This is something of a polarizing topic. Geeks love to get together with other geeks. There are conventions for just about anything, ranging from the very broad (general sci-fi/fantasy/comic/gaming conventions) to the specific (one fandom, such as Gallifrey One for Dr. Who). Fans tend to be passionate and extremely particular. And they also tend to hold very strong opinions about whether kids belong at cons.
On one side is the argument that we need to raise the next generation of con-goers and con-runners. Plus kids generally love this kind of stuff and it’s easy to get them interested when they are young. You want to get them really into it before they get old enough to be embarrassed! On the other side are the folks, usually childless (but not always), who want to go enjoy the con in peace and not be bothered by those ‘snot-nosed kids’.
The issue gets even more complicated when you consider content and interest level of things at the con. Comics, movies, games, TV shows, cartoons, manga, books, anime, and graphic novels can be very kid-friendly things, but there also some extremely adult ones out there. My daughter loves any excuse to wear a costume, and sees cons as Halloween-like opportunities to dress up, eat too much junk, and run around with other kids a lot.
One of the issues that has come up in recent years – at San Diego Comic-Con, for example – is that there isn’t any attempt to keep these apart. There can be booths for Ni Hao Kai-lan next to booths selling artwork of a fantasy warrior woman with impossible proportions fighting in scraps of leather. If your kid is in the “why?” and “what’s that” stages, this can make for some awkward conversations you would rather have a little later. How do we balance wanting our Spiderman-obsessed kid to get to see all the people dressed as her favorite hero with not wanting her to see someone dressed in a BDSM-Spiderman mashup outfit or a booth selling graphic Spiderman slashfic?
Another dilemma is whether or not to stay at the con hotel(s). It’s easy on parents to be able to take a tired kid back to a hotel room for some TV or a snack and a nap, but how close a room to the party floor did the hotel give you? Will there be naked drunk people running around the hotel hallways after midnight? Will the midnight drum circle be in the room directly below yours?
So what is a con-going geek parent to do? First, gauge the family-friendliness level of the particular con as well as the ‘adult’ level. Look at the website and see what kind of programming they will have. Ask someone who has been to that con before not only what the nightlife is like, but how far it tends so spread from the party floor. Check with the hotel to see if you can get a room far, far away from the party floor – preferably in a separate tower if the hotel is big enough for that.
Judge the size and focus of the con as well. Is it a small, fan-run literary convention or a large, for-profit convention run by professionals? Both of these can end up being family-friendly, but in different ways.
Sometimes you can tell how family friendly a con is by looking at the average age of attendees. Are there mostly folks in their twenties, or is the average age closer to fifty or beyond? This isn’t a perfect way to tell, though. Some of the cons with mostly older attendees are making concerted efforts to attract younger people and kids to keep the con from dying out (young volunteers have more energy!). And some of the younger crowd want to have their fun without little kids around. But in general, the cons we have attended that consisted mostly of older people were the same ones where we were frowned upon for dragging a toddler around with us.
We haven’t actually had the experience of going to a con without a child. Other than some Star Trek conventions I went to with my dad and older siblings as a youth, my first con was BaltiCon when my daughter was about 7 weeks. We were “that couple with the baby.”
It was surprisingly easy to attend panels and enjoy programming with a newborn, because she slept through the entire thing in the Baby Bjorn. We alternated who got to wear the baby and be sweaty, and I’d have to find a quiet corner to nurse her every few hours, but other than that it was pretty much a non-issue. We sat through an entire reading by our favorite author without her making so much as a peep. We did go home each night, though, since it was a short drive. So our first con experience was a positive one, and an easy thing to manage even as new parents.
Things have gotten more complicated as she has grown older, though. Age two was probably the hardest period for con-going. She was a little ball of energy who couldn’t hold still and couldn’t stay quiet no matter what activity or snack we gave her. Toddlers are a difficult age at a con, because they’re too old to just sleep and too young to really do any of the kids programming. So what is a geek parent to do?
Not going isn’t really an option. Cons aren’t just for fun for us – I do panels on things like Women in STEM and getting kids interested in STEM fields, spacecraft design, military sci-fi, and anything else they’ll put me on that sounds interesting and matches my skill/experience set.
My husband is a writer and takes advantage of the cons for both education and networking. The cons with a more literary bent almost always have a writer’s workshop and several panels on things like traditional publishing vs. e-publishing, worldbuilding, what the big publishers are looking for now, etc. There are often representatives from the major publishing houses, magazines, and agencies, as well as big-name authors and well-respected editors.
So short of not going, let’s look at the options available for attending a con with kids. First, in terms of judging things for kids to do and places for them to go at the con, here is the range we have seen at the cons we’ve been to (which is not that wide, so please feel free to comment and add others we haven’t seen yet):
- Family friendly room: a designated space in the hotel or convention center where parents can take kids to run around and play. Policies vary, but normally small kids must have a parent with them at all times and older kids can often be left there unsupervised. Sometimes there will be formal programming going on in the room, but more often it’s just a big open room with toys and craft supplies, and some heroic volunteers. These are people who deserve medals and frequently end up totally frazzled by the end of the weekend. Be sure to thank these kind souls.
- Kids programming: an actual track of specific programming for kids, usually a mix of some science experiments, crafts such as making your own wand or lightsaber, kid-friendly musical events (we’ve seen a harp demonstration and sing-along g-rated filk sessions), foam sword-fighting, and Arduino projects. There’s almost always something involving legos and some sort of workshop for making costume pieces. At the larger cons, this programming is sometimes broken up into separate tracks by age ranges. The minimum age to participate varies. At some it’s 3-and-up (if potty trained) and at others it’s 6-and-up, etc. Young kids normally have to be signed in and out, but policies vary by each con so be sure to ask.
- Teen programming: pretty self-explanatory. Stuff geared towards what the teens like, in an effort to let them enjoy the con away from their horribly embarrassing parents.
- Professional, licensed childcare service: this is usually only available at the bigger cons. We were able to take advantage of this at WorldCon last time. The prices are around $10-15 an hour, and they have great hours (at Chicon7, at least) – they were open late enough that we could go to the Masquerade and the Hugo Awards Ceremony. It seemed terribly under-utilized there, though. Our daughter was usually one of a handful of kids, sometimes the only one. The kids were sometimes outnumbered by employees and had two whole rooms to roam. I hope it doesn’t mean they will eventually get rid of this service because not enough people are using it. The company they used was really good, and we were very impressed by the professional caregivers. There was a state-law-mandated limit of 10 hours per day of care, but I don’t think we ever came anywhere near using that much.
Other than the con services and programming, there are a few other options for parents going to cons with their kids. The one we fall back on the most is the tag-team parenting.
- Trade off: pick which panels and events you really want to attend and tag-team the kid duties. We go through the hardcopy schedule with a highlighter and mark which ones are most important to us, then negotiate over the ones that overlap. Handoff can happen in the hallway between panels, at the hotel room, at the family friendly room, at the restaurant for lunch, wherever. While one parent is attending something on the program, the other can be making a run to get food, taking kiddo up to the room for a nap, strolling through the dealer’s room, or finding something else on the program that is generally more kid-friendly to do. Sword fighting demos, LARP, movie rooms or concerts (depending on what’s playing), and quidditch games are good for this. The big drawback to this method is the adults never get to really do anything together.
- Roll the dice and take the kid along: Do this armed with many distractions, and hope he or she cooperates. Only in appropriate events/panels of course. Whenever possible, my husband comes along to the panels I speak on as moral support (and as a ringer in case the audience clams up at question time, which basically never happens). He sits in the very back with our daughter, armed to the teeth with coloring books, toys, snacks, the iPad and headphones. If she gets noisy, they sneak out the door. We’ve also done this together when there is a panel, reading, or event we both really want to attend The older the kid is, the easier this one is to pull off. There’s usually another, older kid or two at the back of the room completely engrossed in texting or playing a PSP game – while mom or dad is watching the panel, pre-teen probably isn’t even aware it’s going on.
- Spread the load: go to the con with some other parents you know, and trade off babysitting duties. If there are friends you trust at the con, one adult can watch all of the kids while the rest of the adults are off doing other things. This is easier for folks who tend to go to the same cons each year and have well-established friendships with other geek families. For us, this hasn’t been an option yet because we move every couple of years and we don’t have an established “home town con” we go to every year.
- Don’t bring the kids at all: this option only works, of course, if you have someone to leave them with. Again, the older the kids are, the easier this is to achieve. The easiest way to manage this is to go to cons where your relatives live. My parents have helped us out with daytime con-babysitting twice, and we are hoping to get to a con this summer while our daughter is spending some time visiting my in-laws.
- Bring backup: invite your favorite babysitter or a relative to stay with you, if you know someone who would like to go to the con. Offer to pay for the ticket and the room (or share the room if you’re cheap like us and get along well with your relatives) in exchange for them babysitting for part of the con. We were able to do this once and killed two birds with one stone – our daughter got some quality time with an aunt she doesn’t get to see very often, and we got some babysitting time and a nice visit with my SIL.
So what are your thoughts on kids at cons? Any suggestions for methods we haven’t tried for dividing kid duties and making sure everyone has a good time while not annoying the other con-goers? For our family, cons are both work and play, so we want to make sure we can get the work part done while ensuring our kid has a safe, fun, and educational experience. Do you know of some particularly kid-friendly cons?