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How to Take Your Toddler on Grown-Up Outings


When a former college professor invited Stacey Greenberg, 34, and her husband to an alumni party at her house and suggested they bring their young children, Greenberg hesitated. “Her rooms are filled with handmade artifacts—it’s not a kid-friendly house,” recalls the Memphis, Tennessee, mother. “But we brought them, and it was a comedy of errors.” Greenberg’s two-year-old kept running up and down the stairs. Then, her four-year-old started playing with a folk-art bird and dropped it. “It fell into a million pieces. The whole thing was so stressful, we just left. I felt like I had failed.” 

Fear of embarrassment can make parents nervous about letting their kids join them on their grown-up outings. After all, who doesn’t remember, pre-child, looking askance at that harried mom in the museum who couldn’t control her kids? The anxiety can ricochet: “Kids react to your stress, and your stress level raises theirs, and they get cranky and irritable,” explains psychologist Dr. Darlene Link, a mother of two who works with children and families in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

“As parents, we worry too much about what other people think,” says Trintje Gnazzo, 34, a Winchester, Massachusetts mother who, with her husband, includes her toddler and preschooler on many of her outings. “The less I worry about it, the more fun we all have together. Yes, there’s some planning involved. But what’s important to remember is that it’s an experience with your children. The more you can keep them involved, the more successful those trips are.” 

Involving children in your world helps them to feel part of something exciting and new. It’s a privilege, and as such, it makes them important. And, with the holidays coming up, it’s a great way for the family to share some of the best of what the season has to offer—a concert, a special museum show, a nice dinner out, festivities at a friend’s.

Even babies and toddlers can get a lot out of trips that aren’t tagged “family-friendly,” says Stefanie Powers, a child-development specialist at the Washington D.C. nonprofit center Zero to Three. “They absorb new environments through all of their senses,” Powers explains. “As children get older, you can talk with them about those experiences.” Start them young, she adds, and by the time they’re preschoolers, they’ll feel comfortable in a variety of grown-up settings. But, cautions Powers, if you want everyone to have a good time, you must have reasonable expectations, be flexible, and plan ahead.

1. Dining out: A recipe for success

We’ve all witnessed the kid-let-loose-in-the-restaurant scene: The child is running up and down between the tables while her parents, studiously ignoring the glares aimed at them, soldier on with their meal. The fact is, kids can get a kick out of acting grown-up in nice places—they just need a little help. Cathy White, 37, and her husband have been taking their three-year-old out to restaurant since she was little, often with adult friends. “She gets the same out of the restaurant experience as we do—she likes to eat her favorite foods and do some people watching,” says the El Dorado, California mom. Sure, there have been some close calls, like the time when White’s visiting in-laws insisted that they all go out for a fancy brunch. “All the red flags were there: the wine glasses on the table, the pristine white linen tablecloths, and not one other kid in the place,” White recalls. What saved them is her daughter’s “restaurant survival kit”—a pencil box that White has filled with non-messy art supplies and stickers, and that’s reserved for these outings. “It's fresh to her, so it keeps her immersed while we wait for our food, and then we all eat together.” 

Why try it For foodie parents, the answer to the question of why bother is a no-brainer. Stacey Greenberg, who chronicles her family’s experiences trying out new restaurants in her blog Dining With Monkeys, clearly is thrilled to share her love for good food and interesting cuisines with her four-year-old son (her two-year-old is still working on his palette). A more gastronomically challenged child will still enjoy the excitement of going out and seeing new things. In fact, Powers says, what makes a restaurant outing so interesting to kids is each establishment’s unique décor, aromas, and ambience. 

How to pull it off

First, chose your restaurant: “In order for it to be fun for everyone, you have to feel welcome,” explains Sarah Andrews, a nursery-school teacher who moonlights as a waitress at the upscale Diner in Brooklyn, New York. If you’re unsure, call ahead and ask, or seek out restaurants that have a fairly high noise level, such as sports pubs. According to Andrews, the best time to bring kids is in the early evening when it’s not crowded and the clientele is unlikely to include couples on romantic dates. If you don’t see anything on the menu that your kid likes, ask: When they’re not busy, most kitchens will accommodate special requests for modified or unlisted items—even French fries. 

But the key, says Greenberg, is to remember that this outing is for everyone, not just the adults: Interact with your child, point out interesting things in the restaurant and talk about what you’re going to eat. Boredom makes it hard for kids to sit at the table and the sense of being ignored leads them to whine, shout and, sooner or later, throw a tantrum. 

Possible saboteurs

“Dining out is a sedentary experience, so it can be a challenge for a toddler who wants to practice his exciting new motor skills,” warns child-development expert Powers. Request a table that has space for your child to walk around. Even preschoolers might need to stretch their legs outside, especially while you’re waiting for your food to arrive. 

Andrews has watched her share of mealtime meltdowns, and reports that the dead time between ordering and the food materializing is critical (a good reason to pick restaurants with fast service). “The most important thing is to pack something for kids to do while they’re waiting,” she says, since the crayons that many restaurants supply cease to be exciting after a couple of trips. On being seated, ask your waitperson to bring something small that the kitchen can prepare quickly. White says that when necessary, she requests ice cream. “It comes out fast and it’s special.”

2. Shop without dropping

Most mothers see meltdowns in the cookie aisle as a fact of life. But clothes shopping for yourself? While you can accept the idea that your child might have to suffer a little for the sake of the family meal, his misery and your wardrobe feel like a less comfortable fit. Darlene Link acknowledges that shopping with a toddler can be tough. “When I’m with my 20-month-old, I ask myself, ‘What would it be like if my husband made me shop for fishing stuff with him?’ I go in knowing what I’m looking for and I do it quickly.” But her four-year-old daughter loves being her shopping companion. “She enjoys helping me pick out clothes to try. I bring her in the dressing room and ask her advice,” Link says. “She likes to try on the clothes too, even though they’re ten sizes too large. My first instinct was, get me out of here! But you have to make the time, because this is what makes it fun for a kid.”

Why try it

Some children love interacting with adults. A shopping spree can be a fun way for them to exercise their budding social skills, says Powers. Adrienne Marofsky, 29, a mom from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reports that her very social ten-month-old sees a trip to Target or Macy’s as a chance to flirt with strangers. “He gets more attention paid to him than usual in these places, because they’re not used to seeing kids there,” she says. She helps him make friends by pointing the stroller outward while she’s looking through the racks. 

Less gregarious children can get a lot out of this type of outing too. Preschool girls like her own daughter, Link notes, love to be a grown up with Mommy. And from age three, kids are starting to learn about money. “My daughter’s learning what ‘on sale’ means, what ‘cheap’ means. It keeps her brain turning.”
How to pull it off Timing is of the essence. “I plan to go right after nap time,” Marofsky says. “My baby gets up, I give him a bottle, and we pack up and go. That way he’s refreshed and we can both enjoy the trip. He’s usually good for two hours.” Children who’ve outgrown naps might best handle the expedition right after breakfast; stores are less crowded, and fitting room and register lines are shortest on weekday mornings between 10am and 1pm, according to Jennifer Brown, manager of Macy’s By Appointment at Macy’s West. 

If you’re shopping with a stroller, look for stores with large dressing rooms, Marofsky advises. “I bring the stroller in with me and park it facing the mirror, so the baby can entertain himself in front of it.” Powers recommends bringing a small toy for your child to hold, so she’ll be less tempted to pull things off shelves.
Shopping can be exhausting for a young child. Remember that one of your footsteps equals eight of your young kid’s: If a stroller is still an option, use it. And before you set off, research kid-friendly lunch spots near the store where you can refresh yourselves mid-expedition or offer your child a snack before heading home; the promise of an end-of-trip treat can keep a cranky kid going for another 15 minutes while you make your purchases. 

By the time children reach age three or four, they can look at cause and effect. At this point, Link notes, you can gain time by promising something they’ll enjoy: Once Mommy finds the skirt, we’ll look for a Hello Kitty store. “It’s a lesson in patience and how things work. I help mommy with this now, she’ll help me do what I want later.”

Possible saboteurs

The type of attention that one child loves can make a shy kid anxious, so parents need to know their own children’s boundaries, Powers says. Respect your kid’s choice not to respond to the woman who’s trying to start up a conversation.

3. Concerts 

Susan Jackson thought it would be a great idea to introduce her three-year-old to classical music by taking him to a show of one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s colorful, humorous light operas. Arriving with her husband and son shortly before the performance began, Jackson, 42 and a New York City mother, found their seats and helped her son to settle in just before the lights dimmed—upon which the little boy immediately started wailing. Startled by the sudden darkness, he was unable to recover, and the family had to leave. 

Why try it Jackson’s son didn’t make it through the first two minutes of the G&S concert, but in the year since then he has become a fan of classical music and, at age four, has enjoyed his first concert, a low-key event at a local YMCA. In fact, he’s now set on learning the cello.

“There’s no comparison between CDs and live music—live is exciting,” says Bonnie Simon, co-producer of the Magic Maestro “Stories and Songs” series and a longtime music educator who helped create the Kennedy Center’s legendary children’s concerts. “The child with a good musical sense will hear sounds they want to make themselves and they will see instruments they are interested in. And if it’s a great concert, a child will be touched to the very depth of their soul.”

How to pull it off

Ask yourself, How easily can we leave when my child has had enough? If you can do it cheerfully and easily, you can try almost anything, says Simon. Avoid concert hall performances for kids under age six (although during the holidays, the programs tend to be more family-friendly); instead, try a more low-key event—say a town-hall band or church concert (make sure to bring a fat cushion so your child can see). Trintje Gnazzo brings her toddler and preschooler to semi-professional performances at local ballet centers, high schools and the like. “Ticket prices are lower, and they tend to be more relaxed events.” Don’t feel that you must stay for the entire program, says Simon. “If you see half the show and have a wonderful time, it’s money well spent.” In warm weather, outdoor concerts where kids can gaze at the stars or run around are perfect. Ballet, which is kinetic and colorful, is a good first choice for the very young. 

Prepare your kid

Children love to have specialized knowledge, so use the Internet or a book to introduce the instruments. Most important, Simon says, is to find a recording of the music and listen to it at home. “When your child hears it again, it will be like meeting an old friend, rather than going to a place where he doesn’t know anyone.” And don’t forget to teach concert-hall manners. Simon’s two big lessons: People on stage can actually see everyone in the hall; and making noise during a concert is like painting on someone else’s picture. 

When it comes to seating, a child’s best view is not necessarily the same as an adult’s, according to Jim Joseph, Director of Front of House Operations at New York’s premiere performance venue for children, the New Victory Theater. Kids feel detached from the action when they sit far back in the auditorium, especially when there’s a steep rake. And when they sit up front, the height of the stage might block their view.” Aisle seats offer a quick escape, but these tickets are in high demand. If you haven’t reserved in time, says Joseph, ask to speak with the house manager when you arrive at the theater— if there’s a chance they can move your seat, they will. 

Possible saboteurs

Confirming Jackson’s experience, Joseph says the main cause of tears among very young audience members is fear of the dark. Arrive early enough to let a child grow accustomed to the space, and warn her before the lights dim—or wait until she’s a little older. (Not every theater event has a blackout; call the theater box office in advance and ask.) And remember, a meal or snack, plus a trip to the bathroom prior to the performance, will save you from having to disturb the neighbors.

4. Party animals

Especially if you’re among the first in your group to become a parent, you probably find that children are the last thing on the minds of friends who invite you to their parties. “Those friends are in another world,” says Link. “They might not want to have children around.” So, even if your host has agreed to you bringing your child, it’s case-by-case decision. 

Jenny Coniff’s five-year-old son has grown-up going to parties, but if he’s had a bad day or is tired, his mother cancels. “If I’m going to take him, it’s realistic to expect him to handle the situation,” Coniff, 41, of Clinton, Connecticut says. “The feeling that he’s a part of the event makes him feel grown up.” Coniff reinforces that feeling and prepares her son to be a good guest by rehearsing him for each party: They talk about what type of event it will be, who will be there and what’s expected of him, and her son packs a small bag of toys. “I like to be prepapred. If I’m comfortable, he’s comfortable.”

Why try it “Know your kid and know your party,” cautions Link. “If you’re going to be running after your two-year-old because the place is full of breakables, what’s the point in being there?” Still, the right kid at the right party gets a rare view of his parents having fun among friends. 

Link says that if you help ease them in, even shy kids like her four-year-old daughter can enjoy interacting with adults at a party, and the experience strengthens their tolerance for social situations. “I’ll tell people, ‘She’s a little bit shy, she just needs some time.’ Once she’s comfortable, she loves it.”

How to pull it off

Debi Lilly, a mother of two young children and the CEO of Chicago’s A Perfect Event, has both planned and attended parties with kids on the guest list. “Always check that your child is invited,” she warns, “and don’t expect your host to have anything for her. Make up a small bag of little penny toys and penny candies–tchotchkes that are special and distracting, and that you can find at any drugstore—along with some fun little snacks. And bring your child’s favorite movie.” Gnazzo recommends bringing a Pack and Play for tiny kids.

According to Lilly, parents often forget to make their children feel comfortable on arrival by introducing them to everyone and helping to get some conversations started. Doing so is not only good manners—it also helps a child feel part of the event.

If you’re not sure how your child will handle a party, you might try throwing one at your house first. Both you and your child can get your feet wet—and if all goes well, your guests will see how painless it is. With luck, they’ll reciprocate.

Possible saboteurs

The number one mistake people make when they take their kids to parties is not leaving when they should. Your window of opportunity might be tiny. Be ready to say goodbye as soon as your child gives the first signs of having had enough. “I’ve seen people sneak out of parties because their kids are losing it,” says Lilly. “You want to leave in time so your child can say goodbye and thank the hosts. It warms his participation in the party and teaches lifetime skills.”

5. Art museums

Parents are often intimidated by art museums; kids aren’t. Becky Senf, 34, a PhD. candidate in art history at Boston University, has been taking her son to the Boston Art Institute since he was born 15 months ago. “As he’s gotten older, he’s grown more interested in looking at the art,” she says. Now the toddler is a regular visitor. He points to what he likes, and his mother lets him direct the tour.

Why try it Children of all ages enjoy art museums: Like most babies, Senf’s son started out by drinking in the works’ colors and shapes; now Senf approaches the paintings like illustrations in children’s books and looks for things in the images that her son is familiar with, such as boats—toddlers and preschoolers love playing I-Spy with works of art, and through the activity they develop visual and verbal skills, as well as becoming comfortable with the museum environment—a comfort level that might translate into a lifelong museumgoing habit. 

Most of all, museum outings can enrich your relationship with your child. Metropolitan Museum of Art educator Mike Norris explains: “Imagine you’ve been beamed into a marketplace in ancient Egypt and have lost the guidebook. Look around and ask yourselves what you like. You and your child can learn about each other’s likes and dislikes, and get to know each other in different ways while you’re exploring a new place.”

How to pull it off

When choosing which galleries to explore, Norris says, remember that the younger the child, the more she’ll be interested in three-dimensional art, like sculptures and objects. “Families also tend to enjoy our modern art galleries,” he adds, “because kids are encountering some of the same questions in their own art”—for example, what happens when you make trees purple?

Children like tactile experiences, but you can’t touch paintings. So Natasha Schlesinger, a mother of two whose Art Muse company offers NYC families museum tours, brings objects for the kids to handle—a palette and brush, or a piece of metal they can touch while they’re looking at steel sculptures. She also brings a sketch pad and pencils, and, because kids love looking at brushstrokes up close, a magnifying glass.

Large museums can be overwhelming. To get the most out of a quick trip, go online first to view the collections and figure out what area of the museum you want to explore. Or, if you want to start small, try a trip to an art gallery. Serena Makofsky, 39, takes her five-year-old to the funkier galleries in her Portland, Oregon neighborhood and finds that he’s drawn to the art’s Pop imagery and graffiti influences. If there’s a gallery opening, all the better—along with the art, you get to see colorful fashions and wild hairstyles, and to take in the party atmosphere.

Possible saboteurs

Watch out for fatigue, cautions Norris. Depending on the age of your child, figure on leaving after 30 minutes to an hour—before the meltdown. If you really want to stay a little longer, take a break in an outdoor sculpture gardens, the café, or the gift shop (let your kid buy an art postcard and then go look for the work).

A museum trip can easily feel like a chore to a child. Let him be the tour guide. Don’t make him look at work that doesn’t interest him (although with older kids it’s okay to trade—ten minutes of armor for you, ten minutes of Impressionism for me), don’t insist on reading the wall texts and do prepare him to be a competent museumgoer. “Before we go in,” Makofsky reports, “we practice how to look at art without loving it too much—the hands behind the back stance.

Graceful exits

Fatigue catches up with kids suddenly—especially when they’re enjoying themselves among new people and in a new place. The question is, will you leave before the meltdown?

Most kids give a sign when they’re starting to come unraveled. In a museum, a child might stop looking at the paintings and start running around or shouting. At the dinner table, a kid who’s tired or bored is likely to whine about the food. That’s your queue to try and turn things around.

“Parents are pretty good at sensing when a meltdown is brewing, and a change of scenery might help de-escalate the problem,” says child-development expert Stefanie Powers. “Take a walk outside, or keep a few surprises in your purse for such an emergency—stickers, a small toy, a book. The novelty of something new often can be a positive distraction for a child.” Other calming techniques Powers suggests are simple finger plays like itsy bitsy spider, I spy games, or making up silly stories or rhymes—“anything that engages and distracts the child.” As a parent, Trintje Gnazzo has tried all kinds of stalling techniques—including using the condiments on the restaurant table as entertainment. “A lot of time, kids want to go because they don’t have your attention, so get down on their level and really listen to them. At the same time, start thinking about heading out of there.”

When parents delay bailing for too long, trying the outing again becomes harder. Instead, recognize that your kid will not recover and stay calm, because when the parent starts falling apart, the whole situation becomes unmanageable. “It’s a delicate balancing act,” Powers says. “You have to be really flexible and make the decision in the moment: Is this worth it? There’s no harm in saying, ‘This isn’t working today—let’s try again another time.’ ” If you’re among friends, try to have your child say a quick goodbye; if she’s beyond it and you are with a partner, one of you can take the child out while other explains to friends or hosts why you have to go. Once outside, tell your child why you’re leaving—he was screaming, he was running around, and it was not appropriate behavior—but don’t make a big deal of it, and don’t associate it with the event. Doing so would only leave him with a bad feeling about the outing and make him resistant next time.

If your child is in a full-blown temper tantrum, leave as quietly and quickly as possible out of respect for others. “This isn't the time to start lecturing,” Powers says. Maybe it didn’t go well because you pushed her too hard. Learn from your experience: When next time comes, says Powers, you’ll know better what your child’s melting point is.

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