Tis the season: Office Family Parties, Holiday Open-Houses, busy shopping centers, neighborhood get-togethers. Our children's social calendars are often as busy or busier than ours are this season. And since many of these events include communities that are not school-based and therefore not "prepared environments", it's a good time to prepare yourself and your child for these unfamiliar settings.
Don't expect predictable behavior in unpredictable circumstances: Your child, accompanying you to a neighborhood party or office event, is likely to have a number of new stimuli to navigate. He or she may be wearing uncomfortable clothing, "dressed up" for the occasion in shoes that aren't much fun to walk in or clothes that are stiff and formal. Your child is likely to be greeted with familiarity by adults who may not actually be familiar to him. There may be new foods to explore, or a party that falls near bedtime or nap time, or a much longer hunt for a bathroom or a quiet space than your child is used to. Have patience, parents: while these qualities feel fun and exciting to adults, they can be unsettling to young children, who thrive on predictability and routine and who may demonstrate that ill-ease through behaviors they "never do at home!"
Involve your child in choosing special clothing to wear to "dress up" parties. Offer two different outfits, if possible, for your child to choose between. Look for shoes that are appropriate but comfortable, and make sure your child can walk with ease in them. Often, children have outgrown their "dress up" shoes between events. Check early to make sure your child has shoes that fit. Party clothes often have different collars, laces or belts from the clothing your child is comfortable in each day. Practice wearing special clothes before the day of the event so your child can get used to them.
Prepare your child with simple grace-and-courtesy games at home. "We'll be meeting some of the people I work with. When we meet a new person, it's appropriate to say, 'Hello! My name is Catherine. It's a pleasure to meet you.' Let's practice!" You can play dramatic games pretending to be your neighbors, associates, or your boss, or other adults you may encounter at the event. Let your child practice making eye contact, shaking hands and introducing herself or himself. We play these same games at school. Enjoying them together at home can decrease some of the intimidation children often feel when meeting new adults.
Prepare your child as much as you can for what will be different when you arrive. On the way to events, talk through what the room might look like, what adults will be there, what other children you expect to see. Ask your child if there's anything they're wondering about about the party. Offer specifics if you can. "We will ride up a long elevator ride to the top of the building. There will be large glass windows from which you'll be able to see the whole city. There will be some food and probably a lot of candies and cakes. We'll have mostly fruit and vegetables on our plates, but you may choose one dessert if you'd like."
At the event, be attentive to your child's cues, even when you're talking with other adults. If you're going to an event with another parent, discuss beforehand how you'll team-parent until your child is comfortable in the environment. One parent might stay with the children, helping them to find other children or activities with which to engage, while the other parent socializes, then parents can switch roles so both have a chance to enjoy the party. Don't presume, though, that just because you like going to parties that your child will be immediately comfortable, too.
Identify a place you can retreat to if the stimulation of the party is overwhelming. If your child is overwhelmed, ask the host if there's a quiet room or space you might go to together. Bring a book with you, or crayons and coloring pages. While many parties may have activities for children who are invited, bring your own quiet alternatives to give your child a break from the noise or commotion.
Notice other children's behavior and the ways in which it might entice misbehavior in your own child. When your child encounters children or families who operate by different rules than we're comfortable with in Montessori, her curiosity about the different behavior may entice her to try it out herself. When another child or family is openly engaging in behavior that would be out of the norms you've established, find your child and kneel beside him or her to describe what you see. "That child is having a hard time keeping her fingers out of the cake! Have you ever struggled to keep your fingers from something you weren't supposed to touch? It can be so hard! Let's go see if we can find some things you can touch and explore." Intervene before your child tries out the misbehavior.
If your child's behavior is challenging, stay calm and speak softly. While you may be embarrassed by your child's misbehavior in a public setting or at a party, remember to lower your voice and shorten the distance. Avoid yelling at your child across a busy party room. Instead, approach him or her until you're close enough to kneel down and whisper in his or her ear. Remind them quietly but firmly of the behavior that's appropriate in this setting, then assure them that you understand why being in a new place can be unsettling. "At this party, you must speak quietly. It's hard to keep your voice quiet in an exciting place, isn't it?"
Remember: there are few behaviors your child will explore that are universally inappropriate. Most often, misbehavior is only misbehavior because it's in the wrong environment. Rename your child's misbehavior by telling her where it is appropriate. "You may run outside. Inside, you may walk." "You may have more cake later, after your body has had a chance to use all the cake you've already eaten!" "When we visit our neighbors, we use quiet voices. You may yell when you're in the backyard." That said, you're probably going to be more self-aware when your child misbehaves at an office party or neighbor's home than you would be in your own home. Don't let your embarrassment or fear of judgment change the way you parent your child. Your child needs to know that, even in the unusual settings, she can expect the same responses from you. Put aside your concern that your colleagues or friends will judge you for your child's behavior and, instead, focus on helping your child get back to the behavior you know she's capable of the rest of the time.
Most importantly, remember that these events are supposed to be fun. While they may ask more of you or your children than a regular Tuesday, they're also opportunities for you to create memories with your children, for them to know your work, your neighborhood, and your friends, and for you to celebrate together the communities that enrich your lives. Those benefits are worth a few hours of questionable behavior.