With summer upon us, it’s convention time here in my neck of the woods. And while I’m not that big of a fan of cons, I do try and treat my little nerdlings to one or two a year in our area.
When I first took a child to a Con, it was Wonderfest, in Louisville, KY, way back in 2004, when Ben “The Gillman” Chapman was a guest of honor. My eldest, then 4, was a huge Gillman fan as I was raising her on the classics. She was thrilled to meet the Gillman, and even got to sit on his lap. I think he was more amazed that she even knew who the Gillman was.
Since then, it’s become an annual summer tradition that we do at least one con- especially now that I have another child (a total of two girls, 7 & 13 this year). Over the years of Con-going, I’ve learned a few tricks that I was recently surprised to hear not all Con-going parents have thought of. Tricks to make your experience with the kids fun, instead of a nightmare filled with endless repetitions of “Can we go now?”, carrying crap you caved in and bought the kids, and the inevitable meltdown in the car ride home.
First off, consider if a convention is even right for your kid. Yes, there might be a celebrity there they know. For example, my kids are super excited to see Stan Lee this year at FandomFest in Louisville. But they also understand the con isn’t like a trip to the zoo- it’s more of a flea market. In my girls’ case, that works out just fine. They love looking at all the neat toys and model kits from overseas- stuff we can’t find on a trip to the local Toys R Us.
And does your little one like walking? There’s lots of walking at cons- up and down the flea market aisles, from room to room, all day long. Of the three different annual cons we’ve been to, it’s at least a three hour circuit, with almost nowhere to sit. Little legs can get tired. Heck, big legs get tired. If your kid can’t handle a circuit of the local zoo, you might want to think twice.
What about heat? We went to Fandomfest last year, or BruceFest, as I like to call it, where Bruce Campbell packed them in like a Japanese subway. It was shoulder-to-shoulder, all-day sweating as we shuffled along at a snail’s pace and a fire marshal somewhere was being treated for an anxiety attack. My eldest was okay with it, and it was only the promise of meeting Bruce that kept my little one going.
Then there’s the weirdo factor. I simply don’t know how to say this nicely, so I’ll be blunt. There’s a huge slice of our fandom society that look rather untrustworthy when it comes to kids. Folks I would be hesitant to let watch my kids even for a five minute potty break. Are you comfortable taking your kids around that element of fandom? More importantly, are your kids going to exxagerate the weirdness factor to your spouse when you get home, earning you several evil glares and a number of “I can’t believe you took our child(ren) there!”
Worse is the hussy factor. Oh sure, we’d all like to see Jackie Goehner strutting around in her Witchblade costume, but is that really appropriate for your kids to see? The first couple of years I took my eldest to the local cons, she was as rare as Turbo Man action figure on Christmas Eve. There just weren’t any other kids there. The local cons just didn’t have much for her to see. I had to throw my hand up many times for some ocular-blocking parental fu when we walked past the topless sculptures. Thankfully, she was short and most of that stuff was up high and she missed it. Today, Cosplay is firmly on American shores, and while a Stormtrooper, a Predator, etc will wow the kids, some of the female costumes are clearly meant for those well past puberty.
Which reminds me of another subject- fear. Will a con scare your kid? I do my best to make sure my kids know it’s all make believe. We watch Syfy’s Faceoff, we watch all the extras on the DVDs/Blurays. But when they saw Glen Tetrick walking by last year in his Hellraiser finery, they were a little scared. Nor could I get them to pose with the Alien Xenomorph- which was doubly odd as they got to meet Tom Woodruff, the guy who’s actually been an Alien, the year before and thought he was the coolest. In a nutshell, seeing stuff on screen is way different than seeing it up close in full-size.
If you’ve determined that your kids are ready for a con, don’t jump in the minivan just yet. You need to pack first. Just like a trip to a zoo with a toddler still potty training, you’re going to need to bring along a lot of stuff. Preferably in a small backpack that you can wear, keeping your hands free. You need your hands free so you can intercept your children’s grubby little fingers when they do an Alicia Masters impersonation on every single thing on display- including those sculptures that cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
(Oh, and don’t bring a kid who wears diapers to a con, unless you have reinforcements. That is, someone to help change them. The venues for cons aren’t exactly bursting with family-friendly bathrooms, so changing a poopy diaper can be a real challenge.)
First off, regardless of their age, bring a spare change of clothes for your kids. If they’re old enough, leave the change in the car, but for smaller kids, carry a set in your dadpack. Spills and we-couldn’t-find-a-bathroom-in-time accidents do happen. Better to have a fresh change of clothes than to suffer a long, uncomfortable, stinky, rash-inducing ride home from a convention you had to leave early.
Make the kids dress appropriately. That more than anything else means comfortable shoes. All children, regardless of age, need to be checked for this. Girls in particular, who like to wear fancy shoes that can cause blisters. Bring bandaids for blisters too, for when you cave in and let them wear their new sandals then they end up limping around like a zombie with a broken leg.
Snacks. Yes, cons sell vastly overpriced food and beverages just like any sporting event. But you’re better off bringing something you know your kids will eat. We pack crackers, beef jerky, gummis, granola bars and water. I like water because it’s healthier, and because without a ton of sugar in it, your kids will only drink it sparingly, to hydrate themselves, rather than to see if they can explode their bladders. Plus, when they drop their drink on the floor, it’s just water, and not a 1200 ounce Big Red, Big Gulp that starts to burn a hole through the venue’s carpet and splashes red food dye all over the nearest displays of mint-in-box toys. You might also include some hard candy for them to suck on- but not when they’re walking around, surrounded by a noisy con that can muffle the sound of them choking and gasping for breath.
Shopping bags. Yes, most booths will present you your purchase in a nice recycled grocery bag they’ve saved in their basement for fourteen years, but it never hurts to have extras. LARGE extras, that you can put all the purchases in. You probably think you can put whatever they buy into your backpack, but then they’ll find a discounted Shogun Warrior with one arm missing that you will agree is extra cheap and… it won’t fit in the backpack. Unless you like carrying aforementioned Shogun Warrior by his one good arm, have a bag big enough to fit him in. Cause YOU will be carrying what your kids purchased.
Wet wipes & Kleenex. Kids are messy, it’s an inherent trait they never grow out of. The mess just moves around from their behinds to their faces. Yes, you can let them walk around all day with God knows what smeared on their faces and tell everyone it’s part of their costume as an extra from Oliver Twist, or you could actually clean them up. Particularly those grubby hands that like to touch everything. Not to mention, they are going to touch everything, exchanging their germs for the germs brought from ‘round the country. One big, sweaty hand-germ exhange. And did I mention your kids are going to touch everything?
Crayons, coloring book, Nintendo DS, etc. Your kids are going to get bored. They’re going to get hot. Their feet are going to hurt. Inevitably, long before you’ve satisfied your inner geek, your kids will need a break. You’re going to have to find somewhere for them to sit- maybe even the floor of a remote corner of a deadend hallway. They can’t just stare into space and think to themselves “Praise God! I get to rest- this backpack is killing me!”. No, they are going to be bored. Bring along entertainment. Not too much, though. Nintendos can fall out of your backpack or get water spilled on them. Just a couple of things to keep them busy, so you can cool down for ten minutes to a half hour.
Money. Now, I know you probably think that goes without saying- it’s a flea market disguised as a con, afterall. But really, think about it. You know how much you can spend. Kids don’t. Give them a set amount of money ahead of time (that you will carry). Show it to them. Secretly add 10 or 15% to it. Then don’t show them how much you are bringing for yourself. Let them buy their stuff first- and make sure it’s something they REALLY want, and they aren’t just buying to buy. I make my kids memorize stuff they want, we do a complete circuit, then we make a beeline back for what they wanted on our way out. Sometimes. Sometimes I cave in and let them impulse buy because I’m just a big ole softy.
Finally, bring a camera. As I mentioned previously, there will most likely be cosplayers, and I’ve yet to meet one that won’t happily pose with a kid (or an adult). And getting your picture taken with a bunch of stormtroopers, who might even let you hold their guns, often makes more of an impression than getting an autograph from some old person sitting behind a folding table. And it’s free.
There’s lots of other stuff you can bring- like a first aid kit (most kids being accident prone when you don’t have one). Or a small cooler with ice and drinks in the car to make the ride home more relaxing. Add your own con gear to the comments below.
Let’s all get ready and have a great con-going experience this year, and teach the next generation that indoor fleamarkets with people in costumes can really be a lot of fun!