As former Mayor Ed Koch once famously said, "New York City is where the future comes to audition." On many days I feel as if the Children's Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) is where the future comes every day, and that future keeps changing faster than we, or anyone for that matter, can grasp. How can we understand how a young child sees the world? It seems to me that a number of intertwining things coalesce to create a challenging environment within which to understand the worldview of today's child and to find strategies to not view children through the world views of their parents and grandparents.
We see the impact of technology every day. I recently witnessed a one-year-old child at CMOM in front of a computer screen showing a video. The child tried to swipe and expand the image since her core experience with technology is to control content. Smartphones and tablets are to this generation what the telephone was to a prior generation: an accepted part of life from birth. How the ability to communicate and control data is changing the world view of a child is difficult to measure. But we can rest assured that they have erased boundaries of time and space and that they expect to not only receive content but to create and manipulate it.
As powerful as the influence of technology is, I believe it is rivaled by changing demographics and societal norms.
First, compare the view of the country's first African-American president from the perspective of a 40- or 70-year-old with that of a 10-year-old. For the older set, this is a radical change in the face of America. However, for the 10-year-old, an African-American president is normative - it is the only president they'll know from the time they were five until they are 13. They have known no other face of America than Barack Obama. Setting aside politics, this is a fundamental shift in expectation for children of that age group.
The same is increasingly true about gender. I recently took a 4-year-old girl through an Egyptian gallery at an art museum. After looking at a series of Pharaohs in various media, she turned to me and asked, "Where are the girls?" Her expectations are fundamentally different than prior generations. She expects to see women in authority and on equal footing.
In addition, consider what is quickly becoming the normative view of what constitutes a family. With gay marriage and LGBT families increasingly commonplace, a 5-year-old is growing up with a world view that is markedly different than even a 20-year-old. CMOM has a significant population of LGBT families who visit regularly as part of the extraordinary mix of New York families. For most kids, this is normative.
A third factor is the wider range of immigrants who have come to the U.S. and are arriving daily. I cannot identify many of the languages I hear spoken by visitors in our facility. Families hailing from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe speak a wide variety of languages - as we know from the challenges facing the New York City public school system. But alongside the wider range of populations is the ever-emerging phenomenon of families that are blending multiple backgrounds and traditions - some of which may have never happened before. Just on my own staff, a Mexican-born woman married a man from Indonesia and their daughter is a full-fledged New Yorker.
What does this mean for the world view of our youngest children?
In workshops at CMOM to celebrate holidays such as the Fourth of July or Ramadan, families create quilts or flags that bespeak of the new American identity. In some ways, it carries on a tradition of immigrants in which the immigrant generation is more tied to their native country or origin, and the children to American culture. But the new families have multiple stories to tell from different perspectives, some with parents and grandparents representing three or even five backgrounds.
To be sure, we are not in a color-blind society where prejudice doesn't exist. It does and you can see it. However, that doesn't mean that we aren't witnessing a generation of children for whom communicating to far-off places transcend traditional time.
Because CMOM is on the front lines, we see trends before they are trends. About seven years ago, we noticed an uptick of men bringing their children to the museum. Through informal conversation, we discovered that many had decided to work from home and take on core parenting duties - this before it became the subject of study. Today, we are witnessing a movement away from technology and a return to "making" things and more travel by extended families resulting in larger groups coming to CMOM and other museums nationwide.
Studies are beginning to become aware of these differences as well as differences in parenting.
How all of these trends and changes will change society remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: this is a very different generation of children and their world view is different in profound ways.