Six Ways Introduce Fine Arts Using The Happy Idiot Method

Artwork by Samuka

“You’re a frigging idiot.”

That’s what the guy behind us said. He spoke so loudly that two rows of concert-goers heard it. He didn’t even wait until the intermission to announce he considered us boorish.

I’m still not sure what upset him so much. My seven-year-old daughter had begged to attend what she called a “real performance” after enjoying a number of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Musical Rainbows concerts for young children. Nearly every day since she’d been three years old she put on recordings such as Beethoven Lives Upstairs,
Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf,  Song of the Unicorn, and Mr. Bach Comes to Call.Sometimes she played,  sometimes she danced but mostly she drew pictures as she listened to compelling music woven around stories.

Going together to the concert was a rare night out for the two of us but I knew her three brothers weren’t as entranced by classical music. So that evening she and I dressed up, taking our eagerness to velvety seats not far from the stage. As the concert hall filled many people greeted us kindly. The musicians began to tune up and my daughter nodded at me. She knew this was her cue to be quiet until intermission.

Then the man behind us arrived. He squeezed past others, sat down and said aloud, “Oh no.” Because he exhaled so repeatedly and in such an exaggerated manner I wondered if he’d sat on something awful. Nope, the something awful was us.

Just as the conductor lifted his baton, the man behind us leaned forward as if to whisper, but his hissed words weren’t quiet at all. He said, “I paid good money for this seat. Your kid better not wreck it.” Then he muttered “idiot” under his breath. I turned around to look at him, more surprised than annoyed, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was glaring hatefully at my beautiful child.

The performance started and my daughter was enraptured. At times she looked over at me, squeezed my hand or leaned her head against me. Sometimes her hands floated just above her lap as if carried by sound. I paid close attention, hoping to hold the whole experience in my memory.

As the applause died down after the first piece the man behind us started sighing in exasperation. And he kept it up. I tried to notice what might have been bothering him. My daughter didn’t speak, didn’t hum along. She simply adored the music. But when the man started bumping my seat I turned my head to look at him. He was still glaring at my child.

For reasons of his own he was fed up. He looked at me and said loudly, “You’re a frigging idiot.”

The moment intermission began he stomped off and didn’t return. I hoped he’d find some peace despite possession by keep-children-out-of-concert-halls demons. But I’m no saint, I was pretty thrilled he left.

The woman next to my daughter assured us we weren’t the problem. An elderly gentleman at the end of our row, an orchestra patron for thirty years, said he hoped to see more children who loved classical music. By the time the musicians filed back some people had chatted with my daughter, happy to learn about her specific knowledge of that evening’s program. Others said, quite tactfully, that it was rare to see youngsters attend an evening concert.

A common perception is revealed by this experience. Fine arts and eager children don’t go together.

It’s not just one guy convinced the presence of a kid will ruin his evening. Most people set the arts aside as something special or worse, something for those who really know what they’re reading/seeing/hearing.

To me that’s the sort of separatist thinking that keeps fine arts in the underfunded, under appreciated realm where nearly extinct things go to die. But that’s how they’re introduced to most young people. Arts are imposed using the old “eat this spinach or you’ll be punished” method. Great way to inspire a hatred of spinach. And art. It isn’t woven into their lives and it doesn’t grab them (or at least many of them) in a way that’s personally meaningful. Instead fine arts are introduced in later grades. Students are lectured, assigned work, and graded. If they’re lucky they get extra doses of the arts doled out in guided museum visits and a class trip to see Shakespeare performed after weeks of preparation. The vitality is bled right out.

In Shakespeare’s time his plays were part of popular culture. People from all social classes crowded into the Globe Theatre where they enjoyed the bard’s social commentary, melodrama and comedy. Chances are they didn’t bother to analyze a thing. Chances are those plays did for them what art does when it means something to any of us, it illuminates.

I love the way young people discover and appreciate art when it isn’t imposed on them. These days my kids are older (teens and young adults). They enjoy fresh visual arts on YouTube, soaring new classical music scored for video games, and performances everywhere. Better yet, they aren’t passive. They connect and engage with it. During a recent discussion I overheard my kids relate the theme of a recent movie to Homer’s Odyssey, tie that to quotes from a Terry Pratchett book, then they were off parodying the theme using quotes from movies and song lyrics. Lightening fast, funny, and sharp. No curricula could possibly keep up.

My kids swam in the current of fine arts from the very beginning, as it flowed naturally with all the other influences in their lives.

Here’s the enjoyment-based, jump-right-in way we’ve always gotten comfy with fine arts in my family. (Caution, some may deem it idiotic.)

  1. Build in some fun. If you’re going to a concert in the park take along silent amusements for small people—a tiny stuffed animal that just might want to dance on its owner’s lap, drawing materials to capture impressions of the performers or the feeling of the music, a small treat that’s specific to concerts (consider bending that no lollipop rule). And if it isn’t much fun don’t stick around. Mosey off and wait until your children are older. And once your kids are older the experience is a greater pleasure for them if you let them invite a friend. We were often surprised to find that our 10th trip to a museum, where my kids clamored to see favorite sculptures and new exhibits, was the first trip for their friends.
  2. Make it an adventure. When you journey any distance to see a music performance, attend a play, or ramble through galleries make that stop one of several anticipated events.  Try to spot murals or other public art on the way. (When they were little my kids knew we’d arrived when they waved at the Guardians of Traffic pylons as we drove over the bridge to Cleveland.) Take a break in an ornate big city library, eat a packed lunch in a park, stroll through an open air market, pick up unusual snacks at an ethnic grocery, and let your child’s curiosity help guide the day’s events.  If part of the day incorporates a lot of sit down time (including the ride to and fro) be sure to balance that with movement, exploration, and sensory adventure.
  3. Tune it to the child’s level. Let preschoolers stroll as interest leads them through museums, especially art museums. You might decide to look for something specific on the way (one of my sons liked to spot animals, another son made it his quest to find anything airborne—birds, planes, angels, flying carpets).Make galleries a place of discovery. chat, ask questions, and when they lose interest it’s time to go.
  4. Make it an ordinary part of life. As with anything, it’s what you pay attention to that you magnify. Conversations about music, philosophy, or logic are just regular mealtime topics, brought up with the same casual interest as sports or the weather. Literary discussion with a four-year-old is easy. Simply talk about the picture book you’ve just read together. How could it have ended differently or gone on longer? Why do you think the main character acted that way or made that decision? Which character would you like to be in the story? Why?
  5. Start early. Listen to music as you nurse babies to sleep, imagining the wonderful association that child is making between sound and comfort (whether Bach or the blues). Hold up tiny ones to get a better look at paintings or sculpture. Indulge in sock puppet conversations with your toddlers. Dance and sing together unselfconsciously. Display your child’s artwork in frames and on shelves. Make CD’s available to kids for bedtime listening or quiet time, especially those by professional storytellers such as Odds Bodkins (who started my kids’ love of Homer’s Odyssey) and Jim Weiss. A great selection is available at Gentle Wind, Chinaberry, and your local library.
  6. Enjoy it the way you choose. Shakespeare’s work may spark fascination in a lavishly illustrated picture book such as Coville’s William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Picture Yearling Book), an early chapter book such as Mayer’s The Tempest, or maybe a graphic novel like The Tempest The Graphic Novel (American English, Original Text). See The Tempest in any number of movies from productions done in 1928 to the newest, recasting Prospero as a woman. Check out how The Tempest has been interpreted by artists throughout the years. My kids appreciate a stage performance best after they know the story well, on their own terms, after bumping into it in books or movies or music. After seeing the play, one of my kids noted that it was written 400 years ago but names from The Tempest are still popular today— Miranda, Ariel, Antonio,Iris, Sebastian. That reminds me that the roots of what we care about today go much farther back than we imagine.


Find more suggestions in Free Range Learning.





32 thoughts on “Six Ways Introduce Fine Arts Using The Happy Idiot Method

  1. Lovely post, Laura. I can see you and your daughter in those soft velvet seats. My kids always loved Shakespeare. We went to as many plays as we could—real theater! And sometimes we went twice. Then they noticed the differences between the performances. We bought a movie of a favorite, and they both knew the lines from a very young age.

    And when my oldest daughter was 6, she decided that she wanted to be Puck for Halloween. She made a glorious mask
    and when we accompanied friends trick or treating, many adults smiled kindly. There was one man, however, who, when told what she was for Halloween, sneered, snorted loudly and asked, “Who the hell is Puck?” Perhaps he had tickets to the symphony on another night…


  2. You’re way ahead of me Debra. I can’t recall any time we saw a play twice.

    We did, however, name a chicken Puck after becoming entranced with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any time my kids said anything about the name of their newest chicken people responded, “Oh, I didn’t know you liked hockey.”


  3. However did you keep your cool? I would have gotten an usher and reported the man. You after all, paid for your and her seat as well. What a terrible person! One could only pray for him, as he obviously leads a very sad life. My own children attended live performances, including orchestras from very early ages. One is in her first year of piano performance at college, the other starts next year in fine art – painting.


    • I kept my cool only in hopes of being a good example of politeness for my daughter, altho believe me she and I talked about many angles of the experience afterward. And really, the guy didn’t launch into his rudeness until the concert was beginning so my options were limited.

      I’ve come to believe that rude people actually expect to rustle up trouble. Not giving it to them doesn’t feed the problem. I wish I’d had a chance to talk to the guy, maybe ask how early he became interested in classical music, because his anger/pain came from somewhere. However sweet that sounds, I’d have risen up like a she demon if he’d addressed an unkind word directly to my child.


  4. Thanks for submitting this to the CM Carnival. I can’t believe that man’s rudeness, but I’m glad you & your daughter were able to enjoy the concert in spite of him. And love your tips about how to introduce fine arts. 🙂


  5. I’ve taken my daughters to the ballet, since they were 5 or 6, and the oldest is now nearly 27. Never have we encountered such rudeness, as you experienced at the symphony. Cynthia Heimel said: “When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap.” Personally, I think perhaps your poor-mannered patron was envious of your close family bonding time, and ‘breaking of the rules’, to bring one ‘so young’ to the symphony. He, or someone in his life, wasn’t brave enough to leap.


  6. Laura, I came over to check out your blog after seeing your GeekMom post about subversively encouraging map usage and I was really touched by this article.

    It reminds me of when I was a little girl and how much I loved classical music and ballet – and the rapt feeling of being in the presence of the live performers in a whole hall full of absorbed listeners. I love how you are supporting your daughter’s intrinsic motivation to experience a real concert!

    As a classical cellist, having kids in the audience is a real gift. Their hearts and their ears are really open, and they can just experience what’s happening instead of categorizing it or intellectualizing it. There have been several times where I was really nervous about a performance and in my heart I dedicated it to the kid in the audience.

    Please don’t let this nasty man prevent you from revisiting those magical velvet seats in the future!


      • Yay!! You are so welcome!!

        I was thinking more about your post when I was washing my dishes last night and remembered this experiment that the washington post did a couple of years ago.

        They had Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world, play in the DC subway and used secret cameras to keep track of how many people stopped to listen. It was shocking how few adults stopped to linger – barely any – but every single child who walked by tried to stop and listen.

        If you’re interested, here is the link:

        I look forward to reading more of your blog! 🙂


      • I remember the Joshua Bell experiment. It’s one of the many reasons I regard the state of being busy as a curse we’ve put on ourselves.

        You’re right in this situation and so many others. It’s the kids who try to get us to stop and wonder. They squat down to marvel at a bug, pause to listen to the most amazing music, insist on touching everything. It’s adults who describe these behaviors as obstinate, attention deficit, argumentative, unfocused or just plain bad when at the very heart of it they’re fully engaged. Rushing doesn’t let any of us engage.


  7. Laura,
    As a mom of a daughter who loves all things musical, I loved this post. I have taken my daughter to plays since she was old enough to understand. Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of her favorites.

    I have always been in awe of the responsibility of raising children; their thoughts and beliefs, at least for the first few years, are what we teach them. As a homeschooling Mom that could even last longer. How wonderful that you have shown your daughter the beauty of classical music.

    As mad as this jerk makes me, I love the way you handled it. I don’t think I could have been as graceful. Visiting from the hop and WILL be back.


  8. Wow. How dare someone despise children so much! I am so happy that your daughter was, at least, left unaware and thoroughly enjoyed herself. I could feel her joy and yours. It brought tears to my eyes.


  9. The rudeness of some people! Hurray for your daughter for not letting this hateful person ruin her special evening.
    Your tips are wonderful. I always feel like the arts are an area that we don’t do enough with, but when I think about our yearly trips to see The Nutcracker and know that my kiddos can recognize those Tchaikovsky pieces outside of the ballet, I know that they are absorbing it naturally.



    • It’s funny Kim, but when I was a kid I kept insisting that every classical piece I heard must have been from the Nutcracker. I think it’s because I loved it so much. Or because I could picture dancers moving to any piece.

      By the way, I’ve tried posting comments on your blog. It didn’t show up on the public speaking post nor on the reading tips (for Little Dude). Something about my identy on OpenID is flagged as spam perhaps. maybe this only happens to me or maybe you’ve got a lot more readers than you realize but you just aren’t getting their comments.


  10. Once we had an elderly neighbor who told my 6 year old son,”I don’t really like children. At all.” I thought “Wow”. What if my children had the attitude, “I don’t really like the elderly” ?? What a twisted view of humanity. Any hooo…that man was inexcusably rude.

    You are doing a spot-on job with the arts and life in general with your blessings. Keep it up!


  11. Yeesh. What a crazy man. I can imagine him thinking your child MAY be a problem. But to express that before he had any evidence is truly rude! And then to continue being angry after she was calm and polite? I think he had issues. Seriously.


  12. [Hey Laura, your blog rejects comments made by logged-in WordPress users; it claims you have to enter your name and email. I’m logging out just to comment. Thought you’d like to know.]

    Around ten years ago, my (then) wife and I brought the kids to The Most Expensive Restaurant in Rhode Island. Seafood, of course. Our children were aged 9, 6, and 3 at the time.

    When the diners already seated spotted Ducky (the three-year-old), a couple of tables immediately asked for their checks. Glares were made.

    Hah! Ducky was perfectly awesome the whole time. He was interested in the food, quiet, content, and happy. When Ducky got restless for a moment, I took his hand and we walked once around the dining area to look at the fish tanks on the perimeter.

    It went great. We later laughed at the bozos who bailed out at the mere suspicion of unruliness.

    It depends on the child and the circumstances, of course, but small children do too know how to behave. Sometimes they need a little help. Fussy adults should chill.


  13. Thanks for telling me about the WordPress comment problem. I actually have difficulty getting comments I make on OTHER people’s blogs appear (esp Blogger). If you can tell me how to fix both these issues in a way I can understand I’ll gladly reciprocate. Not sure what. You want a pile of produce, fresh eggs and raw honey? You want the exercise equipment we’re trying to ditch (not because we’re svelte…)? What can I barter?

    Love the story about Ducky.

    And you’re right. Everyone should chill.


  14. I admire this in so many ways. I love that your daughter floats in the music, and I love how you watched her… I very much wish we had these opportunities where we are (granted we have MANY other opportunities but not in the fine arts).

    I can’t stand that guy and I wish I knew what became of him. I wish in fact that I could have been there and been amazed by his audacity. Though I would have perhaps had less self-control than you showed 😉

    amy in peru


  15. Ah Amy, no fine arts! Any chance your kids can each learn to play an instrument? Just imagine a family ensemble. Actually, quite a few award-winning folk groups got started that way. Just saying….


  16. @Laura–I just keep thinking about this post and I wanted to come back and add another comment. I think my heart really goes out to your daughter because I’ve been put through similar experiences. I think one of the ideas that you were expressing is that you don’t have to be “in the know” to connect to a performer or an artist, while the man muttering “idiot” probably felt that you had to be a “certain kind of person” or “know certain things” in order to experience art “the right way.”

    I think what makes art soooo powerful is that it’s a person-to-person experience. I can hear a recording from 50 years ago and bring to tears. I can see a painting by someone I’ll never meet and it can bring joy to my heart. To me, the most important thing is that connection. If you are interested, I wrote a little bit about this here:

    @amy in peru–
    If you are looking for ways to connect to the fine arts, would it be possible to get your kids an instrument and just let them explore it, without taking lessons? If you couldn’t get a guitar or a violin or a clarinet or whatever, maybe a local peruvian instrument? Or buy a toy accordion (avail on amazon for $25)? Bang rhythms on an empty drawer (a longstanding tradition called “playing the cajon” that originated in Peru)? I think there’s something really powerful about being able to explore music on your own terms and it’s possible to do that even when you’re pretty isolated. There are also some great musicians in the US who offer lessons via skype, depending on how robust your internet connection is.

    Also, speaking as someone who’s traveled to Cuba and Indonesia to work with musicians in other countries, maybe this could be a great opportunity to learn from someone in Peru who plays a traditional instrument or sings traditional Peruvian music? Peru has some pretty amazing musicians who use songs for healing.


    • You’re so right about a connection Rebecca. And your assessment about the man who was offended by our presence may indeed have been related to his perception of us as naive audience members. My daughter, at her young age, probably knew more about classical music that I did.

      A man once told me that his love of walking through the woods and his appreciation of the trees was forever impaired by a class he took that forced him to memorize the names of trees, their scientific classifications, how to I.D. their leaves, etc. I’ve never heard someone so clearly express an experience of “the forest for the trees.” Knowledge is best when gained out of love for the subject.


  17. Pingback: Show Your Kids Your Own Interests But Accept Whatever Happens As A Result! Month 4 of Learning at Home | homeschoolingmiddleeast

  18. Yay, yay, yay! We’ve also taken our daughter to cultural events from the start. She’s only 4 now, but has already attended more concerts and museums than most adults I know. This summer was the best, when we visited D.C. and she just couldn’t get enough of all the museums there — and not just the kid-themed exhibits, either, but the art, too! We’ve actually been fortunate over the past 4 years, because while we might have had one or two “cranky” comments, the majority of the time we have people coming up to us and praising us for exposing her to the arts so early. This post was wonderful and I’m so happy I came across it!


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