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Dec 11 2013

Do Children Belong at Adult Parties?

By at 11:12 am

do children belong at adult parties?

Tis the season… for parties. Hanukkah parties, Christmas parties, New Year’s parties, non-denominational “holiday” parties with vaguely thematic decorations and a mish-mash of foods to cover all the cultural bases.

Now, some bacchanalias–namely ones that begin at 9 p.m. and promise to go until “whenever”–are obviously for adults only. But, others–for instance, those held in the daytime or even late afternoon–are a bit more vague regarding the exclusivity of the guest list.

When in doubt, I always ask the host, “Is it okay to bring the kids?” If the hosts say no, I never, ever bring them. (As we determined earlier, I have no problem leaving my kids home alone.)

If the host says yes, of course, I say thank you, and bring them. And if the host says, “Yes, buuuut… we won’t have anything fun for them to do and I don’t know if they’ll like the food I’m serving,” I bring them anyway.

With babies, it was easy. Despite the extra stuff they need, babies are pretty portable. The really little ones stay in their car-seats or flung over one shoulder, and, especially if you’re breastfeeding, you don’t have to worry about their turning their noses up at the food. Also, there is little danger of their blurting out something inappropriate, offensive, or merely a piece of private information that doesn’t necessarily need to be shared with the world at large.

Toddlers are trickier, but, at a certain point, I got pretty good at eating with one hand and making (delightful) conversation with the other guests, all the while bouncing a 2-year-old on one knee and handing them an unending assortment of toys with my free hand. At this stage, it’s now possible for them to say something you’d rather they didn’t. But, hopefully, their speech isn’t yet clear enough to be understood. (On the other hand, my oldest did have a way of pronouncing “Fox” that was a real conversation stopper.) If at any point a toddler gets restless, they are still small enough to be picked up and simply taken out of the room so as not to disturb anyone else.

By the time my kids were of preschool age, they could be trusted to sit quietly at my feet while the adults talked, entertaining themselves with a book or game I’d brought. I also made a point of always feeding them first and bringing along baggies of Cheerios and sippy cups of milk, so that if the food served wasn’t to their liking, there would be no meltdowns. They knew that if they needed anything, they were not to interrupt the grown-ups, but to stand up and discretely whisper into my ear.

Now that my kids are all school-age (14, 10, and 6), the bar for proper social etiquette has been raised. For one thing, they can eat or not eat what’s being served, but I am no longer bringing alternatives (my oldest has allergies, but he knows what he can and cannot have and monitors himself, down to asking the hosts if a dish has been prepared with peanuts, dairy, chocolate, or eggs).

They can bring books to read, but they may not read them out in the main area. To me, a person of any age deliberately withdrawing into their own world while in a social setting just comes off as rude. If it’s OK with the host, they can step out into a separate room and read there. But if that’s not an option, neither is the book.

No video games, either. For the same reasons as the books–plus we simply don’t own any. Nor do I have an iPhone or similar kind of entertainment device. (As we also determined earlier, I am very cheap.)

And while they may not interrupt adult conversations (or, at least, have a very good reason for doing so), they are required to respond, politely and preferably intelligently, if spoken to. And shake hands. And make eye contact. And annunciate clearly.

Do all three of my kids manage to pull off all of the above on a consistent basis? Are you kidding me? Like any normal kids, mine have a tendency to mumble and address their shoes when speaking to adults. They come up and tug on my sleeve even when they can clearly see that I am in the middle of something. Or they simply sit silently by the buffet table and load their plates up with pigs-in-a-blanket while very noticeably watching the clock and counting the minutes until I put them out of their misery.

I do not intend to do that for the foreseeable future.

Sure, my life–and theirs–would be made much easier if I only took my kids to events that featured bouncy houses, ball pits, and foods that don’t require a knife and fork (or at least where everyone looks the other way when you use your shirt as a napkin). They wouldn’t be forced to suffer the torture that is not having their pleasure prioritized over all others, and I could enjoy myself amongst other grown-ups without also keeping one eye peeled for who is doing what to whom, where, why, now (and cracking the time-space continuum in order to intercept it).

But my kids won’t be kids forever. In fact, I daresay they are going to spend (God willing) a much larger portion of their existence as adults than as children. They are going to need to learn how to function in the adult social world. And what better time for them to sharpen those skills than while their inevitable mistakes are still considered cute and forgivable, instead of grounds for firing and/or dumping?

By introducing my kids into the adult sphere without making undue accommodations for them (or, worse, asking others to make those accommodations), I am hoping to help them figure out what kinds of adults they want to be. I want them to watch and learn and grow and emulate (and judge and reject, as the case may be).

Besides, if I didn’t put them in these situations, when would I have ever gotten the chance to hear my then 12-year-old discussing his impressions of post-Soviet Russia following his trip there with an adult who’d emigrated as a child and never been back since? Or my 4th grader demonstrating how to program a computer in Scratch to an engineer who’d never used that particular language? Or my 6-year-old teaching Hebrew letters to a new student of Yiddish and reassuring sympathetically, “It’s OK, I get them confused, too.”

But, that’s just me. What do you think? Do kids belong at adult parties? And how should they be expected to behave once they get there?

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