Trying to instill taste for culture is uphill struggle


Because I believe that children have a spiritual life that can be touched by the fine arts, I am attempting to introduce mine to what our mothers might have called culture.

It is not going well.

Because I believe that in the arts, children can find a way to express what they feel but cannot say, because I believe the arts can give them fun and joy and a way to calm the turmoil inside, I have not only paid for pottery classes and painting lessons and dance camp, but I also have bought tickets to ballets and symphonies.

I feel like I've been burying money in the backyard.

There is something about dress clothes and fold-down seats in an auditorium that inspires unbelievable restlessness in children. And while they are satisfied to throw pots, smear paint and tap dance through life, they can't seem to sit still for anybody else's art.

OK. So maybe taking three children to Handel's "Messiah" wasn't the best idea I've ever had. But it was mean of those old ladies behind us to poke their bony fingers into my daughter's back when she fidgeted. The children were absolutely quiet, even while playing "Hangman" on the back of the program.

Rarely have I asked my kids -- weaned on Walt Disney's "Fantasia" -- to sit through a musical performance that did not come with spectacular visual effects. When the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra performed "Cinderella" by Sergei Prokofiev, accompanied by Bob Brown's huge and comedic puppets, I thought I had an ideal way to introduce them to symphonic music.

It was spectacular, and the children were transfixed. But afterward, my 9-year-old son declared that they could have saved themselves a lot of money if they had just played a tape for the puppets. "Then they wouldn't have had to pay all those people with the instruments," Joe said.

Likewise, I have tried to establish a Christmas family tradition by purchasing tickets to the Annapolis Ballet Theater's annual performance of "The Nutcracker."

The auditorium was overrun with women and their daughters in their best holiday dresses as ballerina daydreams were passed from one generation to another. The costumes and scenery are vivid, and our seats are in the third row, where my kids can see the faces of all the children they know who are dancing.

What is the response? My 7-year-old daughter declared during the overture, loud enough for everyone in the hall to hear, "Oh, no. Is this the one without the talking? I hate this one. Just music and dancing and nobody says anything. I hate this one."

At least my husband and son didn't share their observations. They just laughed uncontrollably and whispered, while staring at the codpiece worn by the male lead dancer, that they know why it is called, "The Nutcracker."

How humiliating.

If I want a rich cultural tradition for my family, I will need help. And I am not getting any from my husband. He promised the kids he would buy them snacks at "halftime" if they behaved. "In the theater," I said coolly, "it is called intermission."

One evening not long ago, knowing that my husband might find a choral performance of a requiem a real downer, I did my best to paint a cheerful word picture of what I had planned.

"Well, it is a requiem. But it is a different kind of requiem. It's more of an upbeat, folksy kind of requiem. You'll love it."

"Look, the last requiem I liked was 'Requiem for a Heavyweight,' with Anthony Quinn," he said.

Dismayed, I turn to a friend, Deborah Banker, a sculptor who teaches her art to young children, to ask if I was wasting my time.

"If you can get them young, you can educate them before they are jaded," she says. "The good thing about children and art is that they have no preconceived ideas or inhibitions. They are very open to it."

At about age 10 or 11, she explains, children become very aware of how they are viewed by the world. They become self-conscious about themselves and anything they create.

"Young children are thrilled with everything they see and everything they create. But then they approach the age of ego awareness and total practicality. From that point on, you have lost them. But they will return to it when they are older."

Sure. When they decide they should introduce their own children to culture.

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