Though the bride and groom are traditionally the center of attention at their wedding, the spotlight is sometimes stolen by their youngest attendants. Whether it be because they look so cute or because they've had a meltdown, flower girls and ring bearers can be among the most memorable members of the wedding party.
The tradition of having children in wedding parties started because written records were not maintained in olden times. Attendants had to be young so they would live long enough to be able to verify that a marriage took place should the question arise upon the death of one of the parties.
Though there is no set age for the youngest attendants, many are between 3 and 7. There is also no set number, which is up to the bride and groom. Many flower girls and ring bearers are nieces, nephews, cousins or the children of friends of the couple.
Kathi Evans, president of All the Best Weddings & Celebrations, has some definite views on how to best incorporate children into a wedding party. "As a wedding planner, I've seen it all," she says. "Children as young as 2 walking up the aisle all by themselves and as old as 7 who look at all the people and refuse to budge. Things will go well at the rehearsal, but come wedding day it's a different story. It's always a crapshoot when children are involved. You just have to be ready with plan B."
Evans advises sending children up the aisle in pairs, citing "safety in numbers," because one child will encourage the less reluctant one to come along.
As to the best age for the littlest attendants, Evans thinks that 4 years old is perfect for a flower girl or ring bearer. "Younger than that and there's a chance that a parent is going to have to carry them up the aisle. Always make sure there's an adult that they know who can step in and help out if the child gets scared and refuses to move," she advises.
Evans also believes in the more the merrier. "The more little flower girls the better. It doesn't matter if they're related to the bride or groom. A bride this past summer had six flower girls -- all of them her future nieces. I believe there were three ring bearers, too. All of them were thrilled to be part of the wedding," she says.
The younger the attendants the likelier things won't go as expected. The Rev. Judy Winkler has performed many marriages in her 30-plus years as a minister. Her experience has translated into some definite suggestions for couples who want to include ring bearers and flower girls younger than 3.
"I remind brides and grooms that if you have children in the wedding procession or attending the ceremony, noise goes with the kids, so expect it," Winkler says.
"I tell couples to have the little people they want, but I encourage them not to stand with the bridal party. It is too distracting to see fidgety kids," she continues. "I tell the parents and bridal party that if the toddler is not up to performing on the wedding day, don't worry. It happens all the time. We will eliminate him or her, and no one will know the difference. The wedding will still be fabulous."
Winkler also suggests that the toddler walk down the aisle with an older child. "Nothing makes a tween or young teen happier than being a junior bridesmaid or junior groomsman," she says.
Parents can bring the toddler's favorite comfort toys, snacks and sippy cup so he or she can be engaged, soothed and kept calm. Winkler says it can be helpful to have a parent or grandparent sitting in the front row to receive the toddler at the end of his or her walk down the aisle. The rehearsal can include having the toddler practice walking to his or her parent or grandparent when he or she reaches the altar.
Evans agrees. "Don't have them stand at the altar or under the chuppah. Arrange to have their parents or grandparents sitting on the aisle in the third row so they can sit there for the ceremony and then rejoin the bridal party for the recessional," she says.
Melissa Lagowski of the Big Buzz Idea Group offers some practical tips for dealing with the smallest members of the wedding. "Communicate clearly with the little ones. By telling them exactly what to expect and guiding them through the experience, we have found that the little ones seem to understand more than most people think, and ceremonies generally go pretty well," she says.
Lagowski believes that rewards can work. "Give the little ones incentive for getting down the aisle. If they know that their favorite treat is waiting for them at the other end, it will help them focus on getting there more smoothly," she says.
"Remember that little ones have short attention spans," she continues. "Don't get to a ceremony site an hour in advance and then expect a toddler to be attentive an hour later when the ceremony starts. By then, tiny tots are bored and tired of a location. They have generally fully explored the facility and are now ready for the next adventure."
Lagowski recommends planning around the little ones' nap schedules, if possible. "Though it is a bride's big day, toddlers respond best when they are kept on a schedule. If the tiny friends are able to get their naps and meals on their regular schedule, they are more likely to be in a better mood for the main event," she says.
Though it may take some effort and care on the part of the couple, the inclusion of flower girls and ring bearers in their wedding adds a special touch they will always remember.
Lagowski believes that flexibility is the key. "They are young and still learning about the world around them," she says. "Remember that it might not go as anticipated, but at the end of the day, whether the little ones break out in tears or carry out their task perfectly, most people will only remember how adorable they looked in those tiny dress-up clothes."