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Etiquette: Children at Your Wedding

Martha Stewart Weddings, Spring 2010

For every bride who coos over flower girls and toddlers in tuxes, there's another who swears that kids steal the show and eat all the cake. And though neither is wrong exactly, asking children to be part of your big day -- as participants, guests, or both -- can often make or break a wedding. No matter where you are on the love 'em to leave 'em spectrum, stating and executing your position requires a certain degree of decorum. And thankfully, both traditional etiquette and modern manners offer guidelines on how to stand by your intentions and avoid confusion and hurt feelings.

Unlike decisions about menus or music, those related to children should be handled quickly to avoid awkward questions from parents who need to make plans. "The bride and groom need to decide right away whether they want to invite children and, if so, how to provide for their care. There's no room to waffle, and there is a lot to consider," says Donnie Brown, a Dallas-based celebrity-wedding planner and author of "Donnie Brown Weddings: From the Couture to the Cake" (2009, Abrams). Here's how to tackle the subject with courtesy and heart.

You'd like your wedding to be all about the grown-ups: a chic celebration where guests' only agenda is to have a good time. Is it appropriate to not invite children?
Yes -- especially if the wedding is in the evening or is very formal. "It may be more of a challenge to restrict children during a daytime or casual wedding without people feeling offended," says Joyce Scardina Becker, a San Francisco-based wedding designer and planner who teaches wedding and event etiquette at California State University, East Bay. And Brown adds that long stretches of silence during a ceremony, not to mention tipsy guests, loud music, and tables filled with breakable things, may create an environment in which kids don't know how to behave. The no-kids rule works best when the majority of the families are local, which means parents can leave their children with familiar babysitters for the entire day or drop them off between the ceremony and reception, adds Karen Kaforey, a wedding planner in Nashville. If you're hosting a destination wedding, it's harder to not invite kids.

You want to be as clear as possible about who is and isn't invited to your wedding. How can you avoid any confusion? 
Address your envelopes properly. Becker says the traditional way to indicate whether a child is invited is to include his name on the invitation. If your card will have both an outer and inner envelope, his parents' names should appear on the outer envelope, but on the inner, his name should be written beneath his parents' names. (If you're using just an outer envelope, of course, the child's name should also be on it.) If the child is over age 18, he should receive a separate invitation, even if he's still living at home. Becker feels that it's "generally not in good taste to address an envelope to 'Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Smith and Family,'" since the wording can be vague. However, Kaforey says the phrasing's okay as long as you write the names of those invited on the inside envelope.

If you're still worried, broach the subject via more casual communiques. Jane Bliss, who was married in July 2008 in Bath, England, had a wedding with 11 children in attendance. She used her save-the-date e-mail to announce that children were invited and then followed up with a call to each parent to reinforce this. Wedding websites can also introduce the topic -- and provide childcare details when needed.


You've heard stories about guests who bring kids even though they weren't invited. Is there a way to avoid this scenario?
After your invitation is sent (or better yet, before), make a call to your friends and family who have children to explain that your wedding is or isn't child-friendly. "If you're willing to invite this person to your wedding, you should be willing to pick up the phone and have a conversation with her," Becker says. This is an especially effective approach if you're worried about a stubborn friend or flaky relative bringing her children against your wishes. Becker adds: "And, if you're arranging for childcare services, a telephone call is a great way to let the parents know that their children will be well taken care of at the wedding."

You'd like to invite your cousin's little girl and a neighbor's son but not your friend's newborn or co-worker's twins. Will it look bad if you invite some kids but not all?
Opinions vary, so it's best to choose a clear rule and stick to it. Kaforey suggests drawing the line at immediate family, since most children who have wedding duties are close relatives, such as a niece or stepchild (but even these children don't necessarily need to stay for the reception). Shannon Coyne, who was married in Media, Pennsylvania, in September 2009, says that at her wedding, all children were invited to the church ceremony, but only those over 12 were invited to the reception.

"If there are just a few children from different families, an age cut-off can work because these older kids are more likely to behave," says Becker, adding that children's manners are as important as their numbers. "But the more youngsters you have, the more their behavior will change. If you're inviting 150 guests, and you have only two little girls that are 10 and 6, it's darling," she says. "But if you have 20 children that are 10 and older, you could end up with a playing field -- and that might not be ideal."

By the way, it's totally fine to have your own kids attend but to exclude all other children from your guest list, says Becker.

You're part of a large extended family with many young children. How do you decide who's going to be the ring bearer and who will be the flower girl?
Your sibling's children, obviously, should take priority over, say, a friend's, but if this rule of thumb still leaves you in a fix, consider traditional etiquette, which limits your choices for flower girls and ring bearers to children between 3 and 7 years old. "Younger children simply don't make it to the end of the aisle" without some adult intervention, says Becker.

She adds that an 8-year-old can be promoted to junior bridesmaid, a title she can hold until her 18th birthday, when she's finally allowed to lose the "junior" label. "On the other hand, boys are usually retired from the wedding business from age 8 until they're old enough to be a groomsman, at 18," she says. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Kaforey once planned a wedding in which a toddler was pulled down the aisle in a wagon by a little girl. "It was adorable," she says.

Are there other duties to assign little ones beyond flower girl and ring bearer? You would love for all the young guests to feel special and involved.
At the ceremony, children can act as ushers, hand out programs, circulate mass books or yarmulkes, or distribute packets of rice or rose petals. At the reception, kids can manage a guest book or pass out favors in a basket or on a tray. Becker has also seen children (well rehearsed, of course) perform a group reading and young boys act as "train bearers."

Coyne even asked her young cousin to sing at her wedding, since he's a member of a boys' choir. And Bliss asked 10-year-old twin boys, who acted as ring bearers during her ceremony, to perform a guitar duet at the reception. Just be sure to match the job to the kid's personality; if a child is introverted and prone to hiding behind his mom's skirt, then he most likely isn't going to love giving a public performance, no matter how talented he is.

You plan on having kids be part of your ceremony, but you want an adults-only reception. Must you invite your ring bearer and flower girl to the reception?
There's no rule that says you must, but think of the bad feelings you'd engender if you didn't invite them. It's not an easy task, both emotionally and logistically, for parents to dress up kids in fancy clothes, prod them to do their given jobs, then tell them they have to miss the party. The thoughtful thing to do is to invite them to the reception. If you're really intent on having a purely adult reception, at the very least allow the flower girl and ring bearer to attend the cocktail hour and offer to find them babysitters for the rest of the night.

Sea bass may be lost on those who prefer chicken fingers. Do kids need a special, more child-friendly menu? And should children sit apart from adults?
Brown recommends seating kids aged 7 to 14 at a separate table, if you'd like, but he suggests seating those under 7 in another room entirely, with childcare provided; children this young, he says, will likely want to be near their parents and won't sit still for long if Mom and Dad are within eyesight and earshot.

When it comes to food, children's meals make kids happier and are often less expensive. Becker suggests a small buffet or individual meals with kid-friendly foods like spaghetti, chicken fingers, and fruit cups. Kaforey adds that children 13 and up should be able to eat adult fare, though you may want to ask parents about this ahead of time. If you suspect that a guest will need a high chair, ask the venue if they can provide one; if they can't, tell the parents so they can plan ahead.

If you'd like children to be in the same room as adults, Kaforey suggests designating an area off to the side that both feeds kids and keeps them busy. She likes mini-tables, small buffets, and kid-friendly decor, like tables peppered with coloring books and crayons organized in galvanized buckets. Brown remembers decorating a children's table at a reception with drop candy sprinkled like rosebuds. If it's in your budget, hire a babysitter to keep the chaos to a minimum and the kids out of parents' hair.

You want your adult guests to be able to eat, drink, and be merry. You also want the younger set to be part of the action. How can you make sure that they're having (controlled) fun at the reception, too?
"I'd always planned on children being in and at our wedding, so I had to think like a kid when it came to distracting them," says Jane Bliss. "My favorite part of the wedding was shopping for the kids' table!" During the reception, her young guests sat at one table for both food and crafts, with art supplies and picture frames, as well as trinket toys. "They had a blast, and they made things that had to do with the wedding, which was not a requirement," she says.

You'd like to round up the kids in a separate room at the reception. How do you make it feel like a special treat?
If little guests are going to be in their own supervised room, experts suggest filling it with easy-to-coordinate activities -- including board games; gender-neutral, kid-appropriate movies; and simple art projects. Even better, create a "Kids' Club," says Becker, and hire insured childcare providers to act as counselors who set up themed activities. During a beach wedding, for instance, she suggests painting shells and reading stories about sea creatures. For couples with big budgets, consider hired entertainers such as balloon artists, magicians, and puppeteers.

You've invited children to your wedding, and now one of your guests wants to bring along her nanny. Is this a common request?
A lot of parents prefer to leave their child with a familiar sitter, says Kaforey, so this isn't an unusual scenario. If it's in your budget, by all means include the nanny; not only is it a generous gesture, but it will give the invited parents peace of mind. Seat the nanny wherever you're seating the children -- at the parents' table, a children's table, or in a separate room (be sure to include her in the head count for an adult meal). Also, remember that she'll require an escort card and place card. That said, you're in no way obligated to say yes. Your guest list is your guest list, and you shouldn't have to invite someone just because someone wants you to. This is especially true if you're having an intimate affair with only your family and close friends in attendance or if you're on a tight budget.

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