O. is a pretty cautious kid. So cautious, he’s afraid to walk on the stairs below Claes Oldenburg’s Three-Way Plug – Scale A, Soft, Brown. We always have to take the elevator. This makes me wonder, what’s the best way to deal when a kid is afraid of a work of art?
My friend Natalie is a Ph D. candidate in applied child development at Tufts, and is interested in how kids deal with stressful situations. I asked her a few questions about how to talk with kids about scary artworks.
How do kids experience works of art?
I was remembering seeing a boy respond with such a powerful expression to a sculpture of a face when he was four years old. And watching my niece and nephew recently in a sculpture garden – they do seem to respond with their entire bodies to certain artworks. [They respond] very immediately and intensely
What are some strategies for talking to a kid who is afraid of an artwork?
I think the main thing is to acknowledge his fears and anxieties and find a way to let him express his reactions. When kids (or adults) look fine but are suppressing what they feel, there’s often a rebound at some point. Trying to stop thinking about something can lead to focusing on it even more.
Redirect her attention: “ Remember your birthday when we made those puppets…” or, “ Is this where we saw that sculpture of the giant mouse?” This can help a kid get a better perspective on what she’s seeing and relieve some of the anxiety.
Reappraise the scary experience: “ It’s just an actor pretending to be hurt…” But don’t minimize what the child is feeling. Even if it is just an artwork, the emotions are very real, and coming from a real experience
I don’t always want to make a big deal about things. What about dismissing fears, or saying, “ that’s not real, that’s just a picture”?
You don’t want to simply dismiss fears, but isn’t good to get stuck thinking over and over about a negative experience, either. So distraction and reappraisal – as well as acceptance – are considered healthy ways to deal with negative emotions.
So, should I make O walk down the stairs under the giant soft plug, or should we keep taking the elevator?