It was a wedding Deb Oliveira-Godinho will never forget—though not for sentimental reasons. While the grown-ups focused on the beautiful ceremony, Oliveira-Godinho’s then-five-year-old daughter, Isabella—the flower girl—decided to entertain herself by painting her nails with red polish, courtesy of her cousin. Her white silk dress was ruined and the bride furious. “It’s funny now, but that day I was fuming, too,” the mom from Port Colborne, Ont., says.
Read more: The upside of kids at weddings>
When you mix young kids and weddings, there’s always the risk that calamity will mingle with the cute. So if your little one’s in a wedding party, here’s how to set the stage for success.
Know your child: Not every kid is comfortable in front of an audience, and while many couples love the charm of having children in their wedding, you know best. “If your kid isn’t meant for the job, it’s OK to decline,” says Karen Cleveland, a Toronto etiquette consultant. “You’re probably doing the couple a favour.” But if your child loves the spotlight and is excited to participate, go for it, but consider skipping some of the formalities, like the fancy updo—she’ll be better behaved if she can burn off some energy pre-ceremony instead of sitting in a stylist’s chair. And keep a watchful eye throughout the day, even if you know what kinds of things she’s prone to do (and not do). Kids can be unpredictable, especially when they’re bored.
Prep for success: Preschoolers’ attention spans are notoriously short. “It depends on the child, but many will change activities every five to 15 minutes,” explains Andrea Nair, a London, Ont., psychotherapist and parent educator. “During the ceremony, give him a job to do, like asking him to be the ‘tissue keeper’ for emotional moments, or taking photos with a little camera,” she suggests. Letting kids know what’s expected of them in advance can also curb issues on the big day: Watch wedding videos, do dry runs and practise picture-perfect smiles. If a babysitter isn’t an option for the reception, Nair recommends setting up some toys in an out-of-the-way corner to keep kids entertained.
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But she doesn’t think bribery’s the way to go—no matter how tempting it may be. Instead, keep the mood light and fun to avoid creating power struggles. If your child sees you stressed out or frustrated, it will impact his mood and willingness to co-operate. Try using phrasing that gives him a little control in the situation. For example: “It’s time to take pictures. Would you be able to stand here, or here?” Adding some humour is bound to help, too: “What do you need to find your smiling face? Some tickles?”
Put parenting first: Be prepared to mix parenting with partying. Some restlessness during the ceremony is no big deal, Cleveland says, but if your child’s behaviour disrupts others, take him out of the venue. You can help prevent meltdowns by making sure your little flower girl or ring bearer is well rested, has a full tummy and has already visited the washroom, but Cleveland also suggests lightening up. “Parents often worry more than the couple does.”
When Annemarie Tempelman-Kluit’s sister asked her daughters—then ages four and six—to be flower girls in her out-of-town wedding, the Vancouver mom was nervous. It was a long flight, the wedding site wasn’t kid-friendly and no rehearsal was planned. “I felt the anxiety of not wanting my kids to ruin my sister’s wedding,” she says. Tempelman-Kluit talked through the importance of the day with her daughters and conducted her own mini-rehearsal at the venue. Everything went smoothly—which she attributes in part to the girls sharing the role. “They gave each other confidence,” she says.
Have a plan B: In case things get hairy at go-time, discuss alternative strategies with the bride and groom. Is it cool if you have to opt-out at the last minute, or are they OK with you walking down the aisle with your child?
Read more: Dealing with a defiant kid>
Cleveland says it’s important to remember that weddings are fun celebrations, not flawless events. “Little quirks that come with having kids in a wedding are what makes it feel authentic and creates wonderful stories.”
A version of this article appeared in our July 2014 issue with the headline “For better or worse,” p. 56.