How I Survived the U.S. Embassy Waiting Room with a Preschooler—Screen-free

What's in Mommy's bag of tricks?

No electronic devices allowed. These four words may cause a parent to panic at the anticipation of a long wait, especially inside a government office such as the U.S. Embassy, which is not a place you'd associate with preschool-age-appropriate fun. But a trip to the embassy is sometimes a necessary inconvenience for families with travel plans or, like us, families with a young and adorable American  citizen who needed to be recognized as such. The night before our CRBA (or Consular Reporting of Birth Abroad) appointment at the embassy, my worried husband asked me, "Are iPads allowed?" Sorry, Honey, we're just going to have to be resourceful.

Even if we weren't required to line up with the majority of the people who were there to apply for a U.S. non-immigrant visa, it still took us three hours, from waiting for the doors to open (we got there early in order to be one of the first in line) to waiting for our documents to be processed (which took relatively quickly, but it seemed like other families were not so lucky. Need to get some official business done with a preschooler (and an infant) in tow? Here's how to play the waiting game, screen- and gadget-free.

1) Leave the crayons and crafts at home
I'd packed a busy bag for E with a coloring books, stickers, crayons, play dough, and heart-shaped beads (at her request), but we were asked to check in these items at the gate. "Why, Mommy, why? But it's not metal," said E, who'd just discovered metal detectors. E's crayons were pointed, but hardly what I'd call a dangerous object. The U.S. Embassy is apparently not a fan of cleaning crayon marks from their furniture, but who is, right? (Good thing hero-obsessed E didn't ask me if I'd packed her "sword"). Luckily, these weren't the only tricks up my sleeve—or treats in my bag.

Colorful contraband. Not helpful at the embassy, but worked like a charm at the restaurant after.

Also not allowed: toys that make noise, battery-operated devices or any item with an on/off switch, chargers, earphones and earbuds, food items (snacks are available for purchase inside). Moms, you might have to check in your pump, so I'd leave that in the car as well.

2) Bring a book you can both enjoy, repeatedly.
Anyone who's ever read a good book to a preschooler knows that reading it once is never enough. And, usually, that wouldn't be a problem, but at a government office with possible hours of waiting time to kill, that "Again, Mommy" request would very easily become a source of conflict. Not wanting to load up my already heavy bag with lots of books, I spotted the perfect alternative: a book that was long enough to fill the time, engaging enough to keep both of us busy, and simple enough for her to flip through on her own in case she needed to entertain herself. This wonderful book is one of Usborne Books' 1001 Things to Spot books (ours were gifts, but I've seen them at some Fully Booked and National Bookstore branches locally. Click here to purchase from the U.S., not an affiliate link.)

Any title in this series would work, depending on your child's interests. We brought 1001 Animals to SpotE got to practice number recognition on her own, "We need to find...9 grasshoppers, Mommy." We talked about which animals were reptiles, mammals, insects, fish, and birds. We learned about where different animals live. And we made up funny stories about the funny looking animals we didn't recognize ("Maybe he's sticking his tongue out because he's catching a fly...for a frog's party!").

3) Make the space your playground (in a respectful way).
E, being three, could not sit still for the entire time we were waiting; it would not have been fair of me to expect her to. So we stretched our legs and made up some games along the way. I Spy is a classic because the rules are so simple. One person spots something, names it, and the other person has to find it. Great for vocabulary building, observational skills, and just general silliness. ("I spy a man with a blue backpack. What do you think is inside his backpack?" "Maybe balloons!") Simon Says has become a new favorite, which we have to stop when she has too much fun and starts laughing too loudly. Pretending to be animals is another silly game if you have the thick skin necessary for public meowing ("What if we were cats? How would we walk to the elevator?").

I mention respect because, although I allow silliness and monkeying around, I do not condone destruction of public property or overly disruptive behavior. (And I say "overly" because I recognize that, for some, playing with your child can seem disruptive.) I do remind my daughter that we need to meow with our inside voices.

4) Acknowledge curiosity.
When all else fails and your bag of tricks is empty, tap into your child's natural curiosity and turn the boring, stressful business trip into an impromptu field trip. Tour your child around the space and allow them to wonder about what things are, what people do, and why you are there in the first place. If you don't know something, encourage your child to ask (maybe they won't—strangers can be intimidating—but at least they know that the option is available to them). Today, we learned about metal detectors, the open and closed sign, documents, signatures, and embassies. That's definitely more than she knew last night when she thought that we were just going to see Mickey Mouse. (Why Mickey Mouse, I wondered. Then I heard her singing, "Embassy, K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.")

5) Relax—it's probably not a big deal.
My husband has to remind me of this as I tend to be uptight about rules and authority. Relax. Or in his words, "Okay lang yan." Kids are kids and will act like kids. They will laugh a little too loudly, touch things they're not supposed to without really causing harm or damage, ask inappropriate questions, ask to see what's going on, try to climb up on counters and chairs to satisfy their curiosity. This behavior is developmentally appropriate for a three-year-old. Go with it, even expect it, so you can respond appropriately rather than react impatiently. Yes, E did all these things and we did not get into trouble. Yes, we were probably setting a bad example for the other kids whose parents were yanking them to stay put and telling them to keep quiet. But, no, for the record, "Manong Guard" did not drag my daughter away or put us in a dark room or get angry at our antics like we'd overheard some parents tell their kids he would. Sorry to disappoint you.

Waiting is not easy, whether you're 3 or 35, so I'm glad we got through our morning errand with minimal stress and maximum laughter. 

*Note: since we only stayed on one side of the embassy, the specific tips may not work for visa applicants on the floor below, but hopefully, they'll give you ideas.