A few weeks ago my husband Paul and I went to New York for a family visit. I am a native New Yorker but my mother now lives across the bridge in New Jersey. Whilst in NYC Paul and I did the New Yorker thing – Sunday brunch, hanging out in Central Park, walking up and down Broadway eating Haagen Dazs ice cream, checking out the Village…. and we visited the Met, one of my all-time favorite museums.
Being child-conscious, I was interested to observe parents and children as we strolled around New York. A few things caught my eye.
The first thing was the interesting phenomena of parents having quality time with their tiny children in the Museum. Now for those of you who haven’t been to the Met (could there be…?!!) it is HUGE!. Vast – enormous, gargantuan. And it is PACKED. Slowly flowing hordes of tourists speaking a dozen different languages meander aimlessly through the rooms whilst packs of teen agers on field trips from enrichment camps squirm and push and take up more space than human beings are meant to (whilst also speaking a multitude of languages and accompanied by the thrum and buzz of their ipods). It is a vastly overstimulating place where, if one isn’t on the ball, one could get knocked over, stepped on or tripped. And that’s just adults!
Now I can sort of see why parents might want to take young children to a museum – it’s a safe and somewhat contained space (though losing a child in the Met could be as unnerving as losing one in Central Park) and it’s Something To Do. And there were a few parents who really seemed to be doing just that – finding Something To Do and perhaps hoping that they could get something out of the trip despite their child’s complete lack of interest in the exhibits. There was one brave mother who seemed to fit in this category – I was astonished when I saw her. Four little children, with the eldest no more than 6, the youngest strapped to her chest, she was field marshaling her tiny troops through the collection of Greek statues when I spotted her. Briskly she walked, most of the time backwards, shepherding her little ones from one case of Greek vases to the next. She took obvious pleasure in their beauty – her children seemed less enthralled. Indeed, her 5 year old was more impressed by the rasps and crackles coming from the walkie-talkie at a security guard’s belt than Mom’s exclamations of "look – you can see a story on this vase." Mom was trying hard but a 5 year old is going to be more interested in a real life flesh and blood security guard and her fascinating accoutrements any day of the week than a 2,5oo year old vase with obscure pictures on it!
What really got me though were the two women and their 4 or 5 year olds in the Modern art exhibit. Now OK – some Greek art might interest a child – and maybe Mom took the children to see the life size medieval knights on life size horses next (a sight I certainly loved as a much older child!!). But here were two adults not just passing past the art with the children and looking at what was on offer ("what pretty colors, aren’t they darling") but actually trying to engage the children in conversation about the Modigliani they were looking at!
This is strange to me. This was really strange to observe (whilst trying to look like I was merely captivated by the paintings instead of the scene unfolding in front of them!) and right now as I type this, really strange to think about. What could those women have been thinking? One can only assume that they honestly thought that the way to help their children appreciate art (though what that means for 5 year olds, don’t ask me!!) was to expose them to art and to engage them in conversation about art.
But of course, what’s missing here is an understanding of the difference between the modern adult’s 2oth century consciousness which creates and can discuss modern art and the consciousness of a 5 year old child. A 5 year simply does not see the world as we adults do and hasn’t developed the powers of empathy, intellect and selfhood to be able to stand out of herself to appreciate that most abstract of concepts, a piece of modern art. And – she shouldn’t be prematurely put into the position of trying to achieve that consciousness. Once again, with the best intention in the world, we have an example of adults unwittingly bringing children out of their stage of development and into the next stage of development before those children are ready. And I don’t care how precociously interested a child might be in modern or any other kind of art – I ask the question, where does that interest come from? If a child has miraculously come to earth with an insatiable interest in modern art that seemingly comes out of nowhere, that is one thing. But if she has developed an interest because adults have exposed her to things – whether consciously or not – then that is quite a different kettle of fish.
It’s like parents who complain that their 8 year old is reading Anna Karenina. Well who gave him the book? Who said "yes, you may read this" and did not say "no, that is not for you right now." And I know what this is like – I had a 11 year old with a precocious interest in advanced science. My husband and I decided to let him go with it – but there was definitely a cost. I still think we made the right decision – but my now (summer 2007) 16 year old has some imbalances in him. Maybe we should have said no. But we were cautious and decided to go with what seemed not just a whim but a deep soul need. And he is who he is.
But….11 is very different than 5. And the longer I am in this field of work and the more I observe what is around me and consult with parents and read reports and the news….. the more strong I am in declaring the absolute sacredness of those first 7 years of childhood and how they MUST be preserved for later health and balance in each human being. Let children be children and let them be at the stage of life they are at. A 5 year old does not need to go to museums – not even science or folk museums. She does not need to see – she needs to do. And she needs to do what is real and meaningful – so even so-called "hands-on" or "interactive" museums are out. Just because something has been cleverly broken down by an adult so that a child can get their hands on things (such as touch and feel exhibits) does not mean that this satisfies the young child’s need for wholes – for things to be natural and real and to have relevance. If a child has never seen a turtle or a chinchilla, feeling a turtle shell and then a chinchilla pelt is abstract and not connected to life. It is not real. The child cannot internalize the abstract concepts of "turtle" and "chinchilla" because she does not know what those animals are. The concepts are not grounded. On the other hand, if in a zoo or pet shop she gets to see and handle those animals, then it starts to make sense.
Back to the museum, let me hasten to say that I sympathize with parents in cities desperate for Something To Do with young children. In such cases, go to a museum. But just enjoy being together and wandering around and don’t use the time as a Learning Experience. Just enjoy yourselves and don’t be surprised if what makes the strongest impression on your child is the man in the electric wheelchair or the ride you had on the escalator.