The scene at the Childs' household in El Toro was casual bordering on chaotic. As public relations account executive Tracy Childs recalled a recent dinner with guests, he described an adult conversation punctuated with frequent admonitions to his sons, 3-year-old Aaron and 15-month-old Timothy:
"Aaron, don't stand on the table."
"Aaron, don't throw food on the floor."
"Timothy, don't eat the food Aaron threw on the floor."
Entertaining with children requires certain adjustments, Childs pointed out.
That has always been true. But those adjustments may be a greater challenge in a world where both parents work, where many first-time parents are older, where time is at a premium and so are baby-sitters. It's easy enough to forgo pressed linens and polished silver and to limit the menu to one or two courses that can be managed without help. But the tough question remains--what shall we do with the children?
For an increasing number of Orange County couples, the answer is, "Bring them along."
Children almost always are included when Childs and his wife, Susan, get together with friends. While it may take some extra organizing to work around toddlers' prodigious energy and early bedtime, entertaining often seems simpler this way.
Their preferred style always has been informal, he noted. But now, "our entertaining is more family-oriented--and it starts much earlier," he said with a laugh. "By 7 o'clock, we're winding down."
When childless friends are invited, they arrange to begin the evening at the end of the children's day, just before their 7:30 bedtime. But that doesn't happen often.
"We don't have a whole lot of childless friends over anymore," Childs said. "It's hard--they can't relate to our life style."
It's a life style that is often out of sync with that of single friends and co-workers. Weekends are for families, not football games. Couples who have been away from their children all day are reluctant to leave them with a sitter (if they could find one) in the evenings. And the urban custom of waiting out the evening traffic jam at "happy hour" doesn't work for working parents. Instead of hanging around for two-for-one cocktails and free bean dip, they head straight home for cranberry juice and Ritz crackers with the kids.
A Tustin pharmaceutical sales representative, however, has found a way to share that after-hours camaraderie with her family.
"Because I work, I always look forward to happy hour, so usually I have it at my house," said Cathy Paolini.
Andrew, 3 1/2, and Lauren, 2, enjoy the appetizers and the company almost as much as she does, Cathy said.
"They love it! When I tell them company's coming, they get excited, and keep asking, 'Are they here yet?' "
Paolini and her husband, Frank, service manager for an automotive services company in Long Beach, frequently entertain "just for fun."
"I enjoy cooking and getting people together, usually in groups of eight or 10, including children," she said. "Everyone raves about what I can do in a short amount of time."
Typically, the Paolinis' hospitality revolves around a barbecue in the back yard, where the children play croquet and roast marshmallows in the fire pit after dinner. Occupying the little ones is easier when older children help entertain them, Paolini said.
"Probably the most formal entertaining we do is with a monthly dinner group," she noted.
Several couples regularly take turns hosting a formal dinner party, she explained. A baby-sitting pool is formed by four families who hire two sitters to watch all their children at one house. Videos are rented or treats are provided for them. Usually they are fed ahead of time, but sometimes they are given a meal together.
"It's fairly inexpensive," Paolini said. "They get something special and we get something special."
Something special for the children is the key to making the occasion enjoyable for everyone, according to Donna Alexander of Huntington Beach.
"We try as much as possible to invite someone who has children when we entertain," she said.
It's more fun for 3 1/2-year-old Kristen that way. And after waiting 19 years for their first child, Donna and her husband, Richard, aren't about to exclude her from gatherings with friends.
Often the excitement of guests her own age is sufficient to keep Kristen entertained while her parents visit. Sometimes, however, the excitement is too much.
All children misbehave before guests at times, Alexander pointed out. "It's as if they're thinking, 'If I'm going to be naughty, this is the time to do it.' " Toddlers aren't always "party people," she noted, and may not be at their best in a crowd.
Still, it is possible to avoid unpleasant scenes with an overstimulated child without giving up your social life.
"The first thing we've done is to send Kristen to manners class," Alexander said.