By Shira Boss
Zero Cost Kids
There was once the most soothing tea shop, tucked into an industrial strip of downtown Manhattan.
It was called Wild Lily. It had only a handful of seats, a high ceiling, exposed brick and a slowly swirling koi pond. Their tiered tea tray had handmade pottery lily pads. All of the tea cups were different – miniature creations for small, delicate sips.
When I was having a bad day, my then-husband would suggest “Wild Lily?” and we would jump on the subway. We spent hours there – it was expensive and totally worth it.
That was before having children of course. Now my tea drinking has been downgraded to a grocery store tea bag.
Except when the boys and I have a tea party, which is often.
Children’s Tea Parties
Usually when children have tea parties they are “tea parties,” with an empty plastic tea set and maybe some pretend food. Our boys like to play pretend tea as much as other children – they serve cups of “tea” from their bath water, poured from a recycled soap bucket our 3-year-old describes as his “lovely teapot.”
That’s all well and good, but the real fun, for all of us, is when we set our coffee table with tea mats, porcelain or handmade tea cups, and small china tea pots from England filled with warm herbal teas.
We might have picked up a special treat at a bakery, or cobbled together a little plate of assorted goodies (nuts, cheese, fruit, black olives…). Ideally, we have first baked together, and made scones or cookies or a tea cake (really just something like zucchini bread that is then billed as “tea cake” – as you know, it’s all in the marketing).
Benefits of Real Tea Parties for Children
These real tea parties have amazing benefits:
With two boys, it’s usually mayhem. They literally climb the walls. They hit each other. They burst into tears.
Sure, they might not stay focused for the entire process of baking, but as soon as we are ready to set the tea table, they snap out of it. They get civilized. They help, they actually sit down, they don’t attack each other. They sip and nibble like normal people. It’s miraculous.
They love it
Tea parties aren’t just for little girls dressed up in tutus and tiaras. Our boys love them. The other day I tried to sneak an almond croissant from the bakery while our almost 2-year old was with me. As soon as we got home, he grabbed the bag, took it to the coffee table and said, “Tea party!”
Sure, it’s about having treats – but I really think it’s the ceremony of it they love. And I feel like it’s a good idea to make a civilized ritual around having the occasional treat rather than have them mindlessly scarfing all the time. (Ok fine, I shouldn’t have planned to eat that almond croissant straight from the bag while hiding in the kitchen.)
They don’t break anything
I started having real tea parties with our older son when he was 18 months old. We used a Sadler English teapot – my oldest one, the one that had inspired me to start collecting some tea ware a long time ago. Yes, I was nervous, and at first I hovered.
But somehow he knew to be gentle (I might have mentioned, “Be careful! Don’t BREAK IT!”).
We use delicate little plates my grandmother hand-painted, small silver spoons that were a wedding present, and sometimes tiny Asian tea cups I collected over the years from Wild Lily.
Nothing has ever been broken. Not even chipped or cracked. (Tipped over, yes.)
I think – in addition to my harping on them to be careful – they realize this is “real stuff,” special adult stuff and not toys, and they feel privileged and respect it. It’s amazing to me, given the amount of property damage they accomplish on a daily basis, that this is even possible.
It’s a physics lesson
Has a teacup ever overflowed? Definitely. Our almost-2-year-old still hasn’t learned when to stop pouring, although he does love to serve (“More tea, mama?”). But our older son learned, before 2 years old, to gage how much to pour to fill a cup without it overflowing.
This is an actual skill that children are supposed to work on – all that pouring and dumping in the bath and at a water table, sand box or sensory bin is teaching them about volume, displacement, and who knows what-all that we adults just take for granted.
I have a suspicion that they learn faster with real tea, because they sense the stakes are higher. They’re half in a child’s fantasy world, and half allowed into a grown-up world.
And while teaching science or skills isn’t at the top of my list at this stage, it’s an interesting side benefit. Especially when sitting down for a tea party is what I would actually like to be doing with my time. It’s not two hours next to the koi pond at Wild Lily (which sadly doesn’t exist anymore), but it’s better than peeling toddlers off of high furniture.
They’re learning social skills
Pretend tea parties are about a social gathering, even with a doll or teddy bear. I think real tea parties are even better because they are more complex.
We’ve hosted as many as 8 people around the coffee table, a mix of adults and children. We share a jam pot or two and two wooden knives. That requires waiting your turn, being aware of what others need, and practicing things like passing a communal dish.
Of course, everyone’s favorite is pouring the tea, not just for themselves but for others. I honestly just marvel at how considerate our three year old can be during tea time when much of the rest of the time he can be, um, more of a wildebeest.
Is tea time spiritual?
I don’t know if “spiritual” is the right word, but there’s something innate about practicing and enjoying the breaking of bread with others, both family and guests. Sure, it could be a snack or a meal, but like I said there seems to be something special about the children being allowed into the more adult setting of a formal afternoon tea.
It feels like it connects them, and us, to a somewhat spiritual practice. A break in the routine, a step away from the work of the day, a time of quiet respite to repair the soul. Everything Wild Lily was to me – and why I still love to meet a friend for special afternoon teas when we can manage it.
Baking treats together
Although the homemade treats are optional, this really extends the experience. We choose a recipe together, the kids help with the mixing and the shaping, we have to wait during the baking – lots of useful skills there. Plus they learn where food comes from and how it’s made – way more satisfying and healthy than ripping open a package.
They even benefit when we mess up. They learn various causes and effects and how to accommodate mistakes and move on. (Once I was so distracted I forgot to add the flour to chocolate chip cookies – you don’t want to know what that looks like! Although once scraped off the cookie sheet, that giant melted mess tasted like candy.)
Know-how for the future
Finally, I was raised by a single father who knew his way around the kitchen. I can imagine now how the ladies (there was a lady or two over the years) were impressed when he scaffolded ingredients for a Caesar salad to toss together at the last minute.
I won’t lie: I’d like my boys to have one more way to woo some sensible women in the future, with a proper homemade scone and tea setting. (And, ahem, sitting and listening while she talks.)
The Legacy of Wild Lily Tea Room
Where did I get the idea to have real tea parties with toddlers?
The owner of Wild Lily. We became friends, and she had two young daughters. She was telling me once how she let them drink tea from nice Asian tea cups and how they could handle them when given a chance.
I loved that. And I knew right then that when I had young children I too would trust them with my tea cups.
What a great idea and ritual that has turned out to be. Girls, boys, whatever age…. I think something special happens around an afternoon tea table.
Your experiences with children and hosting tea parties, or other notes, welcome below!