My son, who is nearly two, has been coming to museums with me since he was born. In the past couple of months we've seen the Louise Bourgeois show at MOCA and Oranges and Sardines at the Hammer. He's often the only small child in the galleries, especially in exhibitions like Kara Walker, which we explored together last spring. Some might argue that the artist's work, which addresses race, sexuality, and troubling histories, is unacceptable for children. In fact, that's what many of the other visitors at the museum seemed to be saying as, with eyebrows raised, they watched my son and I stroll by.
I have many reasons for taking my boy to museums, and for now, frankly, it's easy to introduce him to provocative work since he's not asking the tough questions. But he's only a couple of years away from understanding on some level, and I plan to continue taking him to challenging exhibitions. Perhaps naively, I look forward to the discussions that will ensue between the two of us—I think art and the context of museums is a wonderful way to plumb life's complexities.
By and large, researchers agree that children benefit immensely from exposure to the arts. Study after study, findings indicate that "Arts experiences enhance ‘critical thinking' abilities and outcomes" (Why Your Child Needs the Arts Advantage and How You Can Gain It). It's clearly a private decision to be made within a family, but suppose you do take your children to museums: what about those awkward moments? LACMA educator Karen Satzman pointed out that up to a certain age, the parents are often more embarrassed than the children. When the kids grow older and begin giggling at nudes, for example, she asks why they're laughing and opens a dialogue. Then she tells the children that what they are experiencing—a reaction—is what art is all about.