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'90s FAMILY : COMMENTARY : Kiddie Politics : What to do when junior lacks a social circle? Make 'play dates.' But moms have to follow protocol--or face being stood up.

August 10, 1994|JOYCE SUNILA / SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marriage and motherhood used to signal the end of dating. Today, a woman has kids and embarks on the most intense dating of her life: "play dating."

This is a time painstakingly arranged by mothers days ahead for children to frolic together in the safety of one another's houses.

Our mothers didn't need to operate this way. They opened the front door and we shot out into the street to play with whoever was around. Hours later, around twilight, Mom opened the front door again and yelled at us to come in.

That was it.

In the interim she could have played gin rummy with the neighbors and knocked back a couple of scotches. No one would have been the wiser.

On the street we made friends, made enemies, ganged up on kids and were ganged up on. Called "the socialization process," this experience laid the groundwork for our futures as social animals.

But today's mom stands by while children rampage through her home, unraveling her attempts to keep order. She is charged with umpiring fights. All day she dispenses politically correct advice about fairness and sharing. This prevents children from discovering their roles in life's inevitable pecking order.

But that isn't the really horrendous part of the play date.

The really horrendous part is the politics that some mothers play.

It begins when a mother who lives in a child-impoverished neighborhood with a bored, lonely kid picks up the phone to solicit companionship for him or her. This is the signal for the solicitee mother--whose child, of course, has no shortage of playmates and who loves power trips--to play hard to get. So she gives the impression that her offspring has the cachet and social currency of Princess Di's children, if not Princess Di herself.

"Hi, uh, Patsy. Do you think Jack might want to come over and play with Stevie on Wednesday?"

"Jack's going on an audition for a commercial on Wednesday. So sorry."

A commercial? Next.

"Hi, Bonnie. What if Kenny and Stevie get together on Wednesday?"

"Kenny's got Cub Scouts then."

Cub Scouts.

"Hi, Lauren. Is Oliver doing anything on Wednesday . . ? "

Half an hour in this boiler room and many mothers give up. Their kids watch a lot of television. But moms made of sterner stuff persist until they make a sale.

On the much-anticipated play day, drop-off moms have been known to offer dire warnings--"Now, remember, Floyd can't eat any sugar ," or "If Mikey's allergies act up be sure to call my beeper"--just to keep the host mom from getting overconfident.

Two or three hours later (during which the guest has asked for food 40 times, demanded better toys and insisted that he can't use a left-handed flusher), Mom arrives looking tanned and rested to pick up her kid.

Arranging play dates ranks about third on the list of stress-inducing life events, right after "death of spouse" and "oral surgery." It has proven so stressful that a panel of top psychologists has declared mothers whose children require frequent play dates an at-risk group.

Their symptoms cut across class lines. In therapy they turn up long-forgotten memories of being passed over for team sports; they change their mouthwash often; they harbor irrational fears of having attended the wrong college.

The syndrome is so widespread it has spawned a new book, "Mothers Who Try Too Hard to Get Play Dates and the Mothers Who Laugh Up Their Sleeves at Them."

The book argues that sufferers of play-date phobia must hit bottom before they are treatable. To achieve this, the authors suggest mothers subject themselves to the two most humiliating features of play dating:

1) Observing how many children leave school or another pick-up location in pairs, particularly those whose mothers never reciprocated one's own play dates.

2) The dreaded cancellation.

If either of these result in an out-of-body experience, the condition has reached the critical stage.

The authors offer a play-date hot line. Operators are standing by.

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