Yesterday I went with one of my daughters to The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. It wasn't our first time there, but we found ourselves moved again by the story of President Lincoln's life, his losses and triumphs, his death.
“It made me cry,” I said as we left.
“Me, too,” said my daughter. “That's why I didn't stay right with you!”
This museum in Springfield, Illinois tells the story of President Lincoln's life in a way that evokes emotion as well as educates. Some areas are exceptionally intense. The Whispering Gallery, with editorial cartoons that vilify not just President Lincoln but also his wife, is hard to walk through – but also familiar; we still make mean fun of our President, no matter who he is.
Another part of the exhibit includes a White House bedroom where Willie Lincoln lies dying even as a Presidential ball takes place “downstairs” -- the exhibit is set up so that we hear the music from the ball, see the President leaning into the room, having left the ball just for a moment to check on his boy; see Mrs. Lincoln leaning over Willie in bed.
As we walked my daughter wondered if it would be appropriate to bring her 7-year old son to the museum. He's asked to come, but she is having a hard time deciding if it would be something he would understand, be able to put in perspective, or if it would be too much too soon.
Besides the personal stories the museum tells, there is a great deal about the Civil War. The museum doesn't sugar-coat the death and dying.
How much is appropriate for a child to see? At what age?
How does a parent or a grandparent decide?
Which brings up some of those “I wish I'd been more careful” grandparenting moments.
Two of our grandkids spent a week-end with us recently. After a busy afternoon they were both tired – not quite tired enough for naps, but too tired for much of anything else.
“Would you like to watch a video?” I asked, and of course, they would.
Shuffling through our collection of old videos, they came across The Wizard of Oz. “This one,” they said.
“I don't know,” I said. “Maybe your mom wouldn't like for you to see this. It can be kind of scary.”
“Oh, mom won't mind,” said the older.
“Yeah, grandma. You can sit with us and watch it so we won't be scared,” said the younger.
So I relented, put the video in, and when the scary tornado came I sat with them, and the scary witch, and the scary monkeys. Everyone was deliciously scared – I thought – and then the movie was over with everyone happy, back in Kansas.
When the grandkids went home, they were excited to tell their mom about the scary movie they'd seen. She called right away.
At first I thought her concern was that I'd let them watch a scary movie, so I explained I'd been right there with them, we'd talked about the scary parts later, and I thought they were doing OK.
“But we wanted to watch that movie with them ourselves. It's a classic and we were saving it to watch together when they are a little older,” she explained patiently.
My heart sank as I realized I'd messed up. I should have checked with my daughter before I let the kids watch the movie.
Later, accepting my apology, she said, “How could you possibly have known we wanted to watch that movie with them?”
But the principle is checking with the parents before doing anything you aren't sure about – and I didn't.
It's like coaxing my daughter-in-law to let her 2-year old stay up “just a little longer” to do one more thing, then watching as, just as she said, he had a melt-down because he was too tired.
As a grandma it's important to listen to our children tell us about our grandchildren, and to ask when we don't know. It's important to recognize their parental insight, as well as to respect their right to parent the way they think best.
I think I need to remember that!
So, when it comes to deciding what a child is ready to do or see, a parent's gut feeling is important. A mom or a dad probably have a good sense about what a particular child is ready for, what they can handle.
My daughter was doing something smart: she went to see for herself, again, just what her child might see and experience at the museum. Although she's been there before, this time she went and walked through, trying to see the exhibits from the perspective of a curious 7-year old. That's wise.
She also noticed some parts of the museum were more appropriate for her son at this age than other areas. Areas that tell the story of President Lincoln's early life – the log cabin, the store at New Salem, the law office where his two sons are making a big mess – these parts of the exhibit might be fine for a 7-year old. Other sections of this part of the exhibit – particularly the slave market section – might not be easily explained. If she lets him see that part, she'll at least have time to prepare to talk about it with him.
It's important to encourage a child's curiosity, but you don't want to overwhelm a child with information or emotions they aren't ready to process, either.
It's a good thing to think about when we consider vacation plans.