'Not comfortable': Half of parents are refusing play dates over safety concerns

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Almost half of parents have declined a play date offer because they didn't feel comfortable leaving their child in the care of another parent.

That's just one of the key findings from a new survey conducted by C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, which also highlighted that only 44 per cent of parents ask about safety issues before sending their kids to another person's home.

As part of the poll, researchers surveyed 881 parents who had at least one child aged four to nine years, about their approach to play date invitations.

When asked what they'd do if they received an invite from a parent they didn't know well:

  • 22 per cent said they'd let them attend the play date alone
  • 43 per cent said they'd stay with their child
  • 22 per cent would decline the invitation
  • 12 per cent were unsure

Parents cited a number of factors that influenced their decisions, including their child being shy around strangers (17 per cent), being scared of certain pets (11 per cent), having food allergies (eight per cent) or a health condition (six per cent).

While most parents reported that they would try to meet the other parents before a play date, some admitted to doing a little extra detective work by asking other friends, looking at social media and sussing out the local neighbourhood.

Over a quarter (30 per cent) said they searched sex-offender registries or criminal records while 21 per cent asked a teacher or other school staff about their play date host.

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Concerns around appropriate supervision on play dates topped the list for parents, followed by kids being exposed to bad language, getting into medications or other harmful substances, being injured and eating food they don't want their kids to eat.

Despite their concerns however, only one in four parents said they asked about safety issues prior to a play date. But while it might seem like an awkward conversation to have - it needn't be. In fact, 73 per cent said they would not be offended if asked similar questions by another parent.

"Play dates allow children to develop independence, gain experience interacting with other children in an unstructured setting, and have fun with a friend," the report authors write, adding that sending a child on a play date can also give parents a break for a few hours. That said, the authors note that parents still have a responsibility to ensure that their child will be safe and appropriately supervised during the play date.

So how can caregivers be more proactive?

"Parents may find it helpful to have a plan for pre-playdate conversation with the host parents," the authors write, adding that it might be helpful to have a checklist. "Some children have special challenges that should prompt parents to be especially proactive about play date arrangements," they note.

"Parents of children with food allergies should provide that information in advance, so the host family can avoid those ingredients when purchasing or preparing snacks for the play date. Parents should also communicate in advance if their child is fearful of certain types of pets, and help the host family identify strategies that will help the child feel safe and comfortable."

Reflecting on the findings, Mott pediatrician Dr Jill Noble says children should also be prepared ahead of a play date. This includes going over body, water and street safety as well as knowing what to do if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. 

"One of the most critical steps to take before a play date is to talk to your child," Dr Noble says. "We should be teaching our kids what to do in these types of situations anytime anywhere."

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest parents ask these questions before a play date:

  • Who will be watching the children?

As well as checking who will be watching the kids, this involves asking whether older siblings, other adults or relatives will be present - particularly if it's a sleep over.

  • Do you have a swimming pool, trampoline, or any other things that are potentially unsafe?

If swimming is planned, check who will be supervising the kids. "Whenever children under age 5 are in or around water, an adult―preferably one who knows how to swim and perform CPR―should be within arm's length, providing "touch supervision,' the AAP notes.

  •  What are your rules about screen media use?

Different families can have different rules about the types of movies and video games they're allowed to watch and play. " If you don't want your child to watch movies that are rated higher than PG, let the other parent know. You can explain you don't think your child is ready for more mature content yet," the AAP notes.

  • What pets are in the house?

"If the family has a pet, ask if it's friendly," the AAP says. "Let the parent know if your child is nervous or scared around animals. More than any other age group, children are the most frequent victims of animal bites. It's ok if the conversation feels a little awkward. The other parent is likely to be glad you asked―and you can volunteer the same information about your home for the next time the kids get together."