I attended my first comic convention, a Motor City Comic Con of the mid-'90s, in high school; since then I've been through the highs and lows of Wizard World Chicago, the chaotic majesty of San Diego's Comic-Con International, the intensity and shifting sands of New York Comic Con and the revitalization of the Windy City con scene with the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, better known as C2E2. This year, I decided to bring my three-year-old daughter Lila along -- she's already reading "My Little Pony," "Chi's Sweet Home" and a few good others; why should she wait til her teen years to experience the excitement and madness of comic-con?
Joined by my wife and the friends who graciously let us stay at their apartment throughout the con weekend, Lila and I set off for the first of what I hope will be many enjoyable con experiences. But look: kids, rightly, have different expectations for a con than might be the case with their parents. It's a good idea to have a strategy, some plan beyond, "Walk through the door and have a magical time full of memories that will be cherished for years and years." What follows are a few guidelines for bringing kids to their first cons, based on one family's experiences; your mileage may vary, but I offer this simply in the hope this perspective will help some parents think of things they otherwise might not have, or spell out certain things we might intellectually know but fail to account for in the heat of the moment. As you'll see, there were a few moments we (rather, I) failed to stick to the plan, with about the results you'd expect.
Let her know what will happen
Before going to the show, talk to your child about what to expect. This includes cosplay -- tell her there will be people in costumes, that some of them will let you take pictures with them if you want, that you too can dress up if you like. Lila went with a Minnie Mouse dress, sans ears. Simple works -- there were a number of kids in Batman costumes, Superman and the like, but there will also a few custom jobs like Batwoman and Huntress, and an older girl in a fantastic Weeping Angel outfit. Whatever your child wants to do, or whatever you have time and interest to put together together, go for it.
Also talk about all the comics, toys, clothes, and such that will be on display, which leads into...
Set a budget
A good rule for anybody going to a con, really, but we've found in general that telling Lila she has X number of dollars to spend avoids most problems with wanting too many/too expensive toys. "That costs $15, which is $8 more than you have in your budget" is something she understands. For this con, I gave her a budget of $30 -- more than she's ever had to work with, possibly a higher number than she understands in real terms, but still a concrete limit that we could explain to her if she got hungry eyes. I figured, there are things at a comic con she couldn't get any other time, and I wanted to make sure she had enough to get one or two things she really wanted.
Well, it was that.
Let her spend it
Within five minutes of hitting the show floor, Lila found Amy Lynn Duengfelder's booth, which featured, among other items, custom-painted "My Little Ponies." Lila's eyes locked on a figure with a "Hello Kitty" cutie mark, thus combining two of her favorite things. The toy was $25.
We chatted with the man minding Amy's booth and, reluctant to have Lila spend 84% of her budget before having more of a look-around, we headed off around the corner. The man at the booth said he'd hold the figure for us a while in case we came back later, which we thought even then was pretty likely.
"Later" turned out to be about two steps in one direction, then two steps back to the booth.
It's what she wanted. It was in her budget. It made her happy and, seeing her play with it the rest of the day, it was clear nothing was going to make her happier. In fact, she didn't even ask to buy anything else, saving us the remaining $5.
Let her lead
Backing up a second, because this will go along with the previous rule: it's kids' day; let the kid tell you what she wants to do. This was my mantra setting out, but I broke the rule early when I wanted to introduce the family to some friends at Archaia and pick up some kid-friendly books like "Mouse Guard." It was too much, too early, too strange and unfamiliar. Kicking myself for straying from the course and upsetting Lila in the process, I abandoned any sense of an agenda for the rest of the day and let Lila take the lead, which is what I should have done in the first place. Which is not to say I didn't have any ideas about fun stuff to do.
Know what's there
No matter how child-directed you intend your day to be, the con floor is overwhelming and there is a lot to see. Know the artist booths, the comics, and the events that might interest your child so that you can make suggestions or provide some direction through the chaos. For example, from studying the program and from walking the show floor Friday and Saturday, I knew "My Little Pony" writer Katie Cook was set up in Artist's Alley; that Aw Yeah Comics! were debuting at the show; and that there were fluffy Japanese toys spread throughout the vendor area, some of which may have been in her budget.
Know you're not going to do it all
Yeah, we didn't do any of that stuff. We did go to Artist's Alley to see Jill Thompson, whose "Magic Trixie" books are currently among the top of Lila's favorites ("Scary Godmother" is also up there). My wife and I thanked Jill for putting out a book in which girls acted like actual girls, and Lila gazed excitedly at the Magic Trixie pillow cases (outside her budget, by this point). We did buy "Gertrude the Great" from her to sign -- from the Mommy and Daddy budget -- and asked for a picture. Lila, never terribly interested in posing for pictures -- reasons why all of ours are action shots -- threw a mini-fit, which Jill obliged by throwing a mock-fit herself. The result is a pretty great picture. But it was quite clear we were done with Artist's Alley.
Across the hall from the main show floor was a kids' activity room with an obstacle course. Led by a costumed adult superhero, groups of about ten kids at a time would choose heroic names and powers, sneak up on an evil robot, pound the robot to save the day, and hop away across a pit of lava. Flying away from the obstacle course, Lila was reenergized and ready for a little -- just a little -- more of the con.
At the Marvel booth, a line of fans, mostly organized into groups of families and friends, waited to pose with props including Captain America's shield, Thor's hammer Mjolnir, and Hulk's giant hands. I asked Lila if she had any interest -- she hasn't really got into any Marvel comics yet, though she knows Spider-Man -- and she was surprisingly keen on it. Despite the line. And while there were child-sized versions of a few props, notably Cap's shield, Lila of course wanted the giant Hulk hands, each about half the size of her body. That picture, she did pose for, as many times as the Marvel staffer asked. Some of them turned out pretty well.
Bring snacks, maybe even lunch
Kids don't like con food any more than you do. It's not any cheaper for them, either. We have a special diet thing that makes this absolutely essential, but it's a decent idea for anybody who's not keen on spending $8 for a cold, hard mini-pizza. That said, if your little one does want a churro -- well, that's your call.
Don't expect to stay all day
Kids get tired, man. That's no secret. Even if they're past the stage of having a regular nap, a big day in a new environment with a lot to see and do can be exhausting. And, hey, maybe they don't want to look through a giant toy store all day -- maybe they just want to go play with the toys they've already picked out. You'll have a better time if you leave before over-tiredness kicks in; Lila's threshold was about four hours, quite a bit longer than expected. Follow the cues.
This rule, as they say, encompasses all the others. And hey, every child is different, every parent is different. I offer this merely as a guideline that might help con-veteran parents create the best possible experience for "baby's first comic-con." But you know your kid; do what works. And, most importantly...