First off, let me direct you to Seriously Silly by David Kaye. This book has the definitive directory on what to do if you get a behaviour problem during a show. To be honest, I rarely have to use it. (And by the way, I haven’t looked at it while making this lesson. I don’t want to be influenced directly by it or to make this repetitive for you.) The reason I don’t use it is I place a much greater emphasis on prevention over cure.
My biggest behaviour management strategy is to prevent disruptive behaviour from happening. I think about this a lot simply because it is such a bad position to find yourself in. Prevention is so much easier than trying to fix it.
I’ve always had a relatively good relationship with young people but I’ll be honest. When I started performing for kids, I had some pretty major misapprehensions.
The first was even though I was a parent, I never really felt like an adult. I felt like I was just a big kid. I felt I had this special relationship with kids where it was us against them (them being the adults). I was on their side and I would fight the good fight for them. It was a Peter Pan type of existence.
Then something happened.
I was tucking my 2-year-old to bed one night but she was determined not to sleep.
Now I’d never smacked her before—in fact, I’d never smacked anybody before—so I gave her a little whack on the bum and she stopped and stared at me with a look I’ll never forget.
I must explain to you that up to this point, even though I was a father, I still considered myself just a big kid. I’d never really considered myself a man.
So the look my daughter gave me mirrored her realisation that you’re not one of us, you’re one of them. And she was right. Kids don’t discipline kids; adults discipline kids.
“No, hang on, I’m sorry,” I said. But it was too late. I had just grown up.
The reason I remember this so well is because it was so visceral. It was as if a thin thread held me to something and it had just snapped. I remember saying, “Holy cow, Batman. What was that?”
It was a moment of clarity, when the pieces of the puzzle come together when you least expect it.
I was the adult! Even though I had accepted this, I still kept on making the same mistake when I began performing shows. I repeated the Peter Pan attitude in my early performing years and I think this is the reason why: It had everything to do with my low self-confidence. I was so concerned with how I might appear to other adults if I lost control during a show. It was like a subconscious defense mechanism that I had created to protect myself from failure. I could say, “Don’t look at me. It’s not my problem, I’m one of them.”
I also thought that the pack wouldn’t turn against one of their own. I was wrong and I’m sure many parents saw through this thinly veiled lack of confidence.
So here is the first insight I want to share. You may laugh this off as being ridiculous but it wasn’t clear to me at the beginning, and I always think that there is at least one other person out there who is thinking the same thing.
I Am the Adult
The first thing to do is to understand who YOU are up there on the stage. What is your role?
I am booked as an entertainer, not as a disciplinarian or a teacher. However, it’s not that clear-cut.
Who am I working for really? The audience? The birthday child? But I am technically working for the person who booked me, the person who paid me money to solve a problem they have. And the problem they have is they want a fun party that goes off without a hitch. So I have to entertain. But as I have ‘sold’ myself on my ability to come in and ‘take over’ the party, I have to be able to do that.
Therefore, I am ‘working’ for adults but performing to kids. Just understanding this makes everything very clear.
I am the adult and you are the kid and you WILL give me respect.
I have to EARN that respect but you WILL give it to me or you won’t be welcome in MY audience. That’s a far cry from my Peter Pan approach.
You see for years I wasn’t playing the really strong hand I had been dealt—that I am an adult right now and you are kids. And at home you have to do what your parents tell you; at school you have to do what your teachers tell you; so why if you are in my audience should you not have to do what I tell you? It is such a strong position to be in right from the get-go. Use it to your benefit.
Kids have no idea if there is any other way, so they expect you to be in control and they expect to have to do what you tell them. For years I undermined this advantage I had by trying to be too friendly with the kids.
If you keep giving out cues that if they play the game, they get rewarded with fun, 95% of the time you will quite literally have no problems. That’s all you have to do.
What happens during the other 5% when problems surface? Before I show you my simple approach, you need to understand WHY kids will do things. (That’s my approach—understand WHY people behave like they do, then try to provide them with what they want.)
So, what do kids want?
Julian Franklin in his book Kid Control sheds light on what kids really want. I’ll paraphrase it here:
Kids have a problem. They only know one-tenth of the expressive words that an adult knows. So when they want to express themselves, they find it really frustrating.
They spend most of the day in school where they are encouraged not to talk. They are told to be quiet in class, to eat their lunch quietly. (Julian Franklin has a wonderful term for this—they live in ‘crowded isolation.’)
Kids go home and Mum and Dad want some quiet at the end of the day.
Kids park in front of the TV for hours at a time. TV is a one-way flow of thoughts and ideas.
ADD to that this fact: the need to be understood is one of the most basic human needs.
Remember that solitary confinement for 23 hours a day with only one hour daily to socialize is designated by the United Nations as ‘torture.’
NOW you might get a better understanding of WHY kids yell “I know that one” or “Pick me” and why they do that attention-seeking laughter.
Rule of Thumb #1
Now that you more or less understand why kids behave the way they do during shows, you, the performer, are in a conundrum. You understand that kids have a NEED to be heard, but you also know that acknowledging every comment that comes from the audience will only encourage a flood of comments.
My first rule of thumb is to just steam-roll your way through your show ignoring those one-off comments. Kids get the hint pretty quickly.
Remember that you are not there to solve the inequalities of the world and give all the kids—regardless of their race, creed, or socioeconomic backgrounds—the same right to be heard. You are there to give a good show.
Keep smiling and be generally respectful in your attitude and no one will have a problem with you for doing this. Adults will see your strategy and they will quietly acknowledge your skills in keeping the show rolling. Kids will deal with it.
But what about the kids who just keep on and on and on? They are not bad kids, but they can’t disrupt your show.
Rule of Thumb #2
If you can sense the other adults becoming uncomfortable, then you must address this problem. This is generally how it goes:
Hello. What is your name? James. Look at me, James… James, look at me here. (I point to my eyes.)
I cannot do the show if you keep yelling out. It just doesn’t work. (Smile at James) So save up all your questions and I’ll answer them after the show. Can you and me do that? Yes. I knew you were a smart kid, James.
Often I will say to the audience, “Give James a clap for being a smart kid. He understands how to make a show good.”
This approach generally prevents any further outbursts. James is happy enough—in his eyes, he is a clever kid who ‘understands something.’ He is probably not sure what that something actually is, but he likes the feelings he is experiencing at the moment.
I would say one in a hundred kids goes past this point and keeps on disrupting the show. So how do you deal with that kid who just won’t stop? Check out the next rule.
Rule of Thumb #3
If there is one thing you should never do, it is to enter into an argument or discussion with a child. You will find out very quickly that they are a genius at using a logic that you don’t understand, therefore making it almost impossible for you to win the argument.
Because I always abide by this rule, I have very little grey area when kids step over the line. I quickly become the authoritative adult and I dish out orders very swiftly. This is my last resort but I use it without a moment’s hesitation. I have given them respect but they haven’t repaid me with the same.
If the kid happens to be someone I don’t think is really a problem kid, I will search them out after the show and explain to them that I am not cross at them but I needed to do that. They are usually appreciative of this.
Rule of Thumb #4
If all this has failed and you have a child who cannot help but be the centre of attention, I then stop mid-sentence and say:
James, look at me. We need to sort something out right now. This is Max’s birthday party and we are all here to make his day special. If you keep yelling out, then I will have to keep stopping the show and you will be called by everyone as the kid who ruined Max’s birthday party.
James, I think you are a really smart kid but you just haven’t thought about this enough. James, will you stop yelling now so Max can have a good party?
By now there will be an uneasy mood in the room. But then, there was already an uneasy mood in the room when the problem child was yelling out and all the other kids and adults were wondering what I was going to do. If there is an elephant in the room, you must address it.
If this still fails, now is the time to ask for parental assistance. This can turn very nasty as a very embarrassed parent has to come in and usually drag a screaming child out. Understand that this is a worst case scenario. It has happened to me only once in thousands of shows. Could I have done something differently to avoid it from going this far? Maybe. Possibly. I will concede yes to that question.
But I am not an expert in child behaviour. What I am an expert in is going into people’s homes and putting on a good show, and I do this by being in control. In this case, I was in control. I had a plan. I didn’t just stand there and throw my hands in the air. Parents understand it doesn’t all go according to plan. What they did see me do was approach the problem professionally. There is not much else you can do.
Give the tips above a try next time you’re faced with a poorly behaved audience, and share with us what has and has not worked for you in the comments section below.