This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Zippity Zoo Days. As a previous attendee of this event—and an adult with a basic sense of what goes on at children’s events—I was prepared for an afternoon of animals, bouncy houses, music and face painting mixed with sunscreen and sweat. I knew that this was going to be more than a typical visit to the zoo and I was prepared for this change.
But how many of the kids who were walking into the zoo were prepared for the excitement that was about to meet them? When kids go to the zoo, whether it’s their first time or their 50th time, they are pretty excited. But when a trip to the zoo includes bouncy houses, excitement goes through the roof and managing that excitement can be a pretty difficult task.
I was lucky to be experiencing the zoo with some great kids and their excellent parents who helped the kids to manage their excitement, handle their disappointment, and make it through the zoo in just three short hours! But I definitely saw some kids who were struggling with the excitement and who were causing their parents some distress during this event that was supposed to be fun for the whole family.
When bringing young kids to events of any kind—whether it’s a fun filled day at the zoo with music and bouncy houses, or a boring trip to the grocery store to pick up food for your family—kids will do so much better at the event if you follow some ground rules to prep them for their experience.
TELL THEM WHAT TO EXPECT
Going on special trips or to new locations is very exciting. Kids will have the urge to run after the first exciting thing they see, and only think about asking you about it after they’ve investigated that awesome, new, exciting thing. If you prepare them ahead of time for what they are going to see, the excitement level will decrease (at least a little bit!) and the temptation to run away and explore can be diminished significantly, as long as you…
TELL THEM YOUR EXPECTATIONS
You’re kidding yourself if you think that your child is going to see a giant bouncy house at the zoo and stand right next to you without flinching as soon as she sees it. Bouncy houses are fun. Period. Bouncy houses at the zoo are even more fun!
Her first instinct is going to be to run to the bouncy house, and if you don’t want her to do that, she needs to know your expectations ahead of time. Don’t be that parent who is yelling at your child saying, “You know better than that!” after she has run after the giant tiger bouncy house that she didn’t know was going to be there. Because—at least for kids under 5—at that very moment, she absolutely did not know better than that because bouncy houses are fun (did I mention that yet?)!
Before you go the event, let them know what your expectations are for them or what plan you will follow when you get inside the event, that way they know how they are supposed to act before they enter, not after they didn’t meet your unspoken expectations.
And once you’ve told them what your expectations are, make sure you…
TELL THEM WHAT THEIR CONSEQUENCES WILL BE
Some kids are golden with a list of expectations because they are people pleasers. But some kids, especially really excited kids, might need a motivator to follow your expectations. A warning of a consequence that will occur (or a promise of a reward that will occur) when expectations are met can easily be used to remind children of what your expectations are for them and motivate them to meet them.
So what do all of these steps look like when they are all put together? Something like this:
Ok buddy, today we are going to the zoo for Zippity Zoo Days. We’re going to see the animals at the zoo just like we always do, but today there are going to be other special things there. You are going to see those things and get really excited and I know that you’ll want to run to them right away. But there will be lot of people at the zoo today and I want you to stay safe. So, when we go into the zoo today, stay by me. If you see something that you want to go to, just ask me and we’ll go look at it together. I’ll make sure that you get to see and do all of the things that you want to do before we have to leave, so we don’t have to run from thing to thing. If you do run away from me, we’ll have to miss out on some of the fun things that will be there.
Alright sweetie, we have to run to the grocery store today. I know that there are a lot of things that you see at the grocery store that you want, like the candy at the register or the toys in the toy aisle. But none of those things are on our list today, so you may not ask for them during our shopping trip. You can walk by me if you’d like, or sit in the cart, but you have to have your listening ears on otherwise I’ll have to put you in the cart. If you are able to keep your listening ears on and do as I ask of you in the grocery store, you can use these quarters to buy something just for you.
It’s time to go into the library now. Inside the library, it is very quiet. We have to use our whispering voices. We have to walk and use our quiet feet because there will be people reading inside the library. I’ll let you pick out the books that you want to read and we’ll read them quietly together. If you forget to use your quiet feet and voices, we’ll have to leave the library and we won’t be able to come back until next week.
Then, as a general rule, follow through with whatever you said you were going to do, positive or negative. There are some things that are out of your control. For example, at our zoo trip this weekend, we told the kids that they could jump again, but we didn’t know that the bouncy houses were going to be taken down before the kids could have that chance again. There are things that are out of a parent’s control that kids learn to live with as life happens.
But blatant dishonesty just isn’t cool! If you promise your child that she can pick something out at the end of a shopping trip with her quarters, then make sure that you let her do that at the end of her shopping trip if she met your expectations. And likewise, if you promised that you would leave the library if your son forgot to use quiet voices and feet, then you should leave the library if he forgets to do this. There’s nothing wrong with giving a warning or two, but follow through with consequences is very important to solidifying a child’s knowledge of how to act in different scenarios (and how consistent you will be as a parent in your disciplining).