Last year our family managed to snatch up a Nintendo Wii, instantly adding dragon-slaying, light-sabering and guitar-shredding to our household's menu of entertainment options.
Or maybe the playset did it. We recently bought a play structure outfitted with a tire swing, a ball pit and a spinning contraption called the Rollicking Roundabout that generates enough G-force to turn a child's facial muscles into undulating putty.
Or maybe it's the snacks. While we try to limit between-meal feedings, the truth is we're pretty fast and loose with the juice boxes, power bars and veggie chips.
The fact is our house is now a veritable wonderland for the under-10 set. We've got an arcade, a playground and enough grab-and-go foodstuffs to fuel hour-upon-hour of freewheeling fun.
It should come as no surprise then, that we've become prime targets for a new maneuver in the increasingly complicated free-for-all of working families: the playdate dump, or as my wife and I have come to call it, the plump.
The plump starts with a phone call, usually in those weary late night hours after the kids are down and parents are faced with improvising a childcare plan around an unexpected business trip, a sick nanny or a yoga class. Might our kids enjoy some quality time with Tyler, Frankie or Isabelle? Might we welcome a playdate at 8 am, say, or if it's not too much trouble, 7?
All of which should be easy enough to coordinate. But inevitably it isn't, drop-off and pick-up times must be agreed upon, emergency phone numbers exchanged, activities planned.
Catering for the perfect playdate
One online parenting guide suggests a detailed pre-playdate discussion of birth order (only children tend to be "clingy") and differing approaches to conflict resolution. Parents, the guide suggests, would do well to follow a nine-point plan for Planning the Perfect Playdate, turning what should be an uncomplicated arrangement into a process akin to tax preparation.
Then there's the whole question of food, as the father of two boys with severe dairy allergies, I am not one to complain about parents dictating what their children eat while out of the house. But does that mean I must cheerfully cater to the kid who refuses to eat anything but kosher hot dogs and Fuji apple slices?
It's not that I dislike having a house filled with kids. I'm a work-at-home dad, so I naturally welcome any excuse to drop what I should be doing for a few hours of parental supervision, especially when that means demonstrating my truly awesome skills at Guitar Hero III.
The simpler days
I myself spent a great deal of my childhood raiding my friend's refrigerators, wearing out my friend's toys and, in one memorable episode, setting a neighbour's lawn on fire with a model rocket stuffed with firecrackers.
Of course it was all so much simpler then, back in the bygone days when playsets were found in parks, video games in arcades and a playdate meant riding your bike over to a neighbour's house while our dads were at work and mom was off watching Dick Cavett and drinking Chablis.
Play was something we kids did ourselves, no parental supervision or planning required.
Becoming the plumper
But for the harried, two-income family of today it's impossibly more complicated. A single week at our house typically includes the usual tangle of deadlines and meetings, plus after-school enrichment programs, piano and fencing classes, a teacher conference and the occasional field trip. Add an extra kid or two into the mix and the system overloads. The trouble isn't the play. It's the date.
Lately, though, I've come to embrace an ingenious solution to the inevitable conflicts in our increasingly hectic agenda. My eldest son has a friend with two video game consoles and a mind-boggling collection of Legos. My daughter has a classmate whose parents are even faster and looser with snacks than we are. My wife and I recently had plans to get away for the weekend. With a few strained late night phone calls, we managed to arrange two days of guilt-free (and, well, free) childcare.
I know the drill. That's right, I'm now a plumper.
Does your family do playdates? Do they help or hinder your life?