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Would I describe myself as a "fun grandad?"

Aggie and Faye at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 81st Street Studio
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Aggie and Faye at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 81st Street Studio

My father used to describe himself as a “fun dad." He probably cribbed the expression from some Sixties TV commercial involving a father doing stereotypical things with his child like playing catch or frolicking in their backyard pool.

My father was being facetious. It was his way of admitting he was decidedly not a fun dad. If he played with my three younger brothers and me I have no recollection. When I was eleven years old I returned from a visit to a friend’s house and, according to my mother’s diary, asked my father “why he wasn’t like other fathers.”

That episode came to mind this week as I joined my grandchildren at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Active Learning and Play Center. We take them there on rainy days. In a previous era you could have gotten away calling it a playroom. But these days children, no matter how young, apparently need to be engaged in constructive play, something that will set them on a glide path to above average academic and social achievement.

It’s a lovely space off the museum’s ground floor group and handicapped entrance. It’s free to kids and their caregivers. No museum admission is required. The lighting is bright and cheerful, yet somehow subtle. There are seven interactive playstations – though I’m not sure what distinguishes an interactive playstation from a passive playstation when you’re twelve months old? – and a children’s library.

You can play musical instruments, crawl around a heavily cushioned pit – no caregivers allowed, please – and, unsurprisingly, engage with lots of wooden things: wooden blocks, wooden cylinders, wooden boards, wooden wheels. There’s also a really cool console where you can place colored slides over a light box that projects them onto a large wall in front of you.

I’m not sure whether my daughter and son-in-law have sanctioned this activity or not because they’re trying to prevent the twins from being exposed to screens for as long as possible. Good luck with that. Whatever critical thinking and problem solving skills this fun feature is supposed to encourage, it’s also perilously close to the experience of watching the screen on an iPhone. And the last thing of which their grandmother and I want to be accused is creating zombies before they turn two.

However, it was while we were sitting in a corner of the active learning and play center – known as the 81st Street Studio – and away from the rest of the madding toddler crowd that I wondered whether I was a fun granddad? Or a fun dad, for that matter. I was certainly more fun than my father, though that was a very low bar.

I called my daughter – not the mother of the twins, the other one – and asked her whether she thought I was a fun dad? She’s an amazingly empathetic person and tried to let me down gently. “I don’t think you’d be a fun dad to everyone,” she stated diplomatically. “I don’t know what a typical fun dad is. I think you’re a funny dad, which is fun.”

Starting when they were small and I’d take our daughters to the playground and make believe their swing was hitting me on the backswing, sending me flying. This typically elicited howls of laughter. That’s fun, right?

What provoked my “fun dad” soul searching was sitting with Aggie and Faye in the corner of the 81st street Studio. My wife, Debbie, had joined the twins on the ground on the tasteful light gray, undoubtedly hypoallergenic wall-to-wall carpeting and was attempting to amuse them while I watched. The good thing about babies, certainly our grandchildren, is that they seem mesmerized by just about anything. Their mother has described them as meerkats, those packs of African mongooses that stand motionless surveying the savannah. They haven’t yet shown much interest in locomotion, unlike the average hyperactive toddlers that frequent the activity center, but that makes them easier to police.

Yet somehow I felt as if I was dropping the ball, not that I spotted any balls; probably because of their accident causing potential and issues of legal liability. I felt guilty that I wasn’t down on my hands and knees with them – recent back pain not withstanding – showing those wooden blocks who was boss.

Two of my four grandparents were fun grandparents. My father’s mother had an infectious joi de vivre, though I don’t remember her playing with us, per se. And my mother’s father took us for walks in Central Park where he dolled out fruit Lifesavers. I’d frankly have preferred chocolate but hard candy is better than nothing.

Maybe, I’ll adopt that technique. Though these days half the substances that you’re tempted to put in their mouths seem to be associated with choking risks.

I’m also looking forward to the day when Aggie and Faye are a little older and, frankly, more active and mobile. Back when we were young parents a friend confided that she found playing with children boring. I see her point. But one way to mitigate that risk is to engage in play that, like the architects of the 81st Street Studio intended, engages my five senses as well as theirs and encourages delightful discoveries and sensible risk taking on all our parts.

If all else fails, we can take them upstairs to see the art. My wife already has and reports that they seem smitten by the life size marble statues in the ancient Greek and Roman galleries.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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