For the last couple of months (at least), our kids have been begging for playdates with their school chums. Often we would come to pick them up at school only to be told, for example, “Hedda said that I can come to her house and play after school. Is that OK?” and Hedda is standing right there beside her nodding her head, fully expecting to bring our child home with her, while we wonder what we are supposed to do next.
In our experience in the U.S. playdates tend to require a somewhat formal invitation that is mediated by the parents (unless, of course, the playdate is the neighborhood-based kind in which kids go knocking on their friend’s door to ask them to come out to play). On top of that, you wouldn’t generally allow your kid to go hang at someone’s house if you a: haven’t met the parents and ascertained the “safety” of the setting, and b. don’t know where they live.
Our understanding of how such things worked was proving problematic here in Sweden. First, we know few other parents and had no way to meet them or find out where they lived. In Sweden parents do not linger at drop off (if they are there at all) and pick-up happens anytime between 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. There is really no way to meet the parents at school. We had no idea how to coordinate a playdate with complete strangers. In one case we had met the other parents, but they immigrated to Sweden fairly recently, they speak only slightly more Swedish than us and they don’t speak English at all. Since we don’t really speak Swedish much less Arabic (their home language) communication is additionally strained.
At first we tried a lot of different strategies that were consistent with our preferences and ideas about how it works. We wrote our phone numbers down for the kids to give to their friends so those friends who were doing the inviting could call us to set up a day. Not only was that approach unproductive, people just looked at us like we were from Mars. We suggested meeting at playgrounds or downtown for fika. They didn’t work either. Finally, we started asking around – talking to the teachers and our friends here to find out how kids got together. Here is what we learned:
It turns out that playdates are child led and the parents just do what they can to make them happen. So, if you arrive at school and your child says they are going home with someone or that they want to bring a friend home, you are supposed to call the parent right then (it turns out that in the city’s database where they keep information on our extracurriculars, SFI participation, school enrollment, etc, we can access the list of students in our children’s classes and get their phone numbers. The teachers will also give you the number) and tell them so. Unlike in the States where only pre-approved individuals can pick up a child, you need only tell the school staff that the friend is coming home with you and it is a done deal. It seems to be customary for afternoon playdates to stay for dinner. There seem to be no concerns about vetting the friend’s family, living situation or neighborhood prior to the playdate.
We have now had 3 successful playdates and another scheduled. We do this by balancing the spontaneity and casualness of the Swedish approach with our more American, paranoid-helicopter-parenting style. We attempt to have the first playdate at our place. That way we get a sense of the kid and we get to meet and chat with their parent when they come to get them. When they have playdates at the other kids’ houses (especially if it is a first encounter with unknown parents), we feign some needs that require we drop the kids off at the playdate. That way we get to actually find out where they live and meet the parents before leaving the kids with them for an afternoon and dinner.
The intercultural work required for the most mundane things is truly amazing!