When Using the Wrong Words Destroys Your Toddler’s Delicate Expectations

Water Table-Audrey

Last week I took my 2-year-old Audrey to the Discovery Children’s Museum in Acton, Massachusetts.  I had a strong feeling she would enjoy it, but I had no earthly idea that it would prove to be the high point in her thus far abbreviated life.  Every room in the converted Victorian home seemed designed specifically for her.  There was a giant water table with countless toys and cascading waterfalls, a room seemingly designed by Rube Goldberg, and many more stuffed full with immersive, interactive activities.  For days she talked about the “museum” and her need to go back post haste.  And every time she did I patted myself on the back for taking her there.  What a great father I must be.

Buoyed by my recent success, I endeavored to take Audrey to another museum yesterday.  The DeCordova Museum in Lincoln.  While not a children’s museum, it showcases an absolutely lovely sculpture park.  I figured we could enjoy a few hours in the beautiful 70-degree weather and cap it off with a nice picnic in the grass.

Unfortunately events did not proceed as planned.  And it was all because I dared call the DeCordova a “museum”.

It only took a mention or two of the word “museum” to cement the idea in Audrey’s mind.  We were going back to the Discovery.  She was utterly convinced of that.  I tried describing the sculpture park to her in an effort to modify these inaccurate expectations, but it was becoming clear I had already failed.  While strapping her into the car seat she said, “I wanna go water room!”  I calmly told her the DeCordova didn’t have a water room, but that we were going to have fun nevertheless!

It didn’t sway her in the slightest.  In her mind we were going to play at the water table.

My sinking feeling was confirmed the moment we got out of the car.  The DeCordova, in addition to having a sculpture park, has an indoor museum too, stuffed to the gills with modern art.  But it was closed yesterday so as to allow for the installation of new exhibits.  Audrey–thinking we were at another children’s museum–promptly headed for the building.  I made an effort to direct her toward the park, but she was insistent.  Moments later she was banging on the locked doors and rolling around on the ground crying.  I eventually managed to wrangle a tiny bit of fun out of the experience, but it wasn’t long before we were back on the road.  Heading home.

Audrey, like many children her age, makes strong associations with words.  For her the term “special treat” means cookies or candy.  “Pancakes” means there better not be any blueberries in them.  And “going outside” is defined as the playground and nowhere else.  These associations, as you might expect, can erode our control over our children if we’re not careful.  The words and phrases we choose set expectations for our children, and when used properly they can ensure a day’s events go smoothly.  When not used properly, well…I already told you what happens then.

Explaining the difference to a 2-year-old between a children’s museum and one consisting only of art is not an easy one–particularly if they’re rolling around on the ground–so avoid it.  Use the right terms from the start.

Being that Audrey is my first child, most of my learning as a parent stems from trial and error.  This example is no different.  I learn from my mistakes and move on, a more enlightened and experienced parent.  So while I regret yesterday’s events, and my significant role in it, I treat it as a wake up call and nothing more.  Next time I decide to try the DeCordova I’ll call it a park instead.

And you won’t hear me use the word “museum” again unless I’m damn sure the place has a water table.

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