How to show your kid what the 80s is about. The hard way.

March 4, 2012

in no manual for parenting,this i believe,through the looking glass

By taking them to the exhibit dedicated to the 1980s at Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, of course!


I am kidding on the square, seeing how this is a hard glance back at the 1980s with a critical eye: feminism, gender politics, race politics, AIDES, political upheavals in the Latin America, Disappeared, Reaganism, NEA, Robert Mapplethorpe. How do you explain to a young child what happened in the 1980s when all they heard nowadays was how in the 1980s everybody was happy because the economy was great?

It’s kind of scary how little the kids know about what really happened in the 1980s.

It’s also kind of difficult, as a parent, to gauge “how young is old enough” and “how much is too much”. I don’t like to shelter my children but I also want to make sure what I share with them is “age appropriate”…


Race politics. Passing. Stereotypes. Racism. Gender politics.

I believe I screamed, just a little, when I saw Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards) on display since I’ve used this often as an example of how one performance artist has chosen to deal with racism in mundane, daily life. MCA has them on display, in multiple copies, free for the taking.


Coming off from my high, I was immediately put on “high alert” when next we walked into the wing dedicated to “Gender Trouble”. Because of the in-your-face shock value of the protest art, I felt I had to prepare Mr. Monk, who’s in 3rd grade, even though he’s a mature 3rd grader, for the images on display. Here’s what I came up with in a panic:

The rise of feminism means that women artists started questioning the social orders in the society: why are men given more power and authority than women? What makes a man a man? What makes a woman a woman? And that’s why they show the anatomy of human being to confront the man-made meanings and differences between men and women, and that’s why you are going to see a lot of penises.

He dutifully nodded, and laughed to mask his discomfort. Nobody wants to hear their mother utter the word “penis” in public even at a whisper.

As I went through the internal struggle of whether to impose “censorship” on the fly, I instinctively shielded him from an open, video screen room [Later, The Husband told me that the room came with a warning sign outside so I guess my instinct was correct]. Then across the room were these:


Robert Mapplethorpe.  The artist that embodied two main Reaganism in the 1980s: the government’s willful negligence towards the Aides epidemic and  its fight to censor what it deemed as “obscene” art. Without thinking, I had strategically positioned myself between these photos and Mr. Monk’s sight line. To this moment, I am still questioning myself whether I had done the right thing: If I disagree with the conservative’s accusation, why did I shield Mr. Monk’s gaze from these pictures, esp. the leather-encased penis? [In my defense, I was not worried about my 13-year old; he roamed through the exhibit without a chaperon]


Lots of questions were asked: Why was Reagan’s portrait there? Was it for sarcastic reasons? Why? What did he do? Why were people upset?

What is AIDS?

















I think Mr. Monk understands this picture or at least walked away with his own interpretation.

Photo Courtesy of The Husband

[After all, he got it when Jack Donaghy said, about Kenneth the Intern, “He’s a white male with hair, Lemon. The sky’s the limit.”]


Even though this is a child who is extremely mature for his age, sensitive and observant of the world around him, has watched possibly all episodes of The Simpsons, and Weekend Update on SNL with me, I left the museum still questioning myself: Was is it too much? What is too much? Have I shown my child “age appropriate” material?


Photo Courtesy of The Husband

This is such a difficult picture to look at straight on. But it is not difficult to grasp the messages. Should I have shielded him from the ugliness of the world?



So… 1980s. I almost forgot. It’s not just about the cheesy music, leg warmers and big hairs.



More pictures from our visit to MCA that day here:

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra March 11, 2012 at 10:55 am

A very, very personal decision.

Unless someone is blatantly mentally, emotionally, physically harmed: we need to keep out opinions to ourselves.
Alexandra´s last blog post…Oh, Adele,


Absence Alternatives March 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm



Ameena March 7, 2012 at 10:43 am

I have to say that Miley said it perfectly – it depends what each parent thinks is appropriate.

We took Maya to the Prado in Madrid this past January and even some of the graphic artwork showing Jesus Christ dying seemed a bit…harsh for a 6-year-old. Maybe I’m just over protective? Not sure.

In any case – love museums and I love taking Maya to them! She’s way more worldly than I ever was at her age.
Ameena´s last blog post…accommodation


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:18 pm

There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep our children from growing up too fast as muchas we can!


Mary Lee March 7, 2012 at 10:04 am

The election of Ronald Reagan was the first time I realized the power of the Christian Right. They pronounced Reagan as the “Christian candidate” over Jimmy Carter. The 80’s was the decade when Pat Robertson said that God told him to run for President…when Oral Roberts raised over $9m by tearfully telling viewers that God was going to call him home if he didn’t raise at least $8m. It was the time when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority pushed their political agenda in the pulpit and on TV. Culture clashes were inevitable.

Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination because of sexual orientation in 1982. The US invaded Grenada, a small Caribbean island. The Berlin wall came down. Mental institutions closed and homelessness rose as a direct result. President Reagan spoke of “welfare queens,” of trees causing more pollution than cars, and just said no to drugs. Trickledown economics became policy. Addressing racism just didn’t fit in.

My mother blamed ‘most everything on the Reagan era.

I’m so glad you shared photos of the exhibit. I enjoyed Miley’s comments as a supplement.
Mary Lee´s last blog post…Boxed In


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:14 pm

I love your summary of the 1980s in the US!


Irene March 6, 2012 at 6:30 pm

I don’t know, maybe a couple songs like “Rock the Casabah” or “Bloody Sunday”, a couple songs from the Bangles, and throw in some Michael Jackson and it might have been an easier way to explain the 80’s. Even though your 3rd grader seems mature for his age, I’m not sure he thoroughly understood what he was looking at without an explanation. I mean you spent a great deal of time shielding him from the explicit stuff and worrying if it was over his head. Most of it probably was. Look at it this way, he’ll remember going and think back, “yeah, I remember when mom took me to the art museum. There were a lot of naked pictures of people and I laughed every time mom said “penis”.”. I’m sure he’ll look back at the event affectionately. I doubt it’ll warp him. My kids would have tore the place apart or whined the whole time. Hence, we’ve never been to an art museum.
Irene´s last blog post…The Inevitable Brady Post


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:14 pm

We did speedy museums when the kids were young. Personally I can only stay 1 hour and enjoy it, 2 hours tops. More than that I get a headache.


The Sweetest March 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm

What a great exhibit For me, it would be something I’d want to see without the kids, only because I would be reforming my own memories and sentiments about the 80s, and I wouldn’t be able to put my attention into guiding them through the exhibit. You are so right in that everyone has such fondness for the 80s, and in a way it’s justified. Things were “easier” back then, but I had almost forgotten about all the ugliness. This was a good reminder that no era was perfect. I’ll be thinking about how I will handle these situations with Hayden once he is older.


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm

There is definitely no rush to introduce kids to mature subjects though.


tricia March 6, 2012 at 12:06 am

I’m relatively new to your blog so I have to admit the age of your son evades me- I’m not about censorship and I’m by no means puritanical or conservative- but some of the images are disturbing and graphic- which I know serves a purpose of its own. I guess the litmus test for me, I think, is whether or not I could convey the hardships and ugliness of the 80s without exposure to the images if the child is young- even a mature young….
tricia´s last blog post…Deciphering A 3-Year Old’s Speech Impediment


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:11 pm

They are 9 and 13, and yes I agree with you. Don’t worry about speaking your mind in the comments!!!! We all have different levels of tolerance for different things.


BigLittleWolf March 5, 2012 at 10:42 am

Fascinating post, and I only wish I had regular access to more museums and provocative exhibitions.

As for the how much is too much (for kids), and when, I think we make those decisions following our gut, and knowing our individual children and their capacities to process.

My kiddos have been exposed to “arrresting” art throughout their childhood (whether they liked it or not). Personally, I think it’s been good for them.
BigLittleWolf´s last blog post…A Case for Friendship


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Thank you! I don’t get out much!


TheKitchenWitch March 5, 2012 at 9:19 am

I’m not sure if I’M mature enough for some of Mapplethorpe’s pics. I think you always encourage your kiddo to think, and I admire that.
TheKitchenWitch´s last blog post…Identity Crisis


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Thanks. Just didn’t want to shell out money for sitters… 😉


Ry Sal March 5, 2012 at 9:11 am

Growing up through the 80s — starting off too young, but remembering my mother crying when John Lennon was shot… and then graduating from high school in 1989 with a wealth of pop art knowledge and sex education. It was all one big bright party dressed up as a rubix cube.


Ry Sal March 5, 2012 at 1:59 pm

I shouldn’t ever EVER comment before coffee. I graduated in 1993.


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:10 pm

LOL. I did NOT think you were trying to lie about your age. 😉


Absence Alternatives March 8, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Oooo Rubiks Cubes.


murr brewster March 5, 2012 at 1:48 am

The notion that “everybody was happy in the 80s because the economy was great” just reminds me that most of us also didn’t know what was going on in the 80s, and we were there. That’s when they started systematically transferring all the wealth upwards. They can do that when they’ve got you distracted with pleated pants and shoulder pads.


Absence Alternatives March 5, 2012 at 8:32 am

True true! Those hair, leg warmers, outrageously patterned clothing proved to be very distracting. Even today.


dufmanno March 4, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I remember so vividly when the newscasters began covering the AIDS epidemic and everyone was in a blind panic until it became an unnamed disease that was wiping out the gay population. Everyone seemed to go about their business until it became clear that the epidemic had been ignored far too long. So sad, and so many talented people lost.
The Regan portrait says quite a bit without saying a word.
I wonder if all the hair and neon clothing wasn’t a reaction to what was taking place at the core…
dufmanno´s last blog post…Local Vagrant Craps In Upstanding Citizens Garage. No One Cares.


Absence Alternatives March 5, 2012 at 1:12 am

I have never seen it this way, but you could be right!


Deb Rox March 4, 2012 at 11:17 pm

I’ve always struggled with this question, and usually decided that the fact I was struggling with it meant I was probably doing a fine job of gauging age appropriateness.

As someone who did feminist and community organizing work in the late 80s and early AIDS awareness work—thanks for sharing those images.


Absence Alternatives March 5, 2012 at 1:13 am

I hope you are right. And thank YOU!


Miley March 4, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Here’s the thing about “age appropriate”.
It depends on what YOU believe. My kids know the proper medical terms for genitalia. They think it’s funny but they still know those terms. When my daughter is upset, all my son has to do is say “vagina” and she’s giggling. Is that age appropriate that I taught them the proper terms? She knows that babies come out of vaginas, not out of the urethra nor the anus – and not from “slicing my belly open”. Is that age appropriate since she’s 8 years old? I don’t think there is anything wrong with children understanding the functionality of the body. Would I let them watch pornography? Hell no. Did I explain to my son with pictoral anatomical drawings from a text book how children are conceived when he was 9? Yes. Is he now telling everyone about sex? NO.

What about religion? We attend a Christian church. We read the Bible. My kids will randomly choose to read the Bible alone. My son, at age 11, asked me if Lot’s daughters really had sex with him and had his children. Why, yes, yes they did, son. And yes, that is incest. And yes, it is illegal in our country.
What about Jesus? He was beaten, bloodied and crucified. Many people believe their children should see “The Passion” – the movie that case out several years back. It’s incredibly gruesome with no shame about showing the portrayal of what it ACTUALLY means to have been crucified in those days, being beaten with a whip until the back was unrecognizable.
Is that age appropriate? In my belief, to know the extent to what our savior did for us, I don’t think it’s a problem. Sure, I wouldn’t let my kids actually SEE something like that but I would describe it to where they could imagine it.

I let my kids watch older TV shows, such as “All in the Family”, “Sanford and Son”, “Maude” and “Good Times”. They are appalled at the racial epitaphs shown, and say it is “ridiculous” that people would act that way. Yes, it is… but we are not an egalitarian society and we would be hard pressed to find one.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that education is good and as long as YOU don’t make a big deal out of a penis in a picture at a museum, neither will your kid(s). I didn’t make a big deal about sex, it’s just fact. I did tell my kids that many people are uncomfortable with their kids knowing about these things until they are older. I did tell my kids that many people are uncomfortable with their children knowing that people are racists, what racism is, what it means, what prejudice is… that people don’t like to talk about these subjects b/c it means it is “Shameful”… but it is what it is. Crap happens.

So… Age appropriate? That’s pretty fluid. 🙂

Sorry for the rant. I also wish I could go see that exhibit. Probably with my kids.


Absence Alternatives March 5, 2012 at 1:14 am

I love this. Thank you!!!


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