Escaping the parent trap: Facing tough topics with kids at the museum

By Fellow Sarah Erdman
Visitors in Price of Freedom exhibit

Fellow Sarah Erdman provides her tips for parents facing tough topics in museum exhibitions on family visits.

It sometimes feels like museums set traps for unsuspecting parents. You are in an art museum, patting yourself on the back for all the culture you are introducing your kids to when one of them asks (quite loudly) "Why is that lady NAKED?!" Oops, not exactly a question you'd planned on answering. For me at least, the parental equivalent of fight or flight kicks in... what do you do?


Visitors explore "Price of Freedom: Americans at War"
Visitors explore "Price of Freedom: Americans at War"

History museums can also offer similar challenges. While there are many triumphant moments in American history, there are also dark and unpleasant ones. One of the clearest examples is the Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition on our third floor of this museum. Taking your kids through it can feel a bit daunting, and yet it is an important topic and put together in a thoughtful and interactive way.

So, what do you do? 

  • Plan your route. If you are going to take your kids through an exhibition that deals with difficult topics, a little planning will make it easier on all of you. Decide how much time in there is right for your family, how in-depth you are going to get in reading/explaining the exhibit theme, and how you will take breaks, or stop, when it is time. There is no shame in not finishing a tour through an exhibition. If you need to leave, leave. In Price of Freedom, there are a few peel-off routes but you may need to back track. Any docent or staff member can also help you get to the exit if you are having trouble finding it.

  • Be prepared for questions. When they do ask, answer JUST the question they asked, then let them guide you if they want to ask follow-ups or bring up other things. You don't need to volunteer a lot of extra information, just answer what they ask.

  • Don't expect their reaction to be the same as yours. Kids process things very differently from adults. It can be unsettling when they don't get upset about something like they "should" but their brains help them handle just as much as they can take in.


An 1830s uniform
An 1830s uniform worn by topographical engineers
  • Zoom in on details. If a big idea or story is challenging, explore a smaller piece. Instead of explaining big ideas (such as protecting freedom or western expansion), talk about individual objects. "This is a soldier's uniform from a long time ago. Do you think it is similar or different from a firefighter's uniform you might see today?"

  • Even if you are trying to be thorough, remember you don't have to see everything. If you aren't ready and don't want to tackle it this timeā€”skip it. But you don't have to skip talking about it. It can be difficult to discuss challenging topics in immersive environments (such as our helicopter scene in the Vietnam War section, which includes light and sound effects). Take the conversation to a quiet bench outside the exhibition space.


Parents, what are your tips for dealing with tough topics in museums? 

Sarah Erdman is the Goldman Sachs Fellow for Early Learning at the museum and the founder of Cabinet of Curiosities. She has also blogged about why you shouldn't take your kids to the museum without this in hand.

Note: Wegmans Wonderplace opened December 9, 2015. It's the first exhibition on the National Mall designed for children 0 to 6. This 1,700-square-foot experience provides the youngest historians with age-appropriate activities and experiences.