Big Events for Little Kids? Um, No

small kids prefer calm to festivals, parties, and fairs

When my firstborn was 10 months old I went to hear a speaker at the evening meeting of a local mother’s organization. Except for nursing babies, children weren’t allowed. Sleeping baby on my shoulder, I sat happily among other women who were going through the same experience that had changed my life so completely at the age of 22. I was acquainted with Le Leche meetings, but women here ramped up the game: hair done, make-up on, reasonably trendy clothes worn. I was wearing the equivalent of a sack, feet stuffed into pre-baby boots, hair an artless mess.

A business meeting was conducted before the speaker was introduced. These were serious women. They ran a tight group with weekly programs and seasonal parties for kids, plus monthly speakers, all made possible by active committees and subcommittees. At the close of the program, two welcoming committee members greeted me, extolling the virtues of the organization and inviting me to a kids’ party in the community rec center the next weekend. My son wasn’t remotely old enough to care but, easily pressured, I agreed to show up.

The party was held in one of those stark recreation center gyms. Even an overload of decorations didn’t make that cavernous space seem welcoming.  Large and surprisingly fancy games were set up. These weren’t rented games, they were constructed from plywood and artistically painted, surely the result of much parental labor. Costumed figures roamed at a slow pace. Their progress could be tracked by children’s horrified shrieks and mothers’ eager exclamations. Tiny children were strapped in strollers, slightly older children were expected to do things like stand between taped lines to throw a ball at a brightly painted hole or sit at a table where pre-cut shapes were meant to be glued onto paper. There was a lot of noise. I was more overwhelmed than my son by all these frantic attempts to manufacture fun. We escaped after a few minutes.

The next morning a committee chair called, sweetly informing me the group allowed attendance at two events before I was expected to join. Serving on a committee was a condition of membership. She outlined the group’s structure at length while her baby daughter screamed unrelentingly in the background. I awkwardly explained that membership wasn’t for me,  blaming it on my baby’s need for calm and structure. (Pretty much what most other babies in my acquaintance needed as well.)

I didn’t learn quickly. Over the next year or two I checked out a number of weekend events for families. I took my little one to fairs, children’s concerts, and open air arts programs. These were flustering events with more chaos than either one of us could tolerate, punctuated by the wails of tiny children who clearly preferred to toddle or run around rather than be strapped in for an afternoon of overstimulation. End-of-their-rope parents walked grimly by with balloons tied to strollers. I overheard one parent hiss between tightly stretched lips, “We’re here so you can have FUN.”

My little boy seemed smaller at these events, constrained and passive, while at home he was a mighty explorer and intrepid experimenter. Being stuck in a car seat, then a stroller, forced into the observer role —- this wasn’t the way he thrived.

I’ll readily admit my firstborn was an experimental child.  Trial and error proved many of my choices for him to be poorly considered, or, more often, far too over considered. (I have apologized to him, even thought he laughs it off as experimental offspring learn to do.) But thanks to those early experiences I spared his younger siblings crowded and contrived events meant to entertain children. The public events we did attend were quieter and more enticing for kids: a yearly peace fair with non-competitive games, an arts festival held at a junkyard, an outdoor international fair where one could wander along while watching music and dance, a nature area’s pioneer program with stations along the trails to teach traditional hands-on skills.

I’d venture to guess there are very few loud, overdone events that really appeal to the youngest kids. When we see this through our children’s eyes we see that exhausting ourselves in pursuit of purported fun isn’t fun at all. Rather than all the fuss getting there, the expense, the promises of merriment, and what always seems like a longer trip back I’m pretty sure kids are happier with an unexpected pleasure like using the garden hose to make mud pies or having mom bring home a big cardboard box to make into a fort or  filming some silly home movies with dad’s phone. Invite a kid friend over and it’s even more fun.

Meanwhile, adults can relax a bit. Read a book, sit in the sun, chat with a fellow adult, drink a glass of wine, or heck, make some mud pies too. This isn’t just slacker parenting at its best. It’s also a prescription for peace.

More thoughts on parenting groups:

Collaborate with others to create your own more relaxed parents’ group, meeting up for kid-friendly gatherings at nature areas,  playspaces, and back yards.

Find an existing group that meets your needs. If you are nursing a child, try your local Le Leche League chapter.  Consider joining the Holistic Moms Network, your local Mothers & More group, Mom’s Club, or check out Meetup.com for groups in your area.

Set up a playgroup that meets in a senior center or assisted living facility. Here’s how.