I always find it interesting how much parental involvement, or lack thereof, affects the behavior and responses of the audiences for whom I perform. For example, at one recent library program I did there was a very tiny crowd — only two families. The first family consisted of a 7 year old with her mother, while the second family was a mother with her 2-year old daughter. As someone doing interactive storytelling, where I rely on the audience members to become characters in the story, having tiny crowds can be my worst nightmare, especially if the members of said crowds are shy or extremely young (which seemed to be the case on this day!)
However, with some encouragement from mom and the librarian, the 7 year old was up and willing to take on a role in the story. I allowed the 2 year old and her mom to play some simple instruments during a musical part of the story, and later they both came up to take on one of the character roles together as well. The program was 45 minutes long — well beyond what most people would say is a 2 year old’s attention span. And yet, that 2 year old was more attentive and well-behaved than some of the older audiences I’ve worked with. Why? Probably because her mother was there to help keep her engaged and guide her in appropriate audience behavior and how to participate.
Now contrast that to another library program I did earlier that same day. I was telling the same story; however, this time I was presenting for a small group of after-school kids and not one parent was in the room. This crowd was also quite attentive; however, at one point, one of the boys taking on a role in the story purposely pulled at one of my props (a bunch of stuffed chile peppers), breaking one off. Now, there are a lot of peppers on the bunch, so the loss of one probably isn’t a huge deal, and that one that was lost could probably be re-sewn to the bunch, but that’s not the point. The point is that the child, who was certainly old enough to know what he was doing, deliberately broke it.
In that moment, I felt it necessary to pause from the story and to explain to the young boy that what he had done was unacceptable, as he had broken a prop that I must use every time I present the story. Why had he done this? I don’t know — perhaps because he thought he could get away with it. Would he have done the same thing had his parent(s) been in the room? I doubt it.
Later on, during the same program, with only five minutes left to go in my presentation, a mother opened the door and called out across the room that it was time for her three children to leave. The poor kids were fixated on the show and did not immediately heed her call, which led to another loud interruption by the mom. “‘I said, ‘It’s time to go! Now hurry up!’
The children reluctantly pulled themselves away from the performance and walked toward the door. The librarian hopped up too and grabbed the cookies that she was planning to pass out at the program’s conclusion. She stood just outside the door and allowed the children to take some as they left! Of course, you can probably imagine what this did to the attention level of the other children in the room. Suddenly, they became preoccupied with getting a cookie of their own and their ability to focus diminished exponentially!
This experience was frustrating on a number of levels. I wondered why the mother had needed to call across the room for her children. Why couldn’t she have quietly entered, approached them and told them it was time to go? Or better yet, why couldn’t she have discreetly asked the librarian how much time was left in the program? (Even asking me directly would have been less distracting than her chosen course of action!) Perhaps if she’d known there were only five minutes remaining, she would have been willing to give her children the chance to see the ending and she could have avoided making a scene. Regardless, this mother certainly did not model good audience behavior for her children.
Recently, I was sharing these experiences with a librarian, Amy, who works in an urban community. She was contrasting her experiences working with children in urban vs. suburban settings, and I found her insights to be quite interesting. She shared how in an urban setting, most often, the children do not know (have not been taught) appropriate audience behavior. The parents rarely (if ever) attend the programs along with their children, and therefore, the children don’t know that they should clap at the end of a performance, not make noise during it, etc. Amy has had to teach them these things. And yet, these same children excel in problem solving, taking initiative and making friends.
In contrast, her findings in the suburban setting were that children knew how to exhibit appropriate audience behavior, having been taught from a young age by their parents who attended nearly every program she hosted! However, these children were not good at solving problems, taking initiative and making friends. Why? Perhaps because they were so closely tied to mom and dad that they were afraid to do anything on their own. Thus, for these children, Amy had to focus on activities that would encourage the children to make new friends and solve problems on their own.
It’s very easy to negatively judge a model of parenting that is different from the one by which you were raised or are raising your children. That’s why I appreciated Amy’s insights which show that there can be advantages on both sides, if you pay attention. It seems that by and large we live in a culture and time where parents are either too close or too far removed from their children. But I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. Being engaged and involved in a child’s life so that they have the security of knowing that they are safe; and yet, avoiding the temptation to micro-manage which prevents them from learning how to think and act independently. What a tough balance!
What I do know is that as I perform for diverse crowds, I’m going to be attentive to what Amy has described. One audience type is not “better” than the other; they are simply different, with different needs. These different audiences may require different things from me, the performer, and I want to do my best to be sensitive to that. To teach where teaching is needed, to challenge where a challenge is needed, and everything in between!