So you’ve decided to bring your geekling to one of the area fandom conventions. Awesome! Even if you’re no stranger to the convention scene, the first time with a kid, no matter what their age, can be a bit daunting.
First, don’t panic. You are a hoopy frood who knows where their towel is. Second, add some favorable modifiers to your “have a good time” roll by thinking about these tidbits of advice from the greatest of adventurers: other geek parents who have tread there before!
Yeah, this is the boring stuff, but figuring out as much as you can ahead of time may stave off frustration and tantrums later. When do we want to arrive? What should we do for dinner on a given day? If your family thrives on playing things by ear, then by all means, do what works for you! However, things can take longer when there are a few hundred people also trying to do the same thing, and smaller kiddos tend to be less forgiving about long delays.
Decide on the “Must-Dos”
Most conventions will publish their preliminary programming schedule on their website a few days ahead of the convention, if not earlier. Take advantage of the information! If your child is old enough to have any weigh-in on what convention activities and panels to attend, or there are panels that are important to you, figuring out what everyone is most interested in will help make sure that you can negotiate any overlap in timing and not miss anything.
If life always went according to plan, it would be a lot less interesting. Still, you might as well take the stress out of experiencing the unexpected and spend a few minutes figuring out what the Plan B should be for each of the most likely hiccups. What if your baby hits an unexpected crying phase? What if your 10-year-old can’t abide by any ground rules you’ve set? What if your sensitive-to-stimuli child is way overstimulated by the colorful carnival of a large convention?
There’s no universal right answer to any of these “what if” scenarios, only what works best for you and your family. You and a spouse could end up trading off on child-watching duty. It could be time for all of you to head to your hotel room or car for a break from the commotion. You could enlist a relative or family friend to serve as a backup babysitter. Or it could be that you decide to end your convention experience earlier than expected. No matter what you decide is the best course of action, it’s often easier to have plan for at least some of the what-ifs.
Connect with Other Geek Parents
If you know anyone else with kids who are planning on attending the same convention, communicate with them about possible meetups. This gives your kid a chance to meet other kids at the convention (plus something extra to look forward to in future years), and it gives the parents a chance to make larger group plans. This can be to your advantage, especially if a convention has a great kids’ room. The adults can rotate between hanging out in the room to supervise and attending panels, and the kids have the time of their life.
Set Expectations and Ground Rules
If your child is mature enough to be allowed time on their own at the con, lay out ahead of time what the expectations and restrictions are. Are they limited only to certain areas of the con, such as watching a movie in the A/V room? Do they need to check in with you at certain times? What are the consequences for breaking the ground rules? Are there rules you need to put in place for your teen child regarding any room parties that serve alcohol?
This can be helpful for younger children, too. If you have specific behavior expectations for them (asking questions, appropriate places for roughhousing, etc.), starting the discussion with them a few days ahead of the convention—with follow-ups as you get closer—can help things sink in.
Snacks and Drinks
While some conventions have con suites that provide at least a few snacks and drinks for convention attendees, others only have food vendors. Even the most well stocked con suites have their low points, though, and while you may salivate with surprise and delight at the availability of smoked salmon for breakfast, your four-year-old will almost certainly not share your enthusiasm (yup, speaking from personal experience). So, unless the convention you’re attending specifically forbids outside food and you don’t have a handy vehicle to leave it in, bring some nosh.
What you bring is pretty important, too. Crackers are good options, as are pouches of applesauce, but don’t forget protein—it will help everyone in your party last longer. Cans of tuna and jars of peanut butter can be life savers (and the core parts of quick meals) since they don’t need refrigeration, but be conscious of where you’re consuming them due to allergies and/or smell!
Lastly, prepare to hydrate. Even in winter, convention spaces get warm, and you may find yourself thirstier than expected. Water bottles are cost-efficient lifesavers. Literally. If you’d rather bring other drinks, containers that close or have straws, like juice boxes, make life much easier (and drier).
A Costume (and Extra Clothes)
When your geekling sees cosplayers, chances are they’ll wish they were dressed up too. So why not prepare? If they’re older (and are up for it), consider a family costume. Just be prepared for them to suddenly be done and have a change of clothes available.
The DoubleTree in Bloomington is the location for a number of Twin Cities conventions. It also has a pool smack-dab in the middle of one of the public spaces, so chances are that if your kid loves swimming, they’ll spot it. Most other area hotel convention spaces also have pools, and if you have access to it, swimming can be a great midday break activity.
Con crud stinks. Kids tend to not be squeamish about what they’re touching or licking—seriously, my daughter once licked a meteorite—and a quick squirt of hand sanitizer is the fastest preventative measure when it comes to not getting sick.
Instant Coffee (or Other Caffeine Source)
If you or anyone in your party really needs their cup of coffee in order to function in the morning, bring backup coffee. This is especially true if you have a kid who tends toward being an early riser; being alert and awake really helps your parenting skills. Instant packets are a great option if you can’t get your hands on fresh brewed—they pack well, and personal experience has taught me that hot water is much easier to find at a con than fresh-brewed coffee.
At the Convention
Pay Attention to Your Child’s Needs
Be sure to check your kid’s standard needs (eating, drinking, bathroom, sleep) every so often, because a dry, well rested, well fed, and well hydrated child is a happier one. But also be sure to pay attention to their accessibility needs: Are they able to see what’s going on, or are they being relegated to a view of heads and torsos? Do they need signs read to them? Can they see items on display tables? Are they becoming overwhelmed by the people around them? You may need to take a few extra steps to keep them engaged, which makes the convention more fun.
Additionally, be sure to pay attention to their reactions to what they see. Some things are scarier to children than they are to adults, but try to differentiate between situations in which they need you to intervene and rescue them and situations in which they want to try to rescue themselves. I have a fond memory of my daughter and a friends’ son encountering a Dalek, which the son found a little frightening. However, the two kids decided that if she (dressed as a Jedi) lit up her lightsaber and he (dressed as Iron Man) “shot” it with his palm beams they would be able to safely pass.
Personally, I think this is great advice whether you’re attending with kids or not. Finding a quiet spot or heading back to your hotel room for a bit can help recharge everyone in your party, even if a nap isn’t needed. The A/V room is often dark and good for a nonsleeping break. Some cons even have designated quiet spaces, but please pay attention to the rules for the room!
Label Your Child
If your child is unable to tell other adults how to reach you or another responsible person in your party in the event you get separated, give them a different way to provide the information. It could be as simple as using a Sharpie to write on their arm (not hand!). At bare minimum, include their name, your name, and your phone number. If you’re not crazy about using the marker, there are other options, too, such as writing the info on their con badge or slipping a note in their pocket. Whichever method you end up using, make sure your kid (if possible) knows the information is there and how it should be used.
Be Prepared for Questions
Kids ask questions. This is a good thing, because it helps them learn and understand unfamiliar things. Fandom conventions attract a wide spectrum of people with varied backgrounds and interests, so chances are you’ll run into something that is not a part of your daily life. If the question is one you don’t know, such as “What is that person’s costume?,” use it as a way to help them learn how to ask questions of others respectfully.
Be Respectful of Other Attendees
Please remember there are other people at the convention, and that means thinking beyond the needs of you and your child. Teach your child what it means to respect the environment of the con. This means helping them learn the proper behavior for the hallways, dealers room, con suite, and other convention spaces. For example, don’t let them damage merchandise or manhandle food available to everyone.
Trying to get a child, especially one who is highly imaginative and creative, to be aware of the people around them can be really challenging. It is, however, needed. Other attendees will be in costumes, and may be carrying food or have mobility issues, all of which make it a challenge to dodge an active child.
Being respectful of other attendees, however, doesn’t mean you should feel bad for bringing your child to the convention. As long as you aren’t bringing your child into a place designated as adult only, and you both are badged members of the convention, then your geekling has the right to attend and experience the convention with everyone else. After all, those who get hooked on the convention scene as children help keep it going when they’re adults.
Many thanks to members of the CONvergence Facebook community for confirming and suggesting tips! Is there anything else that you’ve found makes bringing a child to a convention much easier?