Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Do We Want of Parents?


This past summer’s blog post by Marianna Adams during her summer residency at the Gardner Museum provided just the right additional thoughts to some threading through my mind. In writing about what museums convey to adults when they engage families in programs, she wrote about how we sometimes keep doing the same thing over and over, neither questioning the underlying assumptions nor paying attention to what’s actually happening.  Soon after that, a query on CHILDMUS (9/26/14) asked if any museums have figured out how to discourage parents from using their cell phones excessively while at the museum. It went on to say, "We get a lot of complaints about parents not supervising their children and typically it's because parents are on their phones.” A few weeks later, the agenda for an IMLS project advisors’ meeting I attended included engaging adults. The nature of the comments shared about parents and caregivers was all that was needed for me to wonder: What do we want of parents in museums? 

Comments and complaints about parents and caregivers are surprisingly consistent across museums: parents sit, talk on the phone, ignore their child, and take over their child’s project. Staff members are preoccupied with keeping parents off their cell phones and not wanting them to take over their child’s activity which Susan McKay at The Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum aptly characterizes  as a bipolar preoccupation with parents: too involved and not involved enough with their children in museums. There’s a whole lot of territory in between. What do we want parents to do?

Adults often comprise 50% of a museum’s visitors. It follows that museums have every reason to think that, if  these adults have chosen this museum as a place that provides an experience they value for their child, then what can the museum do to ensure a great experience for them. 

When museums have expectations that contradict one another about an audience group, are so vague they aren’t actionable, or are not shared among front-line staff, security, educators, and designers, it's a problem. The fact is, museums need parents and caregivers to meet their audience goals, goals for families, and goals for children. And while every museum does not want the same thing for parents and caregivers who visit (nor should they), every museum should have a shared framework for understanding parents and caregivers and how to serve and engage them.

True: Not all parents appear ready to be engaged
Serving an audience group well starts with understanding who they are. In this case, they are parents, step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts; teachers, daycare providers, baby sitters, and nannies; group leaders and day camp counselors. First time and frequent visitors, they may range in age from 20 to 50 or 60 to 90, when grandparents and great grandparents are included. They may accompany a child ranging in age from newborn to 12 or 15 years; operate solo with one or multiple children; or be in a clutch of three relatives hovering over a new grandchild.
Parents and caregivers serve as chauffeur, chaperone, pocket book, navigator, coat holder, stroller pusher, diaper bag holder, referee, and occasional tie-breaker. They are readers, navigators, coaches, role models, and timekeepers. Museum goers in their own right, they are likely to be a learner, a co-learner, or a player. They may be tired, charged with energy, craving coffee or distracted by a problem on the home or work front. Clearly one definition cannot possibly stretch to cover parents and caregivers nor will a single strategy for engaging them serve all.

While every museum intends to serve parents and caregivers well, being prepared to do so goes far beyond good intentions. To offer a positive, supportive, engaging experience for parents, a museum needs a planned and organizational approach, developed over time, actively supported and valued, and renewed and refreshed. An ongoing process, a museum may begin by fielding a series of discussions among staff across the museum around four questions.  
  • How Do We View Parents?
  • Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths?
  • What Do Parents Want?
  • How Do We Support Parents? 
How Do We View Parents?

How a museum views the parents and caregivers it wants to serve influences how it shapes experiences and engagement strategies for them and their children. A museum may see them as friends and allies or as foes and obstacles in serving children. In some cases, parents are more or less invisible or incidental to the experiences museum offer. Parents and caregivers are both individuals with interests and preferences as well as adults engaged in a life-long relationship with their children. Is the museum prepared to both engage them as adults as well as in their parent role? Does it intend for them to be active participants in museum experiences or bystanders? 

To address the underlying assumptions about parents and caregivers that are inevitably diverse and complex, a museum needs to make explicit its view of parents and caregivers for its staff. Does the museum see them as learners, co-learners, facilitators, playmates, or tour guides? Perhaps an invented name for the role best captures the image and fits the museum’s experience style and brand: co-creator, play-and-learning partner, or explorer. Or museums may ask parents to name the roles they feel they are playing. A name for the role or cluster of roles brings into focus other attributes of parents and caregivers a museum wants to encourage and engage.

Are We Building on Parents’ Strengths? 
Our contradictory and sometimes negative ideas about parents and caregivers can overshadow the assets and strengths they bring to the museum with their children. Their love and commitment to exposing their child to varied and engaging experiences walks through the doors with every one of them. They bring an invaluable understanding of their child’s interests, skills, and previous experiences that is integral to children benefiting from the rich exhibit and program experiences. 

An essential question is whether the museum is recognizing parents’ competence and valuing that they want to do their best on behalf of their children? Sometimes, a change from a negative to a positive image is necessary. Recently General Mills produced a You Tube video, How To Dad. In this video the awesome dad image replaces the stereotype of the dumb, inept dad familiar in commercials and TV shows. A museum doesn’t have to produce its own video, but it may want start looking about and noticing what parents already do well; and where, for instance, the museum unwittingly gets in the way of parents playing their best role. Museum staff may want to learn what, for instance, parents are doing with their cell phones. Perhaps they are photographing or making a video of their children’s or families' experiences to revisit later, something many museums would encourage.

What Do Parents Want? 
Increasingly museums work to engage their visitors in dialogue through focus groups and visitor panels to learn what they want. The studies and plans I am familiar with, however, ask parents about family visits, overlooking the opportunity for critical information about what parents and caregivers want for themselves in a visit. While parents do consider the needs and interests of their children, they are not unaware of their own needs and interests at the museum.

If parents and caregivers pay more attention to their cell phones than their children, museums might ask if what they are offering is more interesting than  cell phones. Listening to what they want will help attune the museum to parent concerns. Do we know what parents want to get out of a museum visit? What they want for themselves? What signals to them that their participation is encouraged? What does support and encouragement look like to them? Where might a parent want to be during a demonstration or a story? What works for parents as her child climbs through a tree house or ant tunnel? In developing a new exhibit, does the museum ask what interests them about the topic, materials, design, or objects?
How Do We Support Parents?

A shared view of parents and caregivers, built on strengths and shaped by their input requires support in many forms: the physical environment, staff interactions, materials and design. Every museum engages in practices in all of these areas, but they are not necessarily aligned. A shared view can guide museum staff in assessing and tweaking existing practices and cultivating new ones that reinforce a guiding image of the parent and caregiver. How, for instance, does this view and what parents and caregivers say they want translate into:

·       Staff prepared to greet, support, and respond to parents and caregivers as they arrive, get involved, make choices, and, eventually, prepare to leave. Besides a museum’s own customer service training, a program like Wakanheza can prepare staff to support parents handling a difficult moment with their child in public. How does staff scaffolding experiences for children draw parents in? What, as Mariana Adams ask, does having parents stand at the back of the room with their children seated in front tell them about participation in a family program?

·       Environments, exhibits, and programs that take into account what parents and caregivers are concerned about like safety and security, comfort, easy visual access into and across spaces. How does the high climbing structure that invites children up and away from their adults assure adults of safety and offer them a way to interact?

·       Tools like the Adult Child Interaction Inventory serve as a tool for exhibit development and evaluation and are related to the adult's role in exhibits.

·       A consistent message delivered in a positive, respectful tone across multiple platforms: greetings, text panels, announcements, publications, wayfinding, and program activities. Parents, like the rest of us can tell when they are being talked down to or are not included.

·       An approach to cell phone use and devices that is informed, realistic, and in the spirit of what the museum hopes happens for the parents and caregivers it serves, for their children, and for staff.  

Related Museum Notes Posts


2 comments:

  1. Jeanne, I love your point about building on parents' strengths and will be sure to remember this. Like all visitors, parents who bring their children into the museum are great resources who can contribute to the museum's mission as well as benefit from it. Parents would make great collaborators and may be particularly motivated to engage when given this role.

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  2. Jess, you have made an even clearer point that museums have natural collaborators in parents and caregivers. While collaboration is not always easy, it returns the efforts in many ways.

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