Three-year-old Maille Martin stood at the back of the church at her uncle's wedding, awaiting her grand entrance as flower girl. Her mom and dad had already walked down the aisle together, followed by two other pairs of bridesmaids and groomsmen.
Maille looked around and asked loudly, "Where's my boy to walk with?" Then she plopped herself down on a chair, refusing to budge.
Oops. No one had predicted that Maille would want a partner like everyone else. The bride nearly fell apart, but Maille's grandpa quickly stepped in and said, "Your boy to walk with is right here!" And off they went. Kids are unpredictable, and you never know what might happen when they're included in a big event -- whether they're playing a key role or just attending. "Your child might be dressed up like a miniature adult, but it's unrealistic to expect her to behave like one," says Rita Bigel-Casher, Ph.D., a therapist practicing in Manhattan and author of Bride's Guide to Emotional Survival (Prima, 1996). A 3-year-old may throw a tantrum at his cousin's high-school graduation, a 9-year-old may pout through his sister's bat mitzvah because she's getting all the attention, and a 4-year-old may shout out during a funeral, "What's in the big box?"
Just thinking about what your child might do is enough to make you want to leave him home with the baby-sitter. But the prospect of less-than-perfect behavior doesn't mean kids should be excluded. "It's wonderful for kids to attend events that bring together family and friends," notes Tim Murphy, Ph.D., a psychologist in Pittsburgh. "They get a sense that they're part of a network that reaches across miles and generations." And though kids under 5 may not appreciate the notion of family ties and shared bonds, most will enjoy getting dressed up and feeling like adults, as well as playing with cousins and other relatives.
So how can you ensure that the child you're about to show off to friends and family is in top form -- and not about to fall apart? By accepting your child's limits and planning ahead, you can avoid the triggers that lead to crankiness, meltdowns, and general bad behavior. Follow these tips to make formal events more kid-friendly.
As much of the contact as possible should come directly from your child rather than be filtered through you. Preschoolers, for example, love to work with their hands because their dexterity is improving. They are also developing vivid imaginations. They can make artwork for relatives or sing special songs that can be captured on videotape.
Communication, of course, must flow both ways, and relatives should be encouraged to send audiotapes with photos or video greetings. The holidays are an especially good time to explain family traditions. "Children this age love to hear tales about when they were little and when you were little," Dr. Kirby says. "They especially love to hear silly stories." Regular contact is the key on both sides, because this helps the child mature in relatives' eyes. "Children can be insulted if you don't keep up with their development," Dr. Myers-Walls says. Staying in close touch ensures that Aunt Mary doesn't come bearing Teletubbies if your daughter has already moved on to Barbie.
The best way for a 3- or 4-year-old to forge ties with a relative is to spend time together. When family members are in each other's physical presence, the connection is much stronger because they are responding to immediate needs. Make sure your child and his relative have something fun to do when they get together.
Though you may bemoan the idea of your preschooler's raking in even more presents at holiday or birthday time, Dr. Myers-Walls says gift giving is a good way to foster family closeness. "Seeing the circle of family gift giving can help kids mentally lay out the family tree," she says. Preschoolers should give gifts -- preferably handmade.
It's up to you to help your child figure out who's who in his family tree. One way of doing this is by compiling your family history. It can be as basic as a photo album of up-to-date pictures of your child's aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins or as elaborate as a scrapbook containing brief biographies, favorite recipes, maps that show where ancestors came from, and photos of relatives at various stages of their lives.
Get your preschooler involved in creating this scrapbook by having her ask relatives to send pictures or memorabilia along with an explanation of their significance. Then you and your child can put the pieces into a special collection together.
Special occasions usually involve formal ceremonies, adult-oriented conversations, and lots of waiting around, all of which can bore kids to tears (or tantrums). Even children beyond the meltdown stage may act up when they're bored and have nothing to do. To keep toddlers and preschoolers busy, take along board books, crayons, and paper; for older kids, bring books, drawing materials, mazes, and dot-to-dot games, a deck of cards, even a disposable camera.
If you or a close family member is planning the party, consider setting up a separate room stocked with kiddie foods, games, and toys where children can take a break from all the grown-up activities (supervised, of course).
Another way to prevent older children from getting bored is to give them a job, like passing hors d'oeuvres or taking coats. Suzette Mako, of Philadelphia, kept her 5-year-old son, Gordon, very busy at their annual Christmas open house. He was responsible for watching his younger brother, Connor, answering the door, and playing host to the other children. "Not only did he have a great time, he was a big help," recalls Mako.
Even if you're not the host, consider asking close friends and relatives to put your child to work so that he feels like part of the event rather than just another guest.
If a child knows what to expect, he'll be less stressed and more cooperative, suggests Bigel-Casher. For example, to prepare for a wedding, you could say, "We'll get dressed up in our best clothes, then go to church. We'll sit and watch the priest talk to the bride and groom for about half an hour, then go to a hotel for lunch, then dancing."
Try to give children a sense of the occasion's significance: "When Uncle John and Kate get married, they are promising to love each other for their whole lives. It's a big promise, so everyone will be very serious. But it's also a happy time, which is why there will be a big party afterward."
There's nothing like unfamiliar, uncomfortable clothes to rub a kid the wrong way. Brinda Gore, an event planner in Columbus, Ohio, recommends letting your child try on the dress clothes a week before the big day and then again a few days later, to get used to them. An early dress rehearsal also gives you a chance to spot problems (an itchy shirt, tight shoes) in time to make substitutions.
If your child insists on wearing something unacceptable, such as jeans instead of navy wool trousers, keep the peace with a compromise. "After two hours, let kids change into the outfit or accessories they want to wear," says Mansfield. Alert the photographer to the wardrobe change in advance so he can document your child in the fancy duds.
Provide a snack or quick meal at home so that your child's not sitting through a long ceremony on an empty stomach. If he's a picky eater, bring foods that you know he'll eat to the reception, rather than expecting him to fill up on asparagus spears or shrimp cocktail.
If the occasion involves a sit-down lunch or dinner, it's a good idea to review a few etiquette basics at home, such as putting the napkin in your lap and chewing with your mouth closed. But skip instructions at the event itself. You'll embarrass your child and may make him even more stressed-out.
A horde of adoring relatives can overwhelm even the most gregarious child, but a little prepping will make introductions go more smoothly. Discuss friends and relatives who will be attending so they'll feel more familiar: "You haven't seen Uncle Bill in a while. Remember when he visited last summer? Here's a picture of him pushing you in the swing."
If your child tends to avoid hugs and kisses, Dr. Murphy recommends teaching her to shake hands, which will discourage people from getting too close. If your child is shy, arrive early so she isn't faced with a room full of people at once.
Coaxing your child to sit still and smile for the camera can be a challenge in the best of circumstances, but if she adamantly refuses, ask the photographer to take her picture separately, later, or catch her in a candid shot when she's in a better mood.
In the end, no matter how carefully you prepare, there are bound to be some minor disasters. Keep your sense of humor. The 4-year-old who wears his Spider-Man costume underneath his suit -- and then removes his shirt and blazer -- and the 6-year-old ring bearer who repeatedly drops the wedding band will someday be the subject of a great family story. Just be sure to get it on tape.
Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the June 1999 issue of Parents magazine.