There was a time not so long ago when properly dressed children were seen and not heard -- especially in crowded antique shops. Now weekend outings are the only time some families get together and while some antique dealers secretly cringe when they see little hands and feet bounding into the shop, many feel that with some preparation, children would be less threatening.
Pat Johnson, a Washington mother of four who zips around to antique shops and shows with the entire family in tow, adamantly supports this strategy. "The most critical thing to a successful trip is going well-prepared," she stresses. "I've seen many children whose parents haven't thought enough about their adventure in advance. What could be a fun experience turns into a disaster."
Johnson suggests packing some food and juice to snack on when children start acting up. If there are small children -- she has a 10-month-old -- be sure to bring bottle, pacifier and a change of clothes. To keep spirits aloft on the drive, she packs a book or two for each child, some paper and Magic Markers as well as a cassette recorder with tapes of stories, songs and poetry. This may sound like a lot of gear to haul around, but it pays off down the road, says Johnson.
Because both Johnson and her husband are antique aficionados, their children have an unusual understanding for the intrinsic value of antiques -- even on a small scale. Their nine-year-old son Todd was ecstatic when he made his first foray into the win-or-lose world of auctions and brought home a $7 set of toy soldiers. Johnson says she tries to stimulate their curiosity by "talking to them about the history and uses of items in the shops and making the children part of the experience. You can't expect a child to appreciate antiques without any guidance."
Many dealers take it upon themselves to gently guide children away from a tilting teacup by offering simple diversions. Audrey Hildebrand, owner of Pathway Antiques in Bethesda, will sit a child in a small rocker and give him a basket of buttons to count or organize by size. Gloria Grant distracts careening customers in her shop, the Grapevine, with a hand puppet or kaleidoscope and copies of National Geographic's "World."
Mark Secrest takes a more aggressive approach to removing children from harm's way: "We give children a 10-cent tour of the workrooms." The technical equipment and tools used in restoring the 17th- and 18th-century furniture and paintings he sells usually fascinate the children. But Secrest urges parents to bring a child's favorite toy or book. When a child grows restless, he says, "the dealer can't hold the parents' interest and parents can't catch everything the dealer is saying." Everyone gets frustrated.
As office manager of Weschler's, a local auction house, Barbara Connery is poised at the front door, braced for wandering children. "If you keep their hands busy, that's half the battle," she says. Connery usually gives kids a legal pad and pencil and suggests they jot down the tag number and price of the items their parents may buy. The other half of the battle is won, she says, when parents make a genuine effort to arouse their children's curiosity. "The more you can involve them, the more positive their response will be."
Other ways to grab and hold a child's attention, suggests Bethesda shop owner Adrienne Moss, is to draw the child in as a consultant and ask for his opinion. Cynthia Fehr, who owns antique shops in both Georgetown and New Market, recommends encouraging children to start collections of their own.
It may smack of bribery, but Jamie Schwarz, owner of Homespun, a New Market antique quilt and clothing shop, suggests giving a child a little mad money. This tactic allows the child to keep a sharp lookout for a tiny treasure he'd like to keep as a souvenir or give as a present.
After a day of jumping from pillar to post, there's no escaping the fact that every child has a breaking point. "When that point hits," advises Johnson, "you just go.""