Saturday, July 26, 2008

Parenting on the fly (yet again)

Ever since she was a baby, we've taken SB to art museums--mostly Portland Art Museum, where we have a membership, but we also try to visit them when we're in other cities. She's a pretty observant kid (read: she likes to stare at things and people) and also loves drawing and doodling; the other day, she told me she was an "artitect."

Anyway, so we stopped in at MOMA when we were in SF last week and when the guy in the ticket booth said, "Do you want to buy tickets to the Frida Kahlo exhibit?" without thinking, I said, "Sure," and shelled out a few extra bucks. After all, when she was about a year old, we'd dressed her up as Frida Cow-lo for Halloween, complete with the unibrow, so it seemed fitting in some way.

But that was because we'd forgotten about some of Kahlo's more disturbing paintings. Once we'd made it past the relatively innocuous self portraits, we got mired in the throng of visitors and SB quickly spied the more gruesome pieces, including A Few Small Nips and Henry Ford Hospital. Anyone ever have to explain to a not-quite-four-year-old an image of a woman lying on a bed covered in small wounds, or perhaps one of a woman attached to a fetus and a snail? We cruised by those as quickly as possible, but our kid's eagle eye didn't miss a thing. At one point, I asked her why she liked those images more than, say, the still life images of fruit, and she explained, "I like stuff with people in hospitals." Seems a little, I don't know, specific, but okay.

Alex gave me dirty looks through most of the exhibit, but I didn't want to make a big deal of the whole thing because I knew she'd be even more intrigued. So instead we explained that the paintings were "pretend" and then took her to see the black and white photos of Kahlo and Diego Rivera and explained that those were "real." (Leaving out the "real" part of their troubled relationship, natch.)

At the end of the exhibit, the nice people at SFMOMA set up a gift shop where SB found a set of tattoos that included the aforementioned disturbing images. I tried to talk her out of them and offered up some harmless photo postcards, but she insisted. Her fascination was persuasive, so I bought them for her, but then promptly hid them away. She's asked about them a couple of times, but I tell her that I haven't unpacked them yet and try to distract her: Today, we biked to a nearby street fair where we made paper hats, ate grilled corn, and drank root beer--unambiguously kid activities. I also bought her a new puzzle and one of those necklace and bracelet making kits. Denial, deception, and overcompensation: the hallmarks of excellent parenting.

This kind of parenting on the fly, which is really the only kind of parenting I know how to do, was easier when SB was younger and more of a passive, slow-moving creature. Now that she's a part of the world--alert and inquisitive and observant--it's harder to avoid these edgier encounters with the world. I watch many of my friends struggle with this, too, whether explaining (or avoiding explaining) to their kids why some people live under bridges or why some people have only one leg. Maybe there should be some sort of chart, like those milestone development charts for infants, that recommend when a child can handle hearing about life's harder truths: "At age eight, explain that life isn't fair and that some people don't have homes. At age ten, explain that some people have accidents and lose their body parts. At age twelve, explain that war has always been, and will likely always be, a part of the human experience."

But, of course, our kids are all so different from one another. They're each on their own paths that, while certainly influenced by parental steps and missteps, also seem to have built-in twists and turns. My "artitect" kid likes paintings of people in hospitals? Good to know.


msmeadow said...

Your blog is my favorite blog ever. I think you are doing the right thing by exposing your brilliant and hilarious daughter to the wonders of Frida Kahlo art.

When I was little I was obsessed with the Rousseau painting "The Sleeping Gypsy." I remember starting at it and feeling "dark" really intensely and also loneliness and fear because of the lion. That sort of exposure to art at a young age when you might not fully comprehend the symolism is important right? And isn't it better for SB to have an intense interaction with such quality art rather than the sort of kiddy-fluff Disney art she's exposed to from popular culture?

Regardless, you two are my favorite parents in the entire world and you have the greatest kid to show for it.

DomaMama said...

Thanks for your sweet (and biased) words about this blog and SB. Our goal is to raise her so that she grows up to be as amazing as you are, so glad to know that with exposure to art, we're on the right track!

And I do think it's a good point that intense interactions with art can't be all that bad for her. Little bit of Friday, little bit of Curious George--seems all right.