Ask a Storytime Ninja: Heckling in the Audience

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This Ask a Ninja question had me doing this and this and then I went out in the garage to dust off my boxing gloves so I can seriously punch that parent in the face. Clearly I am not one to offer advice to our fellow Storytime Guerrilla. Thank goodness we have such an amazing community here! What would you do? Please share in the comments!

Question:

What do you do when a caregiver (adult) makes an inappropriate comment loudly and directly at you (the presenter) during storytime, like when you are in the middle of a book? “Inappropriate” such as criticizing your presentation, or making more serious accusations (discriminating against a special needs child or a child of a different race, for example).

Answers:

Lisa says: I’ve had that happen over the years (although luckily never about race or ability!). At first I was stunned and just ignored it (which of course is the worst course of action!). As I’ve become comfortable with my job and my families, I’ve learned the best way is to hit it head on. A grandmother told me I shouldn’t be singing “Peanut Butter and Jelly” because young children aren’t supposed to eat peanut butter. I said, “Of course they aren’t! But I’ve chosen this song for many reasons. The first is that children will exercise their fine motor skills by acting out the actions in this song. I also love this song because children get to use their imaginations. And, this teaches them how to follow directions in a group setting, too!”
I’ve also had objections to the variety of Old Lady Who Swallows Things. I’ve learned to preempt that by beginning with an aside to parents. “I’m going to read/sing a story that teaches children rhyme and rhythm. I also love this series of books because you can sing the story. You can always do this at home without the book and make up a silly story in rhyme with music!”

Sara (@PLSanders) says: This is a sticky situation. The most important thing for this person, it seems, is that their concerns are heard. I would smile at them and say something like:
“That’s a valid concern and I’ll be happy to talk with you about it after storytime”
Then open back up to the group and turn it into a teachable moment:
“For now, let’s all model for our kids listening and participating in storytime!” And repeat any “get ready to read” fingerplays you have, if you have them. And then start a different book to change it up and neutralize the situation.
Once storytime is over, approach them with whatever protocol you have for complaints; for instance, have your boss’s business card handy and encourage them to call. If that’s not feasible, a simple “What can I help you with?”; or if they’re visibly distraught, “What are you afraid of happening?” can disarm a person and get to the core of what’s going on.
And remember, ninjas, no matter what they say, it is all about them and their experience, and not at all about you as a person.

Kim (@librarylady2u) says: Wow that’s a tough one! I think for me it would depend on the nature of the comment. I might either ignore the adult for the time being and keep reading or I would just pleasantly say, “I would be happy to discuss this further with you after storytime.” I might then next time make an announcement to the entire group with something like, “I accept constructive feedback about my storytimes, so if you have a comment, please feel free to speak with me privately before or after the storytime session.” If it’s a more serious accusation I might talk to the patron along with my supervisor (or just with my supervisor if you don’t feel comfortable being present). Good luck!

Natasha says:  This would be a real challenge to deal with in the midst of a program.  The first thing that springs to mind is to say something directly to the commentor like, “that sounds like something important for us to talk about, so I would love to talk with you after storytime is over” and then move right along with the program.  And attempt to talk with them afterwards, if they are willing.  The difficult part would be not being defensive, especially if the comment was in regard to unfair treatment of their child. But if they feel that way then it’s probably something they’ve experienced and are sensitive to, so it would be worth talking with them and examining your own observations.

Danielle (@LibrarianDani) says:  That’s an extremely tough situation with a couple of options that came to me.  One, you can ignore.  This could possibly work, especially if it’s about a smaller issue, but it also may lead to the instigator becoming louder and more disruptive or complaining to your supervisor or other people about the storytime librarians. Two, you can look up and, as calmly as you can, say something like “I’m happy to meet with you to discuss this after storytime, but I can’t give it the attention it deserves right now” and then keep going with your storytime.  You could then meet with them right after storytime, if you’re available/calm enough or you could set up  a later meeting, possibly with your supervisor or a colleague if you feel the backup is necessary.

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