What would you do if a couple of middle-school-aged kids (12+-) walked into your museum unaccompanied by adults? Would you stop them immediately and bar them from their journey of discovery? Or would you treat them as you would adult visitors and wait to see if they were disruptive before interfering with their visit? Or do you have a special procedure for youth to “register” at the front desk with a parent’s name and contact information?
Two years ago, when one of my sons was that age, he experienced two different museum procedures in Raleigh’s capital cluster of museums on the same day. He and a friend went into “Museum A” and explored and enjoyed themselves—no problems ensued. Afterwards they ventured into “Museum B” and an official stopped them at the door and told them they were not allowed in without a parent. Perhaps there are sound policies in place, based on liability or other concerns, that guided the boys’ exclusion. But whether or not that was the case, I believe a ban on kid visitors is a shame.
I support free-range parenting, which has become something of a movement in recent years. Most parents of tweens and teens today are old enough to remember a time when kids played outside all day and even visited stores, libraries, and museums without parents. Perhaps there’s no need to mention to the large portion of readers who are also historians that as soon as children were physically able in the past, they were encouraged to do all sorts of tasks independently. Amazingly to us today, in 1941-42 my grandparents put my aunt, who was a precocious 2-year-old, on a city bus in Iowa City by herself to ride to pre-school daily. How can it be that in the 21st century, even if we trusted our kids to function independently, we’re either too stunted by fears of criminals or fears of being criminalized ourselves to send them out on their own for brief excursions? Free-range parenting guru Lenore Skenazy has a thorough discussion of the possible reasons for the shift from free-range to cooped-up, often over-scheduled, kids in the last 20-30 years. She argues that the result is often harmful for both child development and parental well being.
Can our institutions function as part of kids’ free range? Read about a 60-something museum professional who fell in love with archaeology by repeatedly visiting his local museum alone when he was 8 years old here. Are there sound reasons to prevent decently behaved children, who are able to move through the space independently, from entering museums? (Granted, precocious 2-year-olds seem too young, but middle-school-age seems reasonable.) If so, can minor adjustments be made—such as registration upon entry—to allow older kids the freedom-with-responsibility they desire and arguably require?
Skenazy cites one school which instituted a “Free-Range Kids project” with great success. Can our cultural heritage institutions partner with schools, scout and church groups, etc. to welcome free-range children? Let’s join the chorus of the free-range kid movement. Independence paired with a sense of responsibility nurtures good citizens, and the freedom to explore inspires effective learning. Shouldn’t museums be a part of those essential processes?
Adrienne Berney, C2C Project Director