Fear of fireworks runs in my family. I have a distinct memory of, at the age of three or so, running screaming into the house to hide under the covers after the very first Fourth of July “boom.” (My parents probably shouldn’t have been surprised. I was also afraid of boats, bumblebees, heights, elevators, and accidentally swallowing my own tongue, among other things.)
With five kids of my own, it’s been interesting to see which ones have embraced fireworks, and which ones would just as soon skip the whole affair. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that it’s not always possible to tell ahead of time which kids will love the display and which will freak out.
Sometimes the kid who got excited about the spectacle at the age of 3 will, at 4, start wondering what happens to all those sparks as they fall down. Sometimes the kid who seems the most fearless about other things (say, doing backflips off the sofa) will turn into a quivering mass of jelly at the first colorful flash. And whichever kid feels the Fourth fear, it’s never worth trying to out-logic them (logic doesn’t generally work on a preschooler’s fears) or and just plain cruel to make them “tough it out.”
Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve figured out a few ways to make sure the Fourth of July is fun for everyone in the family:
1. Prepare little ones
It’s easy to forget that for a small child, this year’s fireworks display may be the first time it has even occurred to him that huge, fiery balls of color loudly exploding in the sky could be a good thing. Watching movies featuring fireworks displays, explaining what they are, preparing your child for the noise, and reassuring him that the fireworks are very far away and cannot fall on him may help him feel ready for what he’ll see and hear.
2. Go for a trial run (or walk)
If you don’t mind keeping the kids up late, you may want to spend some time hanging out in your backyard or taking a cruise after dark in the days leading up to the Fourth. If your community is anything like mine, people have been setting off their own semi-pro fireworks displays for the last week now (is that even legal?). They aren’t quite as big and loud as the real deal, but can still be a good way to gauge your child’s initial reaction and help him get a taste of what’s to come.
3. Choose a low-key spot
A few years back we moved to a touristy lake city, and the first time I took the kids to the popular downtown beach for fireworks, I realized I had made a mistake. It was pitch-black, there were thousands and thousands of people out, and there would have been no way for me to remove a screaming child (luckily, that year the baby stayed home with Dad and all the bigger kids did fine). If I had asked friends who’d lived in the area longer, they could have given me the scoop: just down the shore was a less-popular and much less busy beach that would have been a laid-back place to take the kids.
4. Map your escape route
If you’re taking more than one child to the fireworks, it’s a good idea to bring along a friend or your co-parent to help you deal in case one of them has a meltdown (or has to go potty…you don’t want to lose your hard-won viewing spot.) Consider choosing a viewing spot that’s close to a public building, store, or restaurant so that if your little one gets scared, you can make a clean getaway (remember, it might not be so easy to hop in your car and head home with throngs of people everywhere.)
5. Make a home-based backup plan
I was really bummed when my oldest son Jacob turned out to be terrified of fireworks as a toddler and I had to retreat inside, but part of having little kids means sometimes missing events you love. Over the years we’ve created new rituals with friends and family that celebrate wherever we all are in life, which means that if somebody has a baby or toddler we are far more likely to plan a backyard barbecue than a trek downtown to see the fireworks. We’ve also adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy in which one parent or set of parents takes the bigger or more enthusiastic kids to watch, while the others stay at home and split a bottle of wine while the youngest kids watch a video or pull strings on “poppers.”
This year? Well, over 15 years of parenting we’ve honed the fine art of “playing it by ear.” We tend to make our Fourth plans at the last minute, based on a combination of everyone’s mood, whether the youngest has napped, and whether anyone seems apprehensive about the whole affair.
Come tomorrow evening we might all be spread out on a blanket expectantly looking up at the sky…or just hanging out in the backyard playing with sparklers. Either way, I know we’ll have an awesome Fourth of July, fireworks or no.