02/01/2016 12:45 EST | Updated 02/01/2017 05:12 EST

5 Lessons Play Dates Have Taught Me About Life

Tara Mandarano

For the first 18 months of my daughter's life, I avoided play dates and mum groups like the plague. Any mention of a social outing involving a bunch of mothers and their babes left me feeling anxious. Introverted by nature, I dreaded the thought of trying to strike up conversation with strangers. I worried these people would judge my parenting, that they would take one look at me and find me lacking.

So I stuck to the safe confines of my condo. I hibernated and was happy (for the most part). As time went on and I grew more confident in my mothering, I began to open up more when I would randomly meet other families at the park or the store. I craved adult company and conversation, but something always stopped me from suggesting we meet up. I never felt like I "clicked" with someone enough to risk spending an hour with them one-on-one.

I met my play date soulmate at the library. We were both attending the story time program with our daughters, who were three months apart in age. We started chatting and discovered the ridiculous amount of things we had in common. It felt natural asking for her number. Two weeks later we went to an indoor playground and have been seeing each other ever since. I knew socializing with other kids was important for my daughter's development, but I didn't realize play dates would teach me some important life lessons as well.

1. You can make friends at any age

I've had the same small social circle since university. I haven't really gotten close to anyone outside of this clique, so I was surprised at how good it felt to make a new friend at the age of 37. It's an amazing feeling to nurture a new relationship with someone who can relate to all my parenting questions and concerns. I can talk to her about potty-training while our kids do puzzles on the floor. She just gets it.

2. Everybody is making it up as they go along

Parenting is undoubtedly the hardest job in the world. The first couple of years are a crash course as you learn a crazy number of new coping skills. It's heartening to hear stories from another mother about how her kid is a demanding diva. It's comforting to know that someone else is winging it and having good days and bad days, just like you.

3. A change of scene does your soul a world of good

Parents need social outings just as much as kids do. Raising a human can be an isolating experience, especially in winter. Kids go stir-crazy when they stay indoors too long; parents go through the exact same thing. Play dates are a sort of social salvation: an excuse to get out, break the routine and spend some time in a different environment.

4. Everyone goes at their own pace

I remember being so self-conscious on our first play date when my daughter simply sat stone-faced in my lap for 40 minutes. She refused to budge, despite the other little girl trying to engage her in play. I felt embarrassed and tried to force her out of her funk. That was a mistake. I've learned since that although she takes a while to warm up, she will eventually come around in her own time and start to interact when she feels comfortable.

5. Expect the unexpected

Everyday is different in parenting land, and almost nothing goes to plan. Kids' moods change on a dime: one minute they're quietly building a tower, the next they're throwing themselves on the floor. You have to be prepared for both scenarios on play dates. Toddlers are not emotionally stable creatures; it's inevitable someone will lose the plot at some point. There's no point trying to control the situation or change your kid's personality. I've learned that my daughter will talk and share with other kids when I'm not hovering and obsessing over her every move.


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