7 Quick Takes: “Fair’s Fair” Edition

Don’t worry, it’s not another scholarly fisk of the cultural significance of Billy Jean.  I’m talking about the county fair!  The fair!  Who doesn’t love the fair?

If you’re taking your kids to the fair for the first time, you are going to hate it.
It will be, second only to the birth itself, the most miserable, sticky, disappointing, and ludicrously expensive day of your life as parents.  You will go home wondering why you just paid hundreds of dollars to make your kids this dirty and unhappy.
Also, you’re fairly sure you had eight children when you left the house, and now you only have six.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We kept trying and failing to have fun at the fair, and eventually we worked out some guidelines.  And this year, it finally happened:  we actually had a good time! All of us, even the wimp, the show-off,  the escape artist, the malcontent, the spoilsport, the worrier, and everyone.
Well, the baby actually hated it, but she kind of hates everything right now.
So here is how we managed:

Start saving money last year.  I’m serious — this is an expensive day.  You have to just accept that it costs what it costs, and there is really no point in making the effort if you’re not going to go whole hog.  Be prepared to shell out for admission (and possibly parking), ride tickets or passes, food, souvenirs, and possibly for special rides or shows — plus emergency cash for something unexpected, like bug spray or a bail bond.
And do some research.  There are usually a few cheaper days and a few expensive days, so work out exactly how much it will cost to do everything you want to do.   I recommend going on an unlimited pass or bracelet day.  We tried individual tickets, and it was not only more expensive, but made us very anxious, because we had to pace ourselves and conserve tickets.

Check the weather report! A wonderful day can be ruined by  clothes that are too hot or too cold.  Once we went on a rainy day, and lost a whole hour off our unlimited ride time.  And once we went on such a hot day, everyone just wanted to sit on a bench and suck down lemonade.  Which we could have done at home for much cheaper, with slightly less of that nauseating barnyard smell.
Bring sunblock and lots and lots of drinks.  The screaming, walking around, and the general excitement will make your kids even thirstier than they normally would be after a day outdoors.  There will be drinks for sale, but they will be EXPENSIVE.   Have I mentioned this?  It’s not because I’m a cheapskate; it’s because I don’t want you to have to tell a weeping 7-year-old girl, “I know I said you could ride the pony, but Mama spent her last $6 on your fourth lemonade!”

Make sure your kids know what to do if they get lost.    We tell them to first yell and yell (in case the rest of the family is right around the corner) and then they can go to a policeman,  someone behind a counter, or someone who looks like a nice mother, and say, “I’m lost – can you help me find my parents?”
Make sure your kids know their parents’ actual names (a surprising number assume Daddy’s name is “Daddy”), and what their parents are wearing (my daughter once described me as “the one with the haircut”). Dress your kids in distinctive clothing and write down descriptions of everyone (“black sweatpants, a Jack Kemp T-shirt, and a homemade haircut”) in case you need other people to help you find them, and are too flustered to remember what they look like.
The earlier in the day you go, the smaller the crowds will be.  Know which kids are likely to bolt or wander away, and give them a special lecture beforehand.  (We didn’t need one of these until kid #7 could walk, and then we needed it desperately.)

Plan for variety, especially if you need to stretch your money.  Do something thrilling, then something where you sit down, then something where you wander around, then a snack, then something for the older kids, then something for the younger kids, etc.  Save something primo for last, so when it’s almost time to go, you can say, “Okay, the fair is over . . . but not before we do such-and-such!”  Makes your exit much happier.
Bring the roomiest stroller you have.  The fair is completely exhausting for little ones, so kids who’ve outgrown the stroller might need a ride.  Also, it’s helpful to have somewhere to stash all those drinks.

In order to make the effort and expense worthwhile, you will want to be there for several hours  — which means you will be there during a meal time.  I recommend packing a picnic for the meal, and spending your money on snacks, instead.  Kids don’t appreciate an $8 steak sub, but they will always remember getting a cloud of cotton candy or a caramel apple with rainbow sprinkles.
What we do is arrive at lunch time, but then go on rides right away before eating.  The kids would have been too excited to eat at first, and would have just pecked at the meal, and then begged for snacks later.  After a few rides, they were happy to take a break for sandwiches and chips.

Succumb to the stickiness.  Your kids will be just disgusting by the end of the day:  sweaty, sugary, dusty, and, yes, possibly throw-uppy (although that never happened to us, miraculously).  It’s a good idea to have them wear clothes you don’t care about. Be smart about timing:  they can ride the Neck Snapper, but not right after eating one of Doody’s Famous Fried Pickles.
Bring a change of clothes for the youngest kids, and plastic bags.  Trust me on this.  Sooner or later, you will be stuck holding something that desperately needs to be wrapped up in a plastic bag.

Discuss expectations ahead of time.   Before you even enter the grounds, let them know what they will be doing, and what they will not — and stick to it.  How many rides can they expect to go on?   Will you be playing games, buying a meal, buying snacks, buying balloons, buying toys, riding the pony, seeing a show, seeing the animals?   Especially if you have lots of kids with various desires, just winging it will lead to someone feeling disappointed.  (We skip the games of chance altogether, and just let them pick out a souvenir.  Not as exciting, but cheaper, and less heartache.)
My husband and I discuss our expectations, too:  we remind each other that our #1 goal is to give the kids a super fun day, and that we will both try our hardest to be patient and generous, and do our best to give the kids what they want (within reason).  A day of fun is no time to teach lessons. It’s okay to be over-indulgent once in a while, as long as you’re doing a good job on most other days.
Also, this may sound silly, but unless you’re getting home late at night, it’s a good idea to have some mild treat waiting for them at home — lollipops or a special movie.  Kids are tricky, especially if they’ve been looking forward to something for weeks– and now it’s over.  You will expect them to be grateful and satisfied, but they will likely feel exhausted, let down, and cranky.
So go easy on them.  Tomorrow, you can go back to the old routine, but it’s nice to do whatever you need to do to keep things pleasant today.  And once the kiddies are in bed, you can have a nice little drink and put your feet up.
And for goodness’ sake, take better pictures than I did.  Never before have so many knees, ears, and backs of heads been captured for posterity.
Oh, before I forget:  check out the other 7 Quick Takes hosted by Jen at  Conversion Diary, and leave a link of your own!  Or, wait, it’s actually at Betty Beguiles this week, I forgot!


  1. I always mix up your boys M. and E. in my mind, so I asked Julia which was which in the photo. She said “I don’t know – I can never tell from photos. And I can never tell them apart by what they talk about, because they BOTH talk about robots.”

  2. I have great memories of going to the fair when I was 8 I rode the farris wheel with my Dad, ate an “elephants ear” and won a blow up crayon almost as tall as me. Good times.

  3. “You will expect them to be grateful and satisfied, but they will likely feel exhausted, let down, and cranky.”

    sounds like a lot of things in life. What is with us people? I want an $8 steak sub, right now! For second breakfast!

    Anne, really? The neck snapper? I went to the country and state fair every year in MD for a while, but only because I was showing my rabbit, or solidarity for 4-H. Unfourtunately we can’t make it to a fair this summer, but “seeing the animals” is the reason I will tell my kids we’re going when we do go, until that distant mirage of dizziness and fear (and stickiness) known as the midway beckons them beyond my recall.

  4. Going to the fair was an annual treat for us kids when I was growing up – my brother had a birthday and the fair always fell on the same week, and he always picked ‘going to the fair’ for his birthday party. My parents were fairly frugal about it – they packed a picnic and lots of drinks and paid only for entrance and I think about 5 dollars worth of ride/game tickets per kid. Which, come to think of it, comes out to an awful lot with 5-7 kids at the fair.

    After that, we had to pay our own way for extra snacks, treats, and more games and rides if we ran out of tickets. One of my brothers spent his money on a new butt-ugly bowie knife. Every single year. I was a sucker for games and more than once brought home a goldfish in a bag that promptly expired. But the fair was a fun way to blow all of our saved up allowance, and we all managed to have a ton of fun – from those of us who never had more than an extra dollar to spend, to the birthday brother who was the stingy type and always had about 20 bucks saved up.

    We pretty much ran wild over the fair grounds too. We knew we could always find Dad by the livestock tents and mom admiring the craftworks. 🙂

  5. I always marvel at how hard-working and courteous the 4-H kids are, compared to the thugs and harlots crowding the midway. The fair is a great parenting lesson. I’m getting my kids a goat before it’s too late. Oooo, I made a pun!

  6. Wow. This is the most well-thought-out, practical advice on taking a bunch of kids *anywhere* super fun, exciting, and chaotic!

    I think you’re absolutely right about that feeling of let-down and attendant crankiness afterward, too. That usually starts me grumbling on the lack of gratitude in kids, but I think you’re totally on track about accommodating it, instead. Kids really don’t know how to handle intense emotions, and their expectations of things are always sky-high! I’m going to remember this.

  7. Exactly. That let-down always seems like ingratitude, but we forget what high expectations a child can have, born of a combination of fertile imagination and a lack of experience in general. Nothing in real life could match those expectations, and when you add exhaustion and a little nausea, no wonder you end up with crankiness. It’s very good to prepare them, understand them, and then wean them at the end of the day. I’ll remember that.

  8. Also, it’s wise to make sure you know to rules of the fair before going! We went to one this year and the major rule was “NO OUTSIDE FOOD”….what a let down. If we knew in advance, we probably would have skipped that fair for a different one.

  9. I love the baby’s squishy face!

    We haven’t been to a fair yet, but we’ve done our parish carnival several times. Your advice is spot-on for our experience. We have a bolter, too; he’s two. He’s almost always contained to save my sanity.

    One thing you didn’t mention is that it’s always helpful to have two adults. There’s always at least one ride someone can’t or won’t ride on. There’s more options when two adults are there. I tried doing the carnival by myself one year, and it went very poorly. Never again!

  10. We always got free entrance because we were part of the Respect for Life booth in the exhibition hall. Seriously. Come to think of it, my parents still get free entrance for volunteering at this booth.

  11. Blow a few bucks on extra baby wipes and the sticky stuff doesn’t have to be quite so sticky. I also write out two copies of each kid’s name and my cell phone and stick one in their pocket and pin one inside their shirt everytime we go anywhere with crowds. That way if they get too nervous to talk, or hurt, people can still reach me.

    And I make a big deal of setting up a meeting place when we walk in – the main ticket booth or what have you, and stress that they DON’T GO INTO THE PARKING LOT if they get lost. I have good reasons for this.

    Also, I make them wear helmets.
    Not really.

    And throwing up is simply not allowed.

    This is, as usual, a wonderful and timely post. I think we’re headed to the fair this week, but we’re not nearly as photogenic.

  12. This list is great!

    My husband had the brilliant idea years ago to start hyping popcorn and cotton candy as our “favorite fair treats” – because they are cheaper and can feed a crowd. The girls now would never even consider asking for ice cream or any of the pricier snacks, because popcorn and cotton candy are our thing. (It actually took *me* a while to get on board with this, because it was hard to give up funnel cakes, but as we are embarking on #6, I’m glad we already have the brain washing in place.)

  13. I know I’m late on this (started reading your blog after redcardigan linked to your homeschool article), but we’ve always had a pleasant fair experience.

    Here’s how:

    1. Find a cheap fair. Ours is 5$ per adult, 2$ for kids 12-18 and free for kids 12 and under.

    2. Have friends in 4-H– the kids will spend hours looking for their projects and animals.

    3. Commercial Barns and political tents = tons of free ballons and pencils.

    4. Lunch = rabbit restaurant + milk barn. Total cost? About 2.25 a person.

    5. See lots and lots of animals. Also, the free demos. And our fair has “Pioneer Land”– a free chance to live like a pioneer.

    6. Explain to the kids that the midway is overpriced rides that make you throw up. Then, let them help groom a horse.

    7. As soon as their old enough, let them do 4-H… then it’s THEIR fair.

    (I grew up in Montgomery Co. MD– that fair WAS always a dissapointment– midwest fairs seem much better! More… like what you’d expect from reading Charlotte’s Web… 🙂 )

    Thanks for blogging! I love your Inside Catholic posts and enjoy the extra giggles over here.

  14. Best idea I ever saw: a mother who wrote her cell phone number on each small child’s forearm in marker! That way if they got lost, the police knew who to call. Brilliant.

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