On Monday, E. and I went to a museum. The friends we were supposed to meet were running late, so we decided to go in and visit one of the exhibits while we were waiting.
“What do you want to go and see?” I asked E.
“The dinosaurs,” he answered.
On the way up to find the dinosaurs, we passed the coral reef aquarium, filled with tropical fish.
E. was entranced.
“Let’s stop here for a minute,” he told me, and pressed his nose up against the glass.
Forty-five minutes later, we were still at the fish tank when my friend and his daughter found us. E. showed his three favourites to them. He pointed out the spot where some sort of fish was hiding under the coral, visible only when it emerged to spit out mouthfuls of the sandy bottom. He traced on the glass the tunnels through the coral where the angelfish vanished, only to reappear at the opposite end of the aquarium.
It had been a perfectly glorious morning, and as we wandered the museum with our friends, following E’s interests (we did eventually reach the dinosaurs), I realized why.
There had been absolutely no agenda.
There wasn’t anything I wanted to see myself.
There wasn’t anything I wanted E. to see.
We weren’t in a rush.
It was a far cry from our experience in the fall, when we’d gone with the grandparents to one of their local museums.
We entered the dinosaur gallery. E. looked up and saw the skeleton of an Elasmosaurus.
My son fell in love.
E. could have stared at the Elasmosaurus skeleton for the rest of the day.
E. did, in fact, want to watch the Elasmosaurus skeleton for the rest of the day.
But he couldn’t, because we’d come to the museum, and we were going to SEE it.
My father is a retired army colonel. The museum had been his suggestion. It wasn’t quite, “If this is 2:30 we should be in mammals”, but it was close. All my son wanted to do was look at the dinosaur he now loved more than almost anything else in the whole world (because its neck is so like a snake, you see, and he loves snakes), but the adults he was with were getting bored and fractious.
“Come over here, E., and see this Triceratops!”
“Let’s go up to the next level- there’s a model of an arctic ice breaker!”
“E., do you see the size of that polar bear?!”
Eventually I gave up trying to see any of the museum myself, left the other adults to their reading and thinking and learning, and roamed with E. until we ended up on the fourth floor where E. found a live desert millipede (which also looks a lot like a snake) which he watched with great pleasure until it was time to go home.
Afterwards, I wished I had been faster at telling Husband and the grandparents to go on ahead. I wished I had remembered that, while an adult can go to a museum and a three-year-old can go to a museum, if they go together the museum can only be experienced in a way truly satisfactory to one of them.
Our experience is far from unusual. On Monday, while I sat on the bench and watched the fish with E. I lost count of the number of children who approached the aquarium and engaged with the fish, only to be drawn, lured, or just plain pulled away by their accompanying adults.
I overheard the following:
“Come on, let’s go look at that big crab over there.”
“Don’t you want to go and see the dinosaurs?”
“All right, you’ve seen the fish now, where should we go next?”
“Hurry up! We haven’t got all day!”
Why do we DO this?
Why do we take our very young children to museums and zoos and aquariums, wanting them to get interested in what they see there, and then, when they do get interested, we get bored after five minutes and try to hurry them along to the next thing we think they should be interested in? Why do we forget that these places are huge and disorienting? That young children often have very focused interests? That their legs are so much shorter than our own? When did we decide that once you have children you no longer go to one of these places on your own, or with a friend or a partner, but save them up for “special family outings” that all too often end in tears?
I think there are two major factors at play in this disconnect.
- We want to foster happy childhood memories.
I really really love museums (I’m an historian by training). I want my son to love museums. I have many happy memories of visits to museums, zoos and aquariums from my childhood. I want my son to have these memories.
I’m guessing I’m not alone here.
If I take a minute to think about those vaunted happy childhood memories, they’re from visits I made to museums, zoos and aquariums when I was eight. Or ten. Or fourteen. Not three or four.
We want to share our experiences with our children when they’re not yet old enough to have the kinds of experiences that we’re remembering. Yet we don’t wait, because this is something we’ve imagined doing as a family (sometimes for years) and we want to make it real.
- We want to get our money’s worth.
Four adult admissions and one child to the museum we visited with E.’s grandparents set us back $58.50, plus another $10 in parking charges. E. could have spent the entire visit gazing adoringly at Elasmosaurus and considered it value for money, but that was a harder sell for his parents and grandparents.
If something gets classified as a major outing because of its cost, there’s immediately more pressure on everyone to make the most of it. We probably could care less if we plan an outing to the park and our children get bored five minutes after we arrive. It’s a lot harder to just roll with the punches when you’ve spent time and energy organizing to go somewhere special, and spent a considerable amount of money to do so, and it turns out it’s your beloved offspring who could care less.
But that’s our problem, not theirs.
Our children don’t know what our agenda is.
They don’t know that they’re supposed to feel grateful for this opportunity.
I’ve fallen prey to both of these mindsets before.
When E. was almost two, we visited family in San Francisco, and my sister and I took him to the zoo.
We were so excited to show him all of our favourite animals. With E. in the Ergo, we walked through the entire zoo. We saw practically everything there was to see.
If given the chance, E. would have happily spent the entire day doing exactly three things:
- Running back and forth through the pedestrian tunnel that led to the African animals (he cared not a whit for the animals themselves, despite our best efforts to lure him onwards with cries of “Zebras!” “Ooh, Giraffes!” and the like).
- Riding on the little green tractor in the farm area.
- Watching the lemurs.
Zoos, it turns out, are pretty boring for the two and under set (probably why they usually get in for free). Many of the animals are hiding or not on display. Many of the ones that are on display are asleep or so far away that a toddler can’t make heads or tails of them (literally).
We had a good day, but, as we later admitted, everyone probably would have had more fun if we’d left E. at home and just gone ourselves.
Yet we persisted. A year later, that same sister and I took E. to the new aquarium that had just opened up in my city.
I predicted that E. would hate it. It would be dark, noisy and crowded, all things he seriously disliked.
But it was new and exciting and my sister was in town and we both really really really wanted to go. So we chose a time where we thought it would be quieter, and we used a coupon so the tickets would cost less, and we braved it.
It was, as predicted, an unmitigated disaster. The aquarium was filled to the brim with school groups. It had music playing everywhere. I was completely overwhelmed.
E. was beside himself.
And yet, despite my awareness of the issues at play, despite knowing I was putting him in an environment that he was going to find challenging, I still found myself growing irritated with my weeping child as I carried him through the second half at a rapid pace because I WANTED to see the aquarium and didn’t he know how much this outing had COST?
Not my finest moment.
My frustration only lasted for as long as it took to get outside, where I could take a deep breath and recover my perspective.
Three trips to big-ticket places, three not-so-ideal results.
Why was our museum trip on Monday so different?
Two words: annual membership.
We purchased a membership in January. We can go as many times as we want in 2015.
On Monday I didn’t feel the pressure to “get my money’s worth”. I didn’t feel we had to see the whole museum because we wouldn’t get another chance. I wasn’t trying to both show my son the museum and see it myself. My only agenda was for my son to have a good time.
It is, of course, a point of privilege that I am able to make this “special experience” into something ordinary in the first place. We live in a city which boasts museums and art galleries and cultural institutions galore, we can take transit to get to them, and we can afford the annual membership to the one we’ve chosen. But I hope the next time we’re travelling and we decide to go somewhere interesting because we want E. to see it I can remember how I felt at the museum on Monday. If he’s the reason we’re going, we have to be willing to follow his lead.
E’s already told me that next time we go to the museum he wants “to spend the whole time looking at the coral reef fish tank except for going to see the Elasmosaurus in the middle.”
That suits me fine.
In the meantime, I have a date with Husband at the aquarium so I can finally see those illuminated jellyfish.
Featured image by Laura D’Alessandro, via flickr. Elasmosaurus image author’s own.