Curiosity and egoism at the children’s museum

On Saturday afternoon I found myself in stocking feet, exhaling on a soft rubber mat in the gated infant area of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.  It was a busy Saturday afternoon at the museum. Kids, strollers, parents, grandparents everywhere all at once. Over on the other side of the room I could see Jay placing colored plastic balls on a conveyor belt—supervised by Caroline and her dad and sister—as he tried to fend off an eager two-year-old girl who wanted her shot at the task.

But inside the infant area things were comparatively calm. Caroline’s mom and I reclined against a pile of large foam blocks. Wally crawled around and picked up a clear plastic tube filled with glitter. He shook it, mouthed it, dropped it back on the mat, and set off in search of more germs.

A children’s museum is possibly the single best place to observe American middle class parenting in action. From my vantage in the infant area I took in the cacophony: a mix of feverish cultivation, frustration, and glazed expressions that seemed to tell the story of all the things the adults in the room would rather have been doing with their Saturday afternoons.

A dad passed in front of me, leading his son on a leash made to look like a monkey’s tale. A mom placed a plastic ball on the outer edge of a large funnel and as the ball spiraled towards its doom, tried to explain centripetal force to her less-than-rapt three-year-old daughter. Another dad alternated his gaze between his iPhone and his young daughter who at that very moment was opening the door to the mezzanine-level “Preschool Play Area” and heading for the stairs. When it finally became clear that she wasn’t coming back, he put the phone in his pocket and dashed after her.

The most striking thing about the Hands-On Museum, though, was the ratio of adults-to-children. In our family it was 5:1: Caroline, me, her mom, her dad, her sister on one side, and Jay on the other (I think you could argue that Wally doesn’t count since he was pretty much just dragged along and didn’t get much more out of the visit than a runny nose).

The five of us watched as Jay dangled a magnetic fishing pole into a stream of water in search of magnetic fish. And we watched as he made a puppet out of sequins, glue, and a paper bag. And we watched as he placed one plastic ball after another into a suction tube.

It was nice to see Jay having fun and it felt good to think that I was fulfilling my duty as a parent by bringing him to the museum. But still, it was hard not to imagine how the scene might seem to parents from different eras or many places in the world today. Five adults standing around watching one child play! I imagine they’d be impressed by the amount of leisure time we have on our hands, and maybe perplexed at how we choose to spend it.

Afterwards I thought about what message the experience at the Hands-On Museum might have sent Jay. Here was this elaborate museum, all seemingly built just for him, and here was his entire family watching him enjoy it. If I were him, I’d definitely conclude I was pretty important.

Which, overall, is a good thing of course—I want Jay and Wally to feel that they’re important, to be self-confident, to believe that their choices matter. But at the same time I don’t want them to think that the world revolves around them.

We’re not a religious household, but in thinking about the dynamics at work at the Hands-On museum, I keep coming back to a lesson I learned in Sunday School growing up. I remember being told that God doesn’t love human beings because we’re special, but rather that human beings are special because we have the capacity to love God. The difference is significant, I think. The former case impels egoism (“I’m special because people care about me”) while the latter case creates an outward-looking view on the world that is both more humble and more dignified.

To bring it back to the Hands-On Museum, it struck me watching Jay play that there’s a fine line between egoism and curiosity. I want Jay and Wally to feel eager to explore and to provide them with a range of experiences over which to let their curiosity play. But at the same time, it seems important that they learn that the world does not exist so that they can apprehend it, but rather, maybe, that they exist to apprehend the world.

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