Kids and Culture? There’s So Much to Talk About

On a recent evening, three arts writers spoke about the joys and terrors of introducing their children to the profusion of New York City culture. Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a classical music critic with three children, ages 15, 13 and 9; Daniel McDermon is a fine arts writer with three children, 7, 6 and 3; and Alexis Soloski is a theater critic with two children, 5 and 2. In a lively chat with no meltdowns — though occasional breaks for tooth brushing and bedtime kisses — they discussed choral music, Broadway babies and the dangers of taking a toddler to the Brooklyn Museum. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Remember, It’s for Them

ALEXIS SOLOSKI When we bravely leave the tablets behind and take the kids out into the cultural world, what do we do to make this a happier and less stressful experience?

CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM A really good question to ask yourself as you begin to take children to cultural events: Is it for education or entertainment? Is it to share something that’s precious to you with them? I think much of the stress that comes with these situations arises out of the fact that our egos have a big fat stake in how they turn out.

DANIEL McDERMON I have wrestled a lot with the education vs. entertainment problem, in part because I keep insisting to myself (and my kids) that they are capable of appreciating things that just require more patience than they have. Like Buster Keaton movies.

SOLOSKI I want them to love what I love, though I’ve gradually — and I hope not too grudgingly — acknowledged that they have their own tastes and desires. Which is how the 5-year-old and I ended up at “Frozen.”

FONSECA-WOLLHEIM That’s also how I ended up more of an expert on the use of musical genres in the “Backyardigans” as opposed to them being well-versed in Mozart. A big difference to my own childhood is streaming. Like it or not, we live in an age in which it is easy to consume only what you already know and like.

McDERMON It is also easier than ever for them to serve themselves with what they like, which means my YouTube recommendations are a disaster.

Hits and Misses

McDERMON Our greatest successes owe a lot to some preliminary conversations, doing some reading together, and — maybe most important — snacks. I got my oldest, then 4, pretty excited to see “Picasso: Sculpture” at MoMA, and he liked it enough that I brought him back with the younger two so he could “share” it with them.

FONSECA-WOLLHEIM My kids loved that Picasso show, too, and the current Andy Warhol retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art was a hit with all three. Perhaps the biggest difference between visual art and a live performance of music or theater is that you can take no shortcuts. I actually don’t make it my special mission to get my children to love classical music — any live event is a wonderful antidote to that insulating power of the screens.

But since I am here to talk about classical music and kids, it’s worth saying up front: The music requires the communal silence of an attentive audience. And, unfortunately, that silence wants to be so total that a parent’s favorite tools — snacks and coloring books — won’t cut it.

I once took my then 7-year-old daughter to a matinee of religious choral music — contemporary music inspired by the wounds of Christ. O.K., I couldn’t find a babysitter, and I was reviewing! She sat there dutifully clutching her coloring book, but the scratch-scratch of her pens was too loud. And it was dark. She ended up sitting in the lobby of the Kaufman Center for the rest of the concert.

SOLOSKI I’ve had the occasional misfire, too. The first time I took my daughter to the Big Apple Circus, she became so fixated on the possibility of a pony ride that nothing — not tightrope walking, not clowns, not my frantic shushing — could distract her.

McDERMON Like a lot of new parents, I tried too hard, too early, with my first kid. He loved long walks in the stroller, so I thought, why not walk him through the Brooklyn Museum? We made it about five minutes into a Mickalene Thomas show before he started fussing, then whining, then full-out wailing as I rushed out.

What’s Right for Your Child?

SOLOSKI I take my kids to the theater pretty often, maybe every month or two, sometimes when I’m working and sometimes for what I will tentatively call fun. I try to find things I think all of us will like, but I don’t always guess right. And I don’t mind indulging them, cost permitting.

McDERMON My aim is twofold. I want them to be regulars in the city’s great cultural institutions, so they’ll feel at home, not intimidated. And then there are the sort of cultural totems that I feel obliged to share with them, like that Picasso show, or Giacometti at the Guggenheim, where a part of me is hoping to implant a kind of “aha” moment that they might be able to recall years from now.

One plan that touches on both aims is that every winter for the last few years I have wondered whether I could finally inaugurate a holiday tradition of “The Nutcracker” or the Met’s kid-friendly version of “The Magic Flute.” And every year I think, maybe next year. I find Film Forum intimidating enough.

FONSECA-WOLLHEIM First of all, adults may think of opera as an advanced form of classical music — that strange style of singing! The length! The plots! — but it has one huge advantage over instrumental concerts when it comes to kids: visual interest. The Met’s family-oriented productions around Christmas are excellent places to start.

They are shortened, and in English, and the house will be full of kids. My own three liked “The Magic Flute” well enough when I first took them, and laughed in all the right places. But what really stuck with me from that performance was the sound of a young girl, somewhere above us, sobbing inconsolably at a quiet moment deep into the Masonic part of the opera where the character Pamina is heartbroken. Children get emotions.

I’ll give you one more anecdote. I took my son, then 10 or 11, to see a double bill of short operas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There was Mark Morris’s witty take on Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” which I knew contained a really great witch, and then this incredibly austere and esoteric Noh-inspired opera by Britten, “Curlew River.” It was that opera that left him spellbound, at the edge of his seat. You never know what they’ll respond to.

McDERMON That kind of deep response is what I am hoping for when we try something that may be a bit beyond their reach. I spent at least 10 minutes with my son in front of Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30),” trying in a hushed, -nonobnoxious voice to talk him through the depths and dimension of it. It wasn’t enough to persuade him it was great, but I like to claim a minor victory in that we spent that much time looking.

Etiquette, Anyone?

FONSECA-WOLLHEIM I try to impress upon them the need to keep questions until afterward, to clap when others are clapping, and to even be mindful of the noise of turning pages or unwrapping sweets. But I’ve come up with a kind of “rule-of-four” to maintain my own sanity. Certain actions — snuggling up to a parent, say, or even a muffled cough or a whisper — may distract the attention of the four audience members immediately surrounding you. But they don’t even register a few rows behind.

Also, I should say that organizations like the New York Philharmonic put on wonderful concerts targeted at kids that don’t require these acrobatics. I’m talking more about how to prepare older kids for the mainstream concert situation.

McDERMON We do talk about the rules of cultural spaces, though I try not to incite rebellion by shouting “no touching.” But the biggest factor for me has been taking just one kid at a time, so the two of us can have an ongoing conversation about what we see.

SOLOSKI I’ve definitely whisper-shouted “No touching!” At the theater, I can be a bit of an etiquette monster. I try to comfort myself with the thought that the whole concept of a quiet and dutiful audience is a bourgeois 19th-century invention. But I don’t want it to be my kid having the meltdown. Still, I wish more shows understood that kids are kids, and they may not be thrilled to sit quietly for an hour and change, especially the littler ones. Most children are haptic learners, so I find the shows that have allowed them to move around and to join in the experience engage them best.

Spaces That Really ‘Get’ Kids

FONSECA-WOLLHEIM Summer festivals are the best for families. Anything outdoors — whether it’s the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park or Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. — allows kids to experience classical music while literally being able to turn cartwheels. If you want to expose your kids to the funkier varieties of contemporary music — wonderfully amplified, often — the Bang on a Can Marathon is a great place to start. And I recently discovered a sweet chamber music series at SubCulture, called GatherNYC, that runs one-hour shows on Sunday mornings complete with breakfast pastries and coffee. There were some very young children there who really took to it.

McDERMON The Bang on a Can Marathon was my son’s first concert. (Though we only lasted for one performer.) And I agree that being outdoors is a huge help. Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, N.Y., or the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens, can be fantastic with kids, and I think the scale of outdoor or public sculpture helps them recognize the way that art stands apart from the everyday.

SOLOSKI I’m really in love with the New Victory Theater’s model, which has art projects and activities for children before and after. And the shows are short! In recent years a lot of places have upped their game and are finding really innovative ways to delight children without boring parents: Lincoln Center Kids, BAM Kids, the French Institute: Alliance Française.

Budget-Friendly Outings

FONSECA-WOLLHEIM Lincoln Center offers free short performances by top artists in the Rubenstein Atrium (on the first Saturday of each month), which can be a great first taste. The outdoor events in Central Park are free. And recently I dipped into a lovely tradition that has been going on at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown for years: a half-hour program of choral Vespers by candlelight with the stellar Choir of Trinity Wall Street on Sunday evening. Everyone gets to hold a candle, which can be surprisingly hypnotic for a kid!

McDERMON The best value in the fine art world is New York’s galleries, which are full of world-class work and completely free, if you exclude the cost of the occasional unwelcoming glance. With a kid who has any interest and a modicum of self-control, I think touring Chelsea or uptown gallery districts is a blast. But dragging a toddler or a group of kids is a bad idea.

SOLOSKI Most Broadway shows now have lotteries and once a year, they offer a deal where a child can attend for free if an adult buys a full-price ticket. The next one is Feb. 26. And a lot of theaters will offer discounts to groups or offers for school groups, provided your children’s teachers are amenable.

Best Practices for Young Kids

FONSECA-WOLLHEIM I think the single best piece of advice I can give is to do as Daniel suggested and bring only one child at a time. My most stressful memories revolve around efforts to bring kids of very different ages — and their interpersonal dynamics — into the same cultural space. My second piece of advice — harking back to our beginning — is to exercise patience and take our own ego out of it.

None of my three children grew to love classical music the way I did, and I’m sometimes sad about that, just as I regret not passing on to them fluency in my mother tongue, German. But time works its own magic. My 15-year-old sat rapt through a Philharmonic concert and “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Met Opera over the holidays just because a friend from camp who was into classical music was visiting. And my son is now clamoring for piano lessons and YouTubing Chopin preludes because of a Japanese anime movie. So peers and, yes, Netflix, can sometimes succeed where you (think you) fail.

McDERMON New York is rich with magical spaces, and the rooms and buildings themselves can be enchanting. The grand sculpture galleries inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art overflow with monumental works, and that overwhelming feeling has really seized my kids’ attention when we visit. In a place like that, they get to choose what’s interesting to them, and we can spend time together discussing it.

SOLOSKI I’d look for works and spaces that give children a chance to contribute to the experience, and that meet children where they are, without talking up or down to them. And snacks. I can’t overemphasize snacks.

FONSECA-WOLLHEIM That’s why my kids will tell you that their favorite venue to be dragged to is (Le) Poisson Rouge, which has a photo booth and a menu including tater tots and warm chocolate chip cookies. They also love how naughty it feels to go to a “nightclub” — even if it’s Bach on the program.

What to Do Now?

We’ve compiled a guide with over 25 events that will help you navigate the city’s cultural landscape over the next few weeks, including the New York International Children’s Film Festival, Very Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic and the permanent exhibition “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” at the New York Aquarium.

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