Is Good Art Too Dangerous for Kids?

03/19/2015 05:26 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

When is the last time you took a kid to see live theater?

Friday, March 20 marks World Day of Theatre for Children and Young People, an international celebration meant to "make the case for children's entitlement to theatre and the arts."

But not everyone agrees about what kind of art kids should see or what messages are good for kids.

Recently, Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of This is Modern Art, a play for teen audiences by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, was at the center of a national debate on these very questions. Based on a real-life incident from 2010, This is Modern Art, follows a crew of young artists who spray paint a mural on the exterior walls of Chicago's Art Institute to make a point about who and what gets excluded from art spaces.

The play's critics -- referred to by the playwright as "old white people" -- argued that the production "wildly" missed the mark.

Hedy Weiss wrote in the Sun-Times "Really, what could Steppenwolf have been thinking?," saying the play "sends out a slew of profoundly misguided messages to its impressionable viewers."

And Chris Jones argued in the Chicago Tribune that the play is "staggeringly one-sided."

"There is a moral obligation to make [kids] think about the price we all pay [for the vandalization of property]," he says.

Unfortunately, theatre for young people is all too focused on driving home such moral lessons. Many scripts and productions are obvious and pedantic, and fail to challenge audiences to think.

As the reviewers point out, This is Modern Art presents youth who break the law. But it also shows a multi-ethnic group of young people facing a serious dilemma around how to speak back to a society that discounts their work, their identities, and ultimately their lives.

Importantly, adults often marginalize young people -- especially youth of color, excluding them from meaningful dialogues about the kinds of questions at play in This is Modern Art.

But young people are certainly sophisticated enough to talk about race, class, and what it takes to bring about social change in this country. They also have important lived experiences to bring to these conversations.

It is not surprising that theater for children and young people in this country gets conflated with educational expectations, so called "safe content," and narrow moral messages.

After all, in the early 20th century, theater for children was popularized by the Junior League. These do-gooders were primarily white, wealthy debutantes who began using theatre (not un-problematically) to teach children English and assimilate immigrant families into a white-washed ideal of what it means to be a "good" American.

The practice of simply depositing set knowledge into the minds of youth, currently known as the "banking concept of education," continues to permeate theatre for young audiences--and many other activities intended for youth.

To be sure, artists and adults at large need to think about how to engage young people in important questions and messy content in a developmentally-appropriate way. But we also should help youth think critically and arrive at their own conclusions. And we must address content that is relevant to their lives and addresses youth perspectives.

Young people deal with difficult questions and consequences in real life, and we shouldn't shy away from reflecting that truth on stage.

This is Modern Art is a rare play for young audiences that isn't simply about white or middle-class families; adults solving problems for young people; or neat endings with so-called universal morals.

Instead, this script shows audiences a multi-ethnic, youth perspective on art and society. It asks questions and invites debate about a historical event. It also demonstrates some of the consequences that arise when youth's personal values and identity conflict with the law and/or public sentiment.

Good art engages audiences emotionally and critically as we make our own meaning out of the experience. Adults have opportunities to engage with art like this, so why do we deny young people the chance to wrestle with such complexity and ambiguity?

It is easy for artists and critics to perpetuate the status quo, keeping power in the hands of a few people and failing to engage young people in debates or in thinking for themselves.

Breaking this cycle requires adults to explore the source of our own fears about what young people can handle and what they can and should see on stage.

We should remember that kids are entitled to art, especially art that invites them to think.