Charlie The Juggling Clown
Creating Happy Memories that Last a Lifetime
Entertaining Young Children
By Bruce "Charlie" Johnson
A young child sees a strange creature towering over them, screams, and hides in terror behind their mother.
Have they just seen the Bogeyman?
No, they have just experienced their first encounter with a clown.
Children Between Two and Four Years Old
For young children, especially between the ages of two and four, a clown can be a terrifying character. They do not know what a clown will do, and are afraid the clown may hurt them. Proximity is a factor. A clown fifty feet away in a circus ring is a lot less threatening than one standing next to them in their living room.
It is possible to overcome their fear without terrifying them.
The first step is to be aware of individual children. If you see a child showing signs of uneasiness as you approach, do not go any closer to them or you may frighten them. Once you've scared them, you may never get them to look at you again.
The Key - Let Them Get Used To You
The key is to reassure them by letting them see you in interaction with others and by letting them interact in a non-threatening way with you.
When I approach a group of children I always approach the older children first, but keep my eye on the younger ones. I let the young kids see me shaking hands with their older brothers, sisters, and parents first. I also slow down my movements, and don't make any move directly towards the younger kids.
Then I kneel down to get to their level instead of towering over them. I extend one finger for them to shake. This puts them in control. They know they can let go when they want.
If their parent is there, I shake hands with their parent using the hand that is closest to the child. Then maintaining a grip on the parent's hand, I reach across our arms with my other hand to extend my forefinger to the child. The child can see that I'm not hurting their parent. Often the adult will say, "See, I'm shaking with the clown. Do you want to shake too?" Also, the parent's arm forms a barrier so the child feels protected. As long as their parent is holding onto me, I can't come any closer to the child.
I perform in pantomime, which can be frightening to small children, who have never encountered a silent character before. If they keep saying hello to you in a louder voice, this is what is happening. Their need to be reassured by hearing me speak is greater then my need to maintain a character I invented. I always kneel down, break character, and quietly talk to them. Then I return to character, stand, and continue my silent acting.
If the child shows any reluctance to shake or have me near, I do not force it. I back off.
Occasionally they just need more time to observe me from a distance. Sometimes they need a way to interact from a greater distance.
One thing that works for me is to give them something nice. For example, a trick cartoon they have watched me draw. I hold it by my fingertips, and extend it to them so they can get it without coming within my reach. If they are reluctant to come get it, I give it to their parents to give to them. This way they have received something nice from the clown. Other things that have worked well for me include a napkin rose, a photo business card, and a coloring sheet of Charlie with a small box of crayons. Early in my career, I used round balloons with children this age. However, I've stopped that practice. The Federal Government has classified balloons as a choking hazard and advises that young children, who put things in their mouth, not be given balloons.
Something else that gives me good results is to start juggling balls at a distance from them. They know that as long as I am busy doing something else I can't hurt them. Also, they find the color and movement fascinating. Often they will start moving closer to me. If a child is staying in their safe zone, I'll drop a ball so it rolls in their direction. Then as I turn to face them I back up a step. (Any movement towards them is a threat.) I wait for them to get the ball and throw it back to me. Sometimes this evolves into a game of catch. This gives them a safe interaction from a distance.
While you are involved with other kids or doing a show, a frightened child will start to creep toward you as their interest grows. Ignore them at this stage. They think you don't know they are there so they are safe. If you make eye contact you tell them you know they are there which feels threatening and they will scurry back to their safe zone.
The main thing is to provide them a way to see you mean no harm, and to let them come to you on their own terms.
Occasionally a child will just be too uneasy. Then you have to leave their area. Ask them if they want to say good-bye. Again, this puts them in control, which is reassuring. If they say good-bye, or even just wave, they have had a safe successful interaction with you. They are then more likely to say hello a little later.
One day at Raging Waters, a mother approached me with a little girl. The mother said, "This is Sarah. She wants to say something to you." Sarah kept her eyes averted and very quietly said hello. I greeted her and then asked if she wanted to say good bye. She looked up at me and very loudly said good bye. This happened several times during the day as Sarah tested her bravery. Each time her hello was a little more confident and louder. Finally at the end of the day, I sat down on the ground while Sarah watched me perform several magic effects. She had faced her feat and overcome it on her own.
Sometimes, no matter how frightened a child is, parents insist upon a photograph. (This especially happens to clowns who portray Santa at Christmas.) A solution I've found is to have a parent or older sibling sit in a chair holding the child. Then I stand behind them positioned so the child can't see me, but I show up in the picture. If you can see the lens of the camera, you will be in the picture. The photographer will get and hold the child's attention. As soon as the picture is snapped, back away. The child isn't paying attention to the photographer any longer and will look to see where you are at.
Others Who May Be Frightened
Young children aren't the only people afraid of clowns. I once sensed a college girl was uneasy with me so I treated her like a frightened child. I interacted first with her boyfriend. Gradually she relaxed and began to enjoy my performance. Afterwards her boyfriend thanked me saying she had been terrified of clowns ever since being kicked by one as a child. (It is rare that a clown actually harms a child.) Many adults can't enjoy clowns because they have never overcome being traumatized by one as a child.
Caring clowns need to be particularly sensitive to this. Children in a hospital are already in a frightening environment where they have little control. You don't want to scare them further. Be very sensitive to their comfort zone. If they are in their room, always pause at the door and ask permission to enter. If they say no, respect their wishes and move on to the next room. If you see them in a hallway, be prepared to turn to study the wall so they can sneak past you if that makes them feel safer.
My wife and I were doing a show for children with special needs. As soon as we entered an autistic teen screamed, ran, and hid in a corner. We ignored him as his caregiver reassured him and escorted him from the room. He watched the first part of the show from outside. Eventually he wanted to come back into the room to be part of what the other kids were enjoying. Again, we didn't make eye contact. Several times during the show, I asked audience volunteers to come into my stage area to help me with a trick. I planned to end the show with a mismade flag routine. He had been participating a little in the show so I wanted to use him as a volunteer, but didn't think he would be comfortable leaving his caregiver to stand next to me in front of the group. I moved over to his chair approaching so his caregiver was always between us. I had him tap my change bag with a magic wand, and then pull out the correct flag. His smile as everyone applauded and cheered him was priceless.
It takes a lot of patience to reach frightened children. You have to recognize what is happening, respect their feelings, let them maintain their comfort zone while you interact with others, and wait for them to approach you on their own terms. When a child who screamed when they first saw you, gives you a hug after your show, it is well worth the effort.
© Copyright 1984 by Bruce Johnson. All rights reserved.
Originally published in Laugh-Makers Magazine.