We have found that preparing ahead of time for new experiences can save a lot of unhappiness and embarrassment—for both children and parents. And when they have some idea of what is expected in a new situation, children are not so apt to be frightened by it. Their preparation may involve discussion, visiting a new place, role playing, or any combination of these.
For example, simply talking about proper behavior—en route to an event, if not before—can help both child and parent. The conversation can take the form of questions (“How many cups of punch should you ask for at great-grandma’s eightieth birthday party?”) or cautions (“We must talk in quiet voices and not run around while we’re in the funeral home”).
Parents can also direct youngsters to avoid embarrassing comments such as, “Boy, grandma, you sure look wrinkled!” Of course you can’t anticipate everything a child might say, but after a remark like this, you can take the child aside and explain that it isn’t nice to tell people they look wrinkled, then review a few positive things he might say instead.
Helping children become familiar with a strange environment reduces their fear and lets them feel more secure. This is why schools have prekindergarteners spend some time in the classroom with the new teacher before the school year actually begins. Many hospitals are now holding preadmission “parties” for young patients to acquaint them with the place and procedures. We took advantage of public tours in a new hospital to let our own children see what’s inside that building where mom goes and comes home with a new baby.
Also, children love to act things out, so playing Sunday School (with emphasis on reverence and proper church behavior), having a practice meal with the good china and best manners, or pretending the family is at a wedding reception can be fun for them as well as a valuable learning experience.
Then there’s preparation for the new baby. In special family home evenings before the due date, we have discussed premortal life, shown pictures of each child as a new baby, and sometimes had the children cut and paste pictures of babies from old magazines. We’ve also gift-wrapped items the new baby will need and hidden them throughout the house for a treasure hunt. The children have a great time unwrapping the gifts and telling about them. They also practice safe ways of holding and carrying a baby. Each child has welcomed the arrival of the new member of the family; we have made sure that all existing children know they are loved and will continue to be important.
Another special family home evening is held as the school year is about to begin. We discuss safety rules, then role-play walking to school: a stranger (dad or mom) approaches the child and offers a ride or something to eat; the child responds with a quick “No thanks!” and makes a hasty exit. We play “lunchroom” (using aluminum TV dinner trays) and practice carrying the trays, saving dessert until last, having quiet conversation, and using good table manners. The children like to be the teachers during the classroom part of the rehearsal.
Often, when children misbehave in a new setting, it’s simply because they have not been prepared for it ahead of time. Preparation brings confidence, and taking time to prepare them for a new experience seems to make it go smoother for everyone involved—including parents.