Status anxiety has a new face. While the quest for status used to be confined to buying the latest Lexus that you can’t afford because your neighbours also have one that they can’t afford, keeping up with the Jones now extends to children.
In Manhattan, for example, some preschoolers of the rich and gullible are tutored in Mandarin and violin in the hopes that they will be accepted into prestigious kindergartens.
But there’s nothing like fixing a problem that you’ve created with an even bigger screw-up. It turns out that because little Jocasta and Tarquin have been sculpted since birth to excel at everything —except possibly being their authentic selves — they don’t know how to play.
Unfortunately, spontaneity and playing well with others is part of the selection criteria for four-year-olds to gain entry into the elite private schools their mummies and daddies have chosen for them.
Rather than taking this as a sign that perhaps over-scheduling and hothousing toddlers is a bad idea, parents are paying $400 an hour for playdate experts to tutor their kids in how to play.
The ‘experts’ monitor the children’s play behaviours, including how they share, follow directions and hold a pencil. The level of surveillance even gets down to how they colour.
‘Some kids need a little bit more work [at learning how to play]’, Suzanne Rheault, the CEO of Aristotle Circle, one of the firms that organise playdates told the New York Post.
According to writer Wednesday Martin, author of Primates of Park Avenue, ‘These children have five classes a week but they don't know the simplest thing — how to be at ease and play spontaneously with a child’.
I don’t profess to be an expert in playdates — although at $400 a pop I’m considering reading up on them — but even I can see a few problems with the attempt to instil spontaneity in children by structured play.
For starters, the whole idea is a complete oxymoron.
If you have to train people to be spontaneous, then it's not spontaneous, people!
And there is something horribly anti-social about paying for playdates. It pollutes the organic social connections that form between children, transforming play into a vile commercial and instrumental enterprise.
Of course, there’s always a degree of monitoring that goes on with playdates. We want our children to be on their best behaviour and develop the skills and emotional intelligence to get along with others.
But the idea of supposed experts monitoring and tutoring children on basic play skills is denying children their childhood. It’s robbing them of the opportunity to create, imagine, and evolve into the person they want to be. Instead they are being squashed into a suffocatingly homogenous and joyless success criteria.
While playdate lessons are an extreme example, it’s consistent with a wider phenomenon in which parents are seen as incompetent and incapable of accomplishing the most basic of tasks. Feeling insecure and unsure of our parenting abilities, we defer to ‘experts’ to intervene and advise us on how to raise our kids.
It would be easy to dismiss paid playdates as just madness from the land of Real Housewives and Gossip Girl. But, perhaps this is a cautionary tale rather than a punch line.
In my own neighbourhood I know of preps who have tutors and primary school kids who do a full day at school and then come home and study a second curriculum for the Baccalaureate. Kinder mums in middle-class suburbs surreptitiously gather intelligence on which kids can read and count and then use it as a measure of their worth as parents.
We would do better to just let our kids be kids and give ourselves, as parents, a break. Surely our job is to love our kids and let them unfurl in their own time in their own way. They may not be bi-lingual violin soloists by the time they start school, but they may still experience the wonder and joy of childhood.
Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child.