit down with your son and ask him why he doesn’t want to go there. Did something happen? Did they have a fight? Did your sister or brother-in-law do or say something to him that was hurtful or inappropriate?

If nothing unusual is going on, odds are that his life is just taking him in another direction at the moment. It happens. In fact with kids, this is a really common problem. Unfortunately though, friend and family relationships can take a hit when the kids decide they don’t want to be “best friends” anymore despite their parents wishes. Typically one of the kids starts to move away from the other as they get older and start to make their own friends and there are bound to be some hurt feelings as a result.

When children are really young, we parents get them together for playdates and they comply because they are too young to care or know they have a choice. Babies like to be around each other and moms do too. So it works well for everyone. You can pack everyone into the car and head for the park for a guaranteed fun afternoon. But as they get older, the differences in their interests, personalities and temperments begins to become apparent and they may begin to balk at these parent-organized outings.

Suddenly things start to change. One of them might be a rambunctious, in-your-face kind of guy who is constantly moving and yelling and getting into things and the other one is more of an introspective, quiet, self-contained kid who enjoys building with blocks or creating a quiet game in the sandbox.

Playing together might be a stressful or unpleasant experience for one but not the other. And eventually one of them might decide he doesn’t enjoy spending so much time with a child whose interests and style are so different from his. And that’s when the problems often begin.

So what is reasonable to expect? Do you have the right to insist that he spend time with a playmate he doesn’t care for or enjoy being with because of your relationship with his mother? Does he have any rights here?

By the time a child is 5 he should be able to decide who he wants to play with. Obviously, there will be times when he will be expected to be a good host or guest and play nicely with the children of  friends and family during get-togethers at your place or theirs. This should be a non-negotiable requirement and seen as a necessary part of life and learning.

But other than that, he should be able to decide who he wants to spend time with. If you force the issue, even with a family member, you take away his sense of control and freedom. And if, as you say, he already has a list of things he must do with his time (school, homework, sports, an instrument) then he needs to know that he has some say about his free time.

Kids go through phases and stages, too. Although he may not be too keen on spending a lot of time with his cousin now, that may change as they get older. If you force the issue at this point you may make it impossible for things to change on their own. Most likely the boys will find their way back to each other in time.

Now for your sister. Explain patiently and calmly that your son has a busy schedule and needs some down time. Emphasize that it’s nothing personal, it’s just hard for him to fit everything in these days and that you are limiting his playdates as a result.

Then, schedule some family time where everyone is together for a picnic or dinner at your place and make it a point to have something fun set up for the boys to do then and there. If all is going well, you could spontaneously invite your nephew to spend the night after the party and arrange to bring him home the next day. Do this kind of thing every so often so your sis won’t feel that you are snubbing her or her son.

You might want to stick with that program for several months and check in with your son now and then to see if he wants to play with his cousin again. Most likely he will. Keep the door open but take your cue from him and do your best to keep the peace with your sister.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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