Call it Embarrassed Mother Syndrome. As my exuberant, confident, then 3-year-old daughter, Miriam, marched through social events to the beat of her own drum, deep inside, I cringed.
Sometimes Miriam’s personality just seemed too big for the setting. At parties, I’d attempt to correct her behavior; she’d put up resistance. I’d end up apologizing to the host and other guests, and she’d end up angry. Not much fun for either of us.
Then one day, driving to a get-together at a friend’s house, I had an inspiration. I announced, “We’re going to play a new game called Guest and Host!” I explained that we’d take turns asking questions about how guests act at a party. The rules were that the first answer had to be a silly wrong one — the crazier the better — while the second answer should be serious. We’d have a laugh at the first one and cheer the correct response.
As you might expect if you’ve spent any time with 3-year-olds, the silly answers tended to involve things like peeing on the carpet and running around on top of tables. “What do you do if your host offers you a food you don’t like?” “You scream ‘I hate that!’ and throw it up to the ceiling to see if it sticks!” Miriam’s delighted laughter was one measure of my newly invented game’s instant success. But I was also impressed by her seriousness in giving right answers and her curiosity about any topics unfamiliar to her.
By the time we arrived at our host’s home, we’d covered greetings, good-byes, and many topics in between, including boredom, bathroom needs, and loaded buffet tables. The game worked! Miriam tried hard to be a model guest, checking in with me often to see how she was doing. Clearly, I’d been wrong to equate her desire to do her own thing with her not caring about manners and courtesy. For the first time, we were being good guests together — and having a good time, too.
The Guest and Host game has been with us ever since. The fun we have while trying on outrageous behaviors (which are even goofier when Miriam’s dad, Werner, joins in) makes the real lessons much easier to swallow.
Over the years, the game has evolved, with the questions and answers becoming increasingly sophisticated, and Miriam’s mastery and confidence have grown. Of course, the responses to more complex queries are trickier than “No, we don’t lick the spoon and then put it back in the serving bowl.” Instead, we might consider problems such as how, in a social setting, one expresses a difference of opinion without being rude. Playing our game, we can think through the gray areas together.
When Miriam was about 9, she wanted to switch it up: I’d ask all the questions, and she’d supply the answers. I think it was her way of signaling that she saw Guest and Host as more than a game; instead, it had become a way for her to test her grasp of social dynamics. She’s now almost 12, and she still wants to play when we’re headed to a party. It’s still fun. And as her world gets bigger, it might be even more important.