Fear and Loathing in the Picture Book Museum

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If you have—or have had—children then odds are you’ve run into Eric Carle’s work.  He’s one of the foremost children’s book artists and authors in the world, and is perhaps best known for his work on The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  My wife and I have been reading books of his to our 2-year-old for well over a year, and he’s proven to be quite popular.

I decided it would be a swell idea to take little Audrey to a museum dedicated to the man.  The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is only 90 minutes away after all, in the college town of Amherst, MA.  What better way to get out of the house, engage my daughter, and get a bit of culture along the way?

In other words, what could possibly go wrong?

The day started well enough.  Audrey napped in the car ride and awoke to find herself riding through western Massachusetts farmland.  Cows, chickens, and big red barns raced by as I made my way to the museum.  She has been in a “Farm Phase” as of late so all of this was very exciting.  Upon arriving at the museum, the good vibes continued.  She immediately located a giant caterpillar modeled after the one from the book.  The larger than life bug had shelves for books and two benches for reading so Audrey went to work, grabbing and paging through the selections, one by one.  Story time was about to start in the adjacent library, however.  So, after a fair amount of coaxing, I was able to extract her from the caterpillar and get her a world class seat for story time, such is the high quality dad that I am.

Once the librarian began reading, and the other children were actively engaged with its progress, I knew I was in for some trouble.  Audrey loves books, but this time there were simply too many distractions.  There were toys to play with, festively patterned rugs to jump on, and, of course, tons of books to page through.  She couldn’t focus on the story at all.  No, she had to explore instead, stepping on the hands of other children in the process.  She also tried playing with toys other kids had claimed for their own, which didn’t exactly endear her in their eyes.  But the worst thing of all was the talking.  She just wouldn’t shut up.

Now my daughter is a real chatterbox in general.  While I may regret this personality trait when she’s a teenager, for now it’s great.  Her ability to communicate vocally is a real strength of hers and I would hate to stifle it.  However, this was one time I wish I could have.  If she was talking about the book being read, it’d be one thing, but she wasn’t.  She just kept jabbering about whatever came to mind, and it was proving to be a real distraction to the others.

One of my great fears as a parent is being THAT DAD.  You know what I mean.  That parent of THAT CHILD who is throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery line.  That parent of that child who is making an ungodly mess in the restaurant.  In other words, that BAD parent of that BAD child.

I felt like THAT PARENT at that very moment, especially considering how well behaved the other kids were.  I mean, couldn’t one of these kids be acting up too?  What were the odds that all these kids were so calm and peaceful?  That just doesn’t happen, right?  Nevertheless I felt embarrassed and had to cut story time short.  It was time for new surroundings.

Now, the main attraction of the museum isn’t a giant caterpillar and a library, as you might have guessed.  It’s the two galleries of picture book art.  So I decided that this was the time to really check out what the museum had to offer.  Unfortunately Audrey wasn’t really on board.  I tried holding her hand.  I tried picking her up.  But she wasn’t having it.  She wasn’t going to admire Mr. Carle’s art, original drawings from Charlotte’s Web, and more.

No, she was going to run around and scream.

Naturally this meant that I was going to run around after her too.  And let me tell you, I was screaming as well.  Just on the inside.  I managed to see most of the artwork in the museum, but it was all just a blur.  I had to get her out of there.  I decided that this tiny energetic beast would be best served spending time in the museum’s activity room.  After all, it was made for children to play in.  What could go wrong?

Here’s what went wrong:

  • Dozens of wall magnets were aggressively strewn about the floor
  • All notions of sharing were abandoned in favor for stealing toys from other children
  • Fragile artwork hung from the walls were tugged on violently
  • Giant crayon nubs the size of ping pong balls were inserted into her mouth in full
  • Glue here, glue there, glue everywhere
  • Scissors!!!

On top of this she continued to be ear piercingly loud.  In fact, she was easily the noisiest thing in the entire museum.  I was THAT DAD.  She was THAT CHILD.  And I was hitting a wall.

The only thing I could do, other than leave, was take her back to the caterpillar in the hopes that it would calm her down.  Thankfully it did, and she happily spent more time sitting and paging through books while I rested my weary bones nearby.  We left shortly after that.

Audrey has seen her fair share of museums in her short life—fine art museums, aquariums, sculpture parks, etc.—but this was easily her worst public performance.  By far.  The stress I felt as a parent took hours to wear off and I was left wondering if I will be unable to take her to such a place for quite some time.  After all, it was embarrassing for me.  And tiring.  The museum was fantastic, but I feel like I’m only guessing at that.  My main takeaway from the experience was the stress of it all, unfortunately.

Still, I feel like it would be a mistake to not share in these experiences with her for a while.  If I don’t go to museums, or their like, until she’s more rational and obedient then where will I draw the line?  Will I keep her from the library too?  Or the grocery store?  Restaurants?  Removing her from having opportunities in life feels unfair to me, no matter the effect it has on my stress levels.

Plus, while I don’t enjoy feeling like THAT DAD, I know I’m not alone.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that all parents have experiences like the one I had at The Eric Carle Museum.  It doesn’t make us bad parents.  It doesn’t mean that our children are terrible.  They’re just…children.  And the best we can do is shepherd them down the right path so that eventually they learn and grow.

So I’m not going to quit.  I’m going to try again.  Soon.  Because who really cares if I’m THAT DAD anyway?

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