Expose your kids to art! (Or vice versa)

Expose your kids to art! (Or vice versa) July 27, 2015
Expose your children to art! Or vice versa.
Portrait of a youth who stopped and looked closely at a work of fine art. This is a win.

The other week, we visited the Worcester Art Museum in MA. I heartily recommend it if you’re in the area (and it’s free all through August!). They had a world class collection with tons of variety, from pre-Columbian art to this guy; it was quite kid friendly (a docent in the armor display helped the kids try on helmets and gauntlets), the docents were genial and well-informed, and they had the exhibits arranged well to really help you see them. We saw everything in about three hours, and had time to go back and look at our favorite rooms.  Looks like they have a pleasant cafe and a bunch of programs, classes, and demonstrations, too.

About what happened in the photo above, I take full responsibility. I’ve been reading them Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad and he got kind of hung up on Helen of the Fair Cheeks.

Of the Fair Cheeks.

I’m just glad he didn’t notice what was going on on the B side of some of those Grecian urns. Whoo-ee!

Anyway, we had such a good time that I want to encourage everyone to bring your kids to an art museum this summer, even if you don’t think of yourself as one of those high culture families. If you’re in New England, don’t forget about Free Fridays (which includes art museums and lots of other fun stuff).

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago, on that topic of why adults sometimes struggle with visiting art museums, and how kids can show us how to do it better. For more reading on this topic, check out “Introducing Children to Art” by an actual artist, John Herreid, who is raising three hilariously arty kids.


Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the Holy Grail is being snatched again by the bad guys?  Indy cries out in righteous indignation:  “That belongs in a museum!”  I love me some Indiana Jones, but I have regretfully come to the conclusion that this line was not meant ironically.  This really is the highest compliment that Americans can pay to an object of beauty and worth:  that it belongs in a museum.  I heard someone say the exact same thing in real life, when our college group first stepped out into one of the teeming, sun-drenched piazzas in Rome.  There was a magnificent fountain in the middle of the square, featuring a sculpture carved by one of the giants of Western art.  And people were sitting on it, and smoking, and drinking terrible wine, and flirting with each other, trying to sell socks out of a duffle bag, and generally acting like this timeless piece of art was theirs.  Almost tearful with outrage, the fellow cried out, “That should be in a museum!”

He meant that it ought to be protected from the elements, and also from bird droppings and graffiti and vandals.  But he also meant that it ought to be tucked away indoors, where the lighting could be controlled, where people would speak in hushed tones as they file past in reverence — where only the select few, acting in a very select way, would see it, and no one would get comfortable with it.  And there, he was disastrously wrong.

Art museums are necessary because they are the most convenient way to preserve and share works of art which would otherwise be tucked away in the private homes of the very wealthy.  But there is always the danger of museumishness taking over the work of art — making us forget why the artist made the piece in the first place.  It’s a relatively new idea that art is here to “challenge” us, to jar us out of whatever cultural sin is currently considered intolerable.  Instead, the great artists of every century have all said one thing:  “I see something!  You come and see it, too!  Do you see?”

Well, that’s a pretty big topic.  But in this little post, I can say that the problem with putting something in a museum is that it tends to give the impression that the question, “Do you see it, too?” is already answered.  We feel like we have to stroke our chins gravely and say, “Yes, yes, of course I see,” whether we do or not, because there it is, in a museum.  It must be Real Art. No wonder so many people have an aversion to art.  They think they’re expected to respond like highly educated robots when the encounter it.

What’s the cure for a case of Stifling Museumishness?  Take your kids to the museum with you . . . and do what they do.

Oh, listen, if your kids are awful, please don’t take them to a museum.  If they can’t be controlled, don’t take them.  If they can’t tell the difference between indoors and outdoors, and if they don’t obey you, and if otherwise kind people groan audibly when they see your family coming, then by all means, stay home.

But many parents underestimate how responsive their kids will be to good art.  Kids in art museums will often behave in a way that is not only tolerable, but which the adult patrons should imitate.

Kids do not talk in whispers, as if they are at the bedside of a dying tyrant.  Why do we whisper in front of art?  We shouldn’t speak loudly, to distract other patrons; but a normal, conversational tone of voice is completely appropriate.  Talking about what you’re seeing isn’t rude!  It’s a natural thing to do, and makes the experience so much more rewarding, when you hear other people’s takes on what you’re seeing. I also like to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations — so sue me.

Kids do not pretend to like things they don’t like.  It’s one thing to have an open mind; it’s quite another to be a sucker. Many museums have extensive collections in the ever-popular genre of Egregious Crapola, and sometimes it really is only kids who are willing to point this out.  Many adults have been duped into giving up on beauty; most kids have not.  (But really, each kid is allowed to say, “I could have done that in ten minutes with a gallon of housepaint and a stick!” one time, and then they’re done.  This comment may or may not be true, but it gets old fast.)

Kids are also remarkably open to admitting that there is more than meets the eye.  They may shrug or grimace in front of a wonderful piece, but they are usually ready to listen if you point out, “No, look at how the light shines through that leaf!” or “See how realistic her hand looks — but get closer, and it’s just a bunch of paint” or “But why do you think this guy on the side has that look on his face?” or “Holy mackerel, what is this?!?”

Kids laugh at paintings — not only ones that look ridiculous, but ones which are meant to be funny.  There is nothing sillier than a bunch of adults gravely appreciating the finer points of a work of art which is supposed to be hilarious.

Kids do not suffer from appreciation anxiety.  Some adults who feel insecure in their grasp of art may spend their entire museum time wondering how obvious their lack of expertise is.  Well, that’s no way get to be more of an expert!  Kids don’t think about how they appear to others; they just look at the art.

Kids do not waste their time looking at exhibits that don’t interest them, out of a sense of duty or thrift.  They will keep circling back to take another look at that one room or one piece they really like, and that is a much more natural response than trying to “do” the whole museum just because it’s there.

Okay, yes, and some kids will go berserk and behave like little demons, while their fond parents look on and do nothing. Or if you have a generally decent child who is temporarily going through a highly unreasonably, ridiculously loud stage, then this is probably not the best time to work on enhancing their cultural education. But really, if your kids are generally the non-demonic, non-berserker types, consider taking them to a small museum next time you have a chance.  Wear comfortable clothes, discuss expectations ahead of time, plan a small treat for afterwards, and just relax.  You will probably have a lovely time!

A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in March of 2013.

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  • Sophia Sadek

    It is interesting that the military equipment of the middle ages is the art of today. And the critics complain about Duchamp’s “Fountain.”

  • Eileen

    We go to lots of museums. In Philadelphia, there are tons of them and we enjoy museums so much, at times we’ve even had annual passes. The Franklin institutute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the University of Pennsylvania, and of course, the Art museum are just a few of our nearby museums. And we’ve several times gone into NYC to visit the Met or the Museum of Natural History.
    However, with most kids, particularly my boys (whom I think are pretty typical), I wouldn’t take them into too many successive rooms where the primary objets d’art are paintings. Boredom sets in pretty quickly even with the well behaved ones. And rooms where the only thing to look at are paintings on the walls have way too much open space for kids who’d rather be tackling each other or throwing a beanie baby than admiring the Impressionists. But if you’re talking mummies, pyramids and their contents, weapons, Dinos, civilizations frozen in time in Vesuvius’ lava, sculptures made in homage to some strange god, and lots of other weird and beautiful things, I’d completely agree museums are great places for kids.

  • Paulo Sgarbi

    I think Indie was referring to the “Cross of Coronado”, in his second encounter with Panama Hat off the Portugal coast when he used those words!

  • Anna

    Thank you for this; I agree with all your main points here. But since our family happens to currently live in a cultural wasteland, we’re somewhat dependant on books for acculturation. I checked out the public library’s collection, hoping for books that might consolidate great works of art a young child would enjoy looking at, but came up more or less empty. Do you happen to know of any good art books for kids?

    • Anna

      Lucy Micklethwait has a lot of excellent art books (Spot a Dog, Spot a Cat, A Child’s Book of Play in Art are some we have). If your kids are really young, there is a series of board books by Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober like “Quiet Time with Cassat” and “Dancing with Degas.” I’ve gotten some art books at library and secondhand sales too; that way they’re cheaper than new coffee table books so you don’t cringe at your kids turning pages roughly, but they can still look at great art.

      • Anna

        Thank you! I just checked and my library actually has a bunch of these. They were hiding under all different Dewey Decimal numbers, which is why I didn’t find them at the main number for art.

    • Monica

      For the very young, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has art board books (counting, colors, shapes, etc.). Or at least they used to, and we still have our. For older children (~middle school), I recommend Art Fraud Detective, which is a sort of goofy spot-the-difference book using paintings–the setup is that you have to spot the differences to catch a forger, because you are a famous detective. (Then halfway through college you realize how you were hoodwinked into spending hours looking carefully at art, and feel very grateful.)
      Some others from my childhood are How Artist See Animals and How Artists See Color (which I never bothered to read, but I spent quite a bit of time looking at the pictures) and Go In And Out The Window, a collection of songs arranged for piano (intended for singing along), which is illustrated with lots of art.

      • Anna

        Thanks – I’ll look for these.

    • Eileen

      I’d be curious to know in what area of the country you live. You might be surprised by some of the little museums that are within an hour or two of your home. I once took my kids to a little museum which had left some free admission flyers at a rest stop on the PA Turnpike. I realized the museum was only an hour or so away from our home and so one day I packed up the kids and off we went. We ended up seeing really cool toothpick replicas of great historical sites, including the Coloseum, the Great Wall, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and more. While there were other, more traditional artistic pieces at that little museum, my kids still talk about that truly impressive toothpick display.

      • Anna

        Deep in the endless strip malls and suburban tract-housing of Colorado. I’m sure you’re right that there are museums here, especially in Denver; it’s just that I’m used to being in the D.C. area, within spitting distance of the National Gallery, the Corcoran, and all the various Smithsonian art museums, plus lots of beautiful architecture – which is art, too, after all. Most museums and such we’ve been to here are jarringly commercialized and (to me) vulgar, but we should keep trying, I guess.

        • Em

          The Denver Museum of Natural History is great, as is the Littleton Museum (a working replica 1860s farm). Not a museum, but the Denver Zoo is, frankly, far better than the National Zoo: more animals, better presentation, a better mix of the classics and the truly exotic, much easier to navigate, and better, cheaper food.

          Afraid I can’t help with art museums, though.

          • Anna

            Yes, we love the Littleton Museum. Haven’t tried Natural History yet. On the Zoo, we’ll have to agree to disagree – I found it bizarrely crass and commercialized. I can’t imagine who would want to have pounding, grinding music blasted at them while watching the seal training & feeding, for instance, and that seemed to happen at all the presentations. Surely people go to the zoo to experience some kind of contact with nature, not a second-rate imitation of a rock concert? Also, I’m no PETA type, but the animals simply did not seem to have sufficient space. I’m willing to accept a few less animals to see for the sake of giving them some decent semblance of a life – something I think the National Zoo does an amazing job of, given their small acreage.

        • Em

          Oh, the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is lovely.

          • Anna

            That’s true – as is Holy Ghost, in my opinion. What’s jarring here, though, is how very VERY ugly every ordinary, practical building is, as opposed to in the east, where houses, banks, schools, etc., are often quite attractive buildings in their own right. Whereas here, except one or two old civic buildings and churches, everything is just slapped up as cheaply as possible. The view from most freeways and major streets reminds me of dystopian futuristic movies like Blade Runner more than anything – endless swathes of concrete and deteriorating, poor-quality construction. (The lack of naturally occuring vegetation to soften such places doesn’t help either.)

  • sgla

    I fear taking my kids to art museums because of all the pornographic material on display. I don’t mean authentic art with nudity, I mean porn. I once walked into a gallery and was immediately assaulted with the most pornographic “art” I have ever seen. Thankfully, this was before I had children. The prudent parent thinking of taking their children to a museum should consider a recon mission ahead of time. Better to avoid these parts of the gallery with the children than to just enter unaware.

  • K Howard

    I would very much recommend getting a pass to your local museum or art gallery. It means you can take short trips, frequently, without worrying that you’re getting your money’s worth from any particular visit. Then you can build up stamina and develop ‘favourite’ areas and re-visit rooms in different moods. Our local museum is quite huge and as my kids get older they see things with different eyes. We received the membership pass as a gift from grandparents, and it really is a ‘gift that keeps giving!’

  • Marilyn Prever

    Good one, Sim. I’m so happy that I schlepped you guys to museums all over New England and that you are now doing the same.~Abba