NEW YORK --- It's a few minutes to showtime. The guests are all seated, the musicians are warming up.
Behind the scenes is a frenzy. The groom is nervous, his face as white as his new shirt. A bridesmaid searches for her misplaced camera. Ties are straightened, makeup checked. Suddenly, it's time to line up.
The grown-ups are busy doing the things grown-ups do just before a wedding. Young children, though, are more than likely doing the things they do pretty much all the time: playing, coloring, being anywhere besides where they're supposed to be.
So how do you get those pretty little flower girls with ringlets and pouffy dresses and the handsome tuxedoed ring-bearing chaps to take that matrimonial walk at the appointed minute, when you can't even get them to eat over the table or remember to say please and thank you?
Preparation, practice and a plan (you'd better throw in a backup plan, too) will go a long way to getting young attendants down the aisle with smiles on their faces and heads held high.
Weddings, it should be remembered, are adult affairs that roll right through nap time or beyond bedtime. All those big people. All those flashing cameras. All those hours away from a kid's routine.
"This is so unlike anything they would have ever been asked to do," said New York child psychologist Laurie Zelinger. "They're playing in our ballpark now."
To get them to play ball, she said, expectations must be explained in kid-friendly terms.
"The preparation might make or break a child's ability to go with a new situation," Dr. Zelinger said.
She recommended explaining to these youngest members of the bridal party, typically between ages 3 and 7, that they have an important job. That way, when everybody oohs and aahs, the kids are less likely to feel self-conscious and more likely to focus on what they're doing.
To help avoid the flower girl who walks down the aisle sucking her thumb or crying, or the ring bearer who dances or practices his karate moves, teach them exactly what they're supposed to do, Dr. Zelinger said.
Read books together about weddings. Let them watch a wedding video to see a ceremony. Look at family wedding photos. Get them familiar with the clothes they'll be wearing.
Practice at home with a flower basket and silk petals or a mock ring pillow.
"As they practice and get better at their duty, they will build pride in their role as flower girl or ring bearer and want to show off" on the big day, said Nicole D'Ambra, a wedding consultant in Los Gatos, Calif.
It's generally a parent's job -- not the busy bride's -- to prepare a child. Kimberley Guidice, however, spent a lot of time talking with her flower girl, who just happened to be her 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Mackenzie.
They practiced the walk in their long galley kitchen with the silk pomander (flower ball) that Ms. Guidice made for her April wedding in Los Gatos.
Mackenzie also tried on her long ivory dress several times to "get into princess mode," her mother said.
"She was so excited," said Ms. Guidice, adding that Mackenzie's outgoing personality made her well-suited for the task.
Consultants say children in the wedding party should attend the rehearsal, as Mackenzie did with her 4-year-old cousin, Aidan Natusch, the ring bearer.
"It makes them much more comfortable the day of the wedding," Ms. D'Ambra said.
When that day arrives, make sure children are rested, fed, and taken to the bathroom whether they say they have to go or not.
As you scramble to get ready, keep them in comfy clothes until the last possible minute.
"If they're wearing scratchy lace or something terribly uncomfortable, or fancy-schmancy shoes, then they're going to be irritable and not going to perform as well," said wedding consultant Jean Picard, of Ventura, Calif.
If they don't like their outfits, Dr. Zelinger suggested, let them wear favorite underwear so they have on something familiar.
As for the procession, decide beforehand with whom your child will walk, and be prepared for last-minute changes.
Children can walk alone or with other young attendants. If they won't go it alone and have a parent in the wedding, they can walk with Mom or Dad. Children also can walk with the maid of honor, or with a parent who is not in the bridal party.
Kids should be seated up front with a parent or relative, who might be holding a favorite toy or stuffed animal.
Bribes, such as a Slinky, Play-Doh or even $5, can help apprehensive kids take the first step, said Ms. D'Ambra, who was Ms. Guidice's consultant.
Children who are too nervous, ill or disruptive should be taken out of the procession, but let them know it's OK.
Despite all the preparation, the best thing a parent can hope for is a happy couple who accepts that children are unpredictable.
"Weddings are real lifetime moments. They aren't perfect. If they were, they'd be boring," Ms. D'Ambra said. "When a little one decides to eat the rose petals instead of tossing them, or run down the aisle instead of walking, or join you at the altar for your vows, it's pretty cute, not disruptive."