It was fun, please don’t hear me setting that up to suggest that the afternoon was a disaster. But toddlers don’t play together. According to child psychologist Mildred Parten, who studied socialization among children ages two to five, toddlers occupy a realm of stages of play called “onlooker play” and “parallel play.” “Onlooker play” refers to a child who watches other children play without joining. I’ve certainly observed my little girl doing this at church when in a room with older children. “Parallel play” is what happens when several younger children are in a room together. They play side by side but without influencing each others’ behavior. They may mimic each other or attempt to play with the same toy, but their play is not social or associative.
Toddlers don’t play together. They play at the same time, in the same room, with the same toys. It’s like watching golfers at a driving range. Our kids, being different ages (at this age, eight months can make a tremendous difference), had different capacities for engaging their environment and each other. Our little girl was the oldest, and she was in her own home, so she clearly had an advantage of being around familiar toys and surroundings. One of her “friends” (can they really be friends if they don’t willingly interact or associate with each other or influence each others’ behavior?) is still learning to walk on her own, which certainly changes the type of play she could be involved in.
In the world of psychotherapy, we have a concept called “parallel process.” This is a therapeutic tool within which it is observed that whatever process is occurring with the client’s outside relationships is also occurring between the client and therapist. This can become transformative if the client can recognize the process in a safe space with the therapist and see where it occurs in his or her other relationships. So what’s the parallel process at work in our play date?
Adults with toddlers don’t play together, either. As parents of a young child, our fantasy for play date Saturday was that we would have a chance to hang out with two couples whose company we enjoy, and all of our children could play together and entertain themselves while we had an opportunity to visit with each other. The truth is, we’re probably another four or five years from that being a reality. Toddlers still need constant supervision; they don’t supervise themselves. Our little girl was even more playful than usual, because parallel play with peers stimulates her. And so during our play date, there was never a time when the six of us adults could really all visit together. No card games broke out. There didn’t seem to be a single minute when all six of us were engaged in conversation at the table together; at least one of us was always away, either changing a diaper, chasing a renegade toddler up the stairs, or pulling the kids around the house in a wagon. There were moments when pockets of us broke away to socialize in little groups, but the parallel process was that the parents also engaged in parallel play, supervising toddlers in the same room together.
Again, I don’t want to give the impression that this was miserable and that we all hated it. I, for one, had a good time and enjoyed the parallel supervision of toddlers. I managed to get breaks from being the child supervisor, chat a little with some friends, eat some pizza, and watch some basketball. In addition, watching three adorable toddlers engage in parallel play is fun in itself and yielded many delightful and charming photographs. But I will readily admit that I miss adult interaction. Not side-by-side parallel parenting, but genuine adult interaction. We have found it very important to have friends who have children around our own child’s age. When the majority of your non-professional life revolves around a child, it’s good to interact with other adults who can identify and not be bored to death by conversations about toddler eating and sleeping habits. But it’s hard to make this happen. True adult time takes place after the kids have gone to bed, and it’s pretty hard to take your child somewhere else to go to bed. For us to get together with couples with young children, someone’s got to have a babysitter.
That’s why the play date seems so attractive. We’ll all play together! No babysitters will be necessary! No one will need to find a place to take a nap! All of these things ended up being false. There was little to no interactive play. There were babysitters needed: us. And everyone – everyone – needed a nap afterwards.
Once I could let go of these fantasies and enjoy the play date for what it offers – parallel parenting and occasional breaks of socialization with friends – then I could really enjoy the afternoon. But I will still admit that I long for associative and cooperative interaction with my adult friends. We still get it on occasion, but it takes a lot of planning. And sometimes, paradoxically, I don’t like having to hand off my child to someone else to get it. I want to have both – adult interaction and parental interaction. It’s the double pull of a parent, wanting to share both my life with my child and my life with my friends. But at this developmental stage, that just isn’t possible.
I long for the day when it will be possible. When we can have these two families over and our children will be able to play together and entertain themselves and we adults can sit around the table drinking wine and visiting as friends without anyone having to jump up to intervene or redirect (or, at least, not do it quite as often). That day will come, I know. In the meantime, I have to enjoy parallel parenting for what it is and let my friends know that I am glad they are the ones parenting parallel to us.