My Friends Want to Do Playdates, but I’m Not There Yet. How Do I Say No without Coming Off Judgy?

socially distanced playdate etiquette cat

“First, there was COVID. Then, there was quarantine. But now that stay-at-home orders are lifting and things like playgrounds are opening up, I have a number of friends that are much more open—if not totally on board—with playdates, socially distanced or not. What's the best way to express that I'm not there yet without sounding judgy about their own choices? I can make up a fake excuse once, but not every time. Help!”

This is such a common (and excellent) question right now, as all of us are struggling to deal not just with the physical realities of COVID, but the psychological and social ones as well. That said, I’ve got a name for what we’re dealing with in these uncertain times: It’s called ‘COVID polite.’

It might help to frame this in terms of something familiar. Take roller coasters, for example. For some families it’s a no-brainer—they’re super fun and there's no reason not to go on them! For other families it’s just as easy—they’re super dangerous and X number of people die on them per year, which means there’s zero reason to take that risk. Most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Deciding your kids can’t go on the big rides doesn’t mean you're judging other families, it just means you’ve decided this is the best choice for yours.

Roller coasters aren't new, though, so we have lots of examples of how to let other parents know our decision. We might make a joke in the moment as we take our kids to a different ride. We might decide not to go to the park at all or stay out of the area that has the big rides. With COVID, though, we don't have any previous experience to draw on, not from our parents or friends or even books and movies. No one has done this before.

So, here’s the best way to proceed. When a friend approaches you with a playdate invite, first take a breath and acknowledge the beauty of them asking. They value you and/or your kiddo so much they’re willing to make that leap (and it is a leap in this strange new world!). Next, be up front with them about your concerns and struggles. It might be something as simple as, ‘I am so glad you asked! I’ve really been thinking about this lately, and we’re just not quite there for the in-person option, but how about ___?’ Decide now what you are comfortable with, whether it’s video-chat only, socially distanced in a yard or empty park, or on the other side of a window. Offer them an alternative so they know your interest in maintaining the relationship is true.

A good friend won’t try to shame you or push you into something you don’t feel safe doing and will likely appreciate your honesty about where you are—just as you aren’t judging them for doing what’s best for their family. And while there may be a discussion about how each of you made your decisions, remember it is your decision to make. Like any other boundary pertaining to your family's safety, you can hold it gently yet firmly.

And if things get awkward? Acknowledge the weirdness of this moment. Maybe turn the conversation to other areas of life that have been weird lately (hello, there are a lot) and share specifics about how crazy life feels right now. It seems, unfortunately, that this virus is here to stay for a while, and with it a lot of our usual rules of society are changing to meet it. But as a ‘COVID-polite’ pioneer, this is your chance to shape those rules.

Kristene Geering is Content Director and Parent Coach at Parent Lab.