February 23, 2008

Not A Museum Kind Of Kid

Take a close look at this picture from the excellent Auckland Maritime Museum. There's me, sitting in the machinery room of a giant steam crane. I'm checking out the machinery, reading about the boat, wondering what it must have been like for the men who worked here, trying to figure out how everything works. And there's Jerry, just on the other side of the wall, eyes intently focused four inches in front of his face on his Nintendo DS. This picture is a perfect example of our differing approaches to museums. I like to take the "look-around-and-learn" approach, while Jerry takes the "play-video-games-until-we-leave" approach.
I can't say I'm thrilled about our differences. I would much rather have him happily by my side, sharing my excitement. But, as Jerry has told me time and time, again he's "just not a museum kind of kid."

The way I see it, this leaves me with three options:
1.) Don't go to museums. (Not much fun for me.)
2.) Insist we go to museums together and force Jerry to follow along with me. (Not much fun for Jerry and definitely no fun for me--listening to a constant barrage of complaints is one of my least favorite ways to spend a day.)
3.) Go to museums together and park Jerry in one place where he can play his DS while I explore the galleries.

With option three we both win. Jerry gets to spend his time doing something he finds worthwhile and so do I.

I have to say, a year ago I would have been appalled by this arrangement. I would have thought (as many people might) that as a mother who has taken on the job of educating her child at home it was my responsibility to see that he learned something from our outings. After all, what a terrible waste to be surrounded by all that knowledge and not take any of it home.

But the truth is, he's much more likely to take something home from our museum visits when he takes it with a willing heart. And even though he does spend a great deal of his time at museums playing his DS, there are times when he is drawn in by a particular exhibit and ends up learning a lot. As a matter of fact, there are museums we go to where the DS never sees the light of day (Zeum in San Francisco, for one, and any kind of Science Center).

For me, it's more important to have a pleasant day (and a good relationship) than to waste my time trying and cram knowledge down Jerry's throat. Still, I don't keep interesting information to myself. If I come across something that might interest Jerry, or if I find something I especially like, I'll guide him to it. Sometimes he'll linger a while and sometimes he'll go right back to his game. Unschooling has helped me to accept both choices.

It doesn't come naturally for me, though, this acceptance. Many times (though less and less frequently as deschooling does its work) I have to make a conscious effort not to show signs of irritation when he's not interested in something I find fascinating. But what would I gain by getting irritated or by taking the standard approach and forcing him to "enjoy" the museum (never mind the fact that forcing enjoyment on anyone is impossible)? I would get a son who thinks I don't care about what he wants and I'd end up angry and annoyed. Instead we both end up enriched by our (somewhat different) museum experiences and we end the day knowing our feelings have been honored.

So, even though I always feel like a bit of a fraud when I offer parenting, homeschooling, or unschooling tips, I can offer this advice with confidence: if you have a child that's "not a museum kind of kid" forget about your preconceived notions of what a trip to the museum should look like and take the hand-held video game (or your child's preferred activity) along. It's not going to kill anyone, your child can't help gaining something from the experience, and you'll pass the day free of complaints--okay, almost free of complaints. But it'll be good. Trust me.

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