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How to enjoy the circus when you are a circus

Last week, I mentioned that we went to the circus with all the kids, and I said, “We learned how to deal with a crisis as a family long before we learned how to have big, exciting, fun days together, oddly enough; but we’re definitely there now.”
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A reader asked if I could say more about this. I can always say more about everything!
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When something terrible is happening, it’s of course terrible, but also kind of simple: it’s very easy to see that you have to be the best person you can be until you get through it. And if you feel terrible, at least it’s not confusing: you feel terrible because things are terrible. Not fun, but not complicated.
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But happy days are complicated, somehow. When we mix in all kinds of personalities and all kind of expectations, not to mention all ages, there are an awful lot of moving parts to coordinate before you can have anything resembling fun.
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Here are the things we’ve learned over the years. Some of these are specific to big families, but some would apply to any outing with people you more or less love:
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Some basic, practical tips:
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Bring a change of clothes or two for the youngest, squirtiest kids. Bring more diapers than you think you’ll need. Bring baby wipes even if you don’t have a baby. Bring some plastic bags to contain whatever it is you don’t want to smell all the way home.
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Plan to spend more money than you planned, and plan ahead of time to be okay with that. Have cash.
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Check the weather report. Double check the directions. Find out if there will be parking. Make sure the event is where and when and what you think it will be, so there are no nasty surprises.
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Make sure what kids know what to do if they get lost. We tell them: find a police officer or someone who looks like a nice mother with kids. When you first realize you’re lost, stay where you are; we will find you. Do not leave the building.
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Take pics of kids on your phone, or at least write down what they are wearing. Write your cell number on their wrists if you like. Make sure they know what your names are (not Mama and Daddy!).
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Little legs get tired. There’s no shame in dragging the stroller out of storage if it’s going to be a long day.
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Pack more food than you think you need. The kids may very well be too excited to eat when it’s meal time, and they’ll be legitimately hungry later.
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But logistics are really the easy part to manage. The thing that can really make the difference is the attitudes of the people involved. Here are some questions we’ve learned to answer:
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What if we go to all this trouble and expense and not everyone has fun? 
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Maybe they won’t. Oh, well. If someone wants to pout or sulk or be too cool to enjoy themselves, don’t get mad or fall all over yourself trying to ratchet up the fun until everyone is joyful whether they want to be or not. Just stick with the plan and don’t let one crab drag the whole family down. This is one of the liberating revelations of large family life: 75% successful is pretty darn successful.
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What if one of the adults has unreasonable anxieties?  Accommodate them! A cheerful day begins with calm parents, so it’s okay to say, “Hey, this day is going to take a lot out of us, physically, emotionally, and financially. Let’s figure out how to make it as easy as possible.”  So, my husband tends to cater to my fears about the kids getting lost, and people running out of food. He doesn’t think these things are likely to happen, but he knows I’ll feel better if we’re prepared for them, and if I’m feeling calmer, the kids can relax and have fun.
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What if such-and-such a bad thing will happen, just like it did the last three times? It helps so much for the adults talk about past experiences ahead of time, and to figure out what your main goal is this time, and how to achieve that. Is your goal to give the kids a new experience that they may or may not appreciate until they’re older? Is it to have an immediately enjoyable pleasant day together as a family? Is it for one of the parents to relive some happy time of their own childhood? Is it just to punch an experience card? These are all legitimate wishes, so focus on what to do to make that specific thing happen.
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What if they beg for a bunch of expensive crapola? We told the kids ahead of time, “Look, there are going to be lots of things for sale. We’re not going to buy any of it. We’re going here to see the show.” Most of the kids cheerfully accepted this, because it’s what we always say. (It’s not a moral issue. I would have liked to buy them cotton candy and elephant cups, but not at $12 a pop times ten kids.)
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The four-year-old was the only one who still kept on asking to buy stuff, and I just kept calmly responding, “No, we already said that we weren’t going to be buying anything.” She is four, and easily dazzled, so I was expecting this. Slightly annoying, but not unbearable or a sign that we’ve somehow raised her wrong. She eventually stopped asking. Okay, she stopped asking when I told her that if she put a cork in it, I would get her ice cream on the way home.
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Which leads to my next point ….
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We just went to a freaking circus, so why are they crying? Probably because they’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and feeling a tiny bit let down because the amazing thing they were looking forward to is now over. We want the day to end a good day well, so we often reserve a minor treat for after the big event. In this case, we stopped at McDonald’s and everyone got a frozen whatever with whipped cream.
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What if we discover that (horror!) our children have character flaws? Fix it later. Do not try to teach huge life lessons, make course corrections, or make a dramatic statements when you’re supposed to be having fun. If you discover, while you’re out, that your kids need to work on manners, or aren’t grateful enough, or are too attached to material goods or something, just deal with the immediate situation at hand and get back to the scheduled event as soon as possible. You can have a talk or dish out punishments or reorganize your kids’ life tomorrow, when you’re not in public and when everyone isn’t all worked up.
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What if I’m not having a super amount of fun myself? Before we left, I gave myself a stern talking-to: You are forty-one years old. You have been to the circus before. If you have a bad seat or have to miss part of the show, you can deal with it! (I find that if I speak to myself in the second person, I listen. Stupid, but it works.) If they need to go to the bathroom more times than can possibly be biologically necessary, I will take them. And I did. I’m very proud of myself. I had a nice big g-and-t when I got home, and I did not share it with anyone, because I’m an adult, and those are the adult perks.
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How can I be sure I capture the day perfectly with my camera? Management solved this problem for me: they said no iPads, and that’s where my camera is. I was happy that my husband had a camera, and that he took a few awesome pictures. But if I had brought one myself, I know I’d have photo anxiety and miss half the show stressing out about documenting our happiness. I saw a bunch of people watching their phones record six glowing motorcycles zip around inside a steel globe, even though the actual glowing motorcycles were right in front of them! Crazy, man.
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In general, when we’re doing something special, I’m in favor of taking a few pics of happy faces to make a record of the day, and then putting the camera down. This is especially true if you’re going somewhere famous. Unless you’re a professional photographer on assignment, you’ll be much more grateful later if you take pictures of people, not things.
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And there you have it. I expect that, by the time we have grandchildren, we’ll have forgotten it all, and will be helpless, querulous pushovers who can’t get through a half-hour at the playground without falling apart. But today is not that day!

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