Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up - Pablo Picasso
What Picasso said is so true! Art making is the domain of all young children, but sadly not many adolescents and fewer adults. Perhaps you have noticed your kids’ attitudes to art change as they’ve grown up? Most people stop believing they are creatively successful at around 10.
So, how does what you say to your child about his creative efforts effect this outcome?
As I wrote in my last blog article, if you find yourself using expressions like, “Beautiful!” or “Great job!” when your child shows you his latest artwork, it’s time to rethink your responses. Your words can empower or discourage him for a life of creative exploration and enjoyment.
Let’s look at some well-intentioned, but unhelpful responses you may give when seeing your child's artwork:
You: That's a nice elephant!
Child thinks: But it’s a woolly mammoth! I must have drawn it wrong… I’m no good at drawing.
Imposing your own narrative or assuming you understand the subject matter of your child’s art can undermine her confidence in her own ability.
You: You always paint wonderfully!
Child thinks: What about the time I painted Mutt. It turned into a smudgy mess and I was mad and tore it up.
Making a sweeping generalisation may lack insight into the breadth of your child’s experiences and struggles. To her an hour is a long time, let alone ‘always’. She may feel you don’t really understand her struggles.
You: Drawing mammoths is really hard. I can’t do it.
Child thinks: Well, if he/she can’t, I may as well give up now!
Your child believes you are far more competent than she is. By projecting your own feelings and beliefs, and making them universal, you may steal hope of success from her.
You: Mixing brown is really easy! Here I’ll do it for you.
Child thinks: I don’t find it easy so what’s wrong with me? I wanted to do it myself!
Minimising the challenge of learning a new skill or completing a task on behalf of your child may disempower her and invalidate her feelings.
You say: Awesome! Great job! Beautiful!
Child thinks: Well he/she’s pleased, but what does that mean? The chocolate cake at the party was beautiful too, my teeth brushing was awesome…. I’m confused.
General statements are easy to make and don’t demonstrate attentive engagement or curiosity with your child’s art. She might find them confounding or worse, dismissive.
I hope you’re not feeling overwhelmed by what not to do!
Here are some alternative responses you could try to empower your child and grow their self-esteem:
You say: You’ve made a picture! Tell me about it please? (You look and listen with attention).
Child thinks: He/she is interested in what I do. What I do is important.
Child says: I have great ideas!
Responding with attentive, open-ended questions and curiosity affirms that your child’s work is valuable and that his thoughts and ideas are important.
You say: I feel happy when I see those bright colours – red and yellow contrast boldly with blue. The black lines make the shapes you’ve drawn stand out!
Child thinks: He/she is happy because of what I made – my art is good! My ideas are cool.
Child says: I know how to make a shape stand out!
By using ‘I’ statements about your feelings and observations you enabled her to see the power of her own artworks and her originality of thought. You demonstrated respect for her and her work by taking time to become aware of and express your personal experience.
What about when you see your child struggling with frustration…
You say: I can see you’re feeling stuff! Or I can see something’s going on for you! (Empathising)
Child says: Yeah! I’m mad because I can’t get the flowers right. (She identifies her own feelings.)
You say: You’re really cross about not getting the flowers just how you want them? (Reflecting) Child says: They turned out with big petals! I wanted them different.
You say: Mmmmm, yes, I see… (Reflecting, but not offering solutions)
Child says: Maybe I can try this…(works on the drawing)… Now they’re okay!
You say: Even though you felt mad, you tried again and now you’ve drawn them just how you wanted them… that takes persistence and skill! I like that. (Describing process and naming strengths you admire)
Child says: Yeah, I don’t give up easily and I am good at drawing.
Showing empathy with your child without assumptions by making an open, non-specific statement about what you could see allowed her to tell you what was actually happening for her. You reflected back to her without judgement, which validated her feelings and experiences. You refrained from attempting to fix the problem, allowing your child to sit with her own discomfort and work out her own solution. Finally you described what you had observed happen, you identified the strengths and qualities your child demonstrated which fostered her resilience, self-efficacy and positive self-esteem.
Fostering creativity in children as they grow and mature into adults is a precious privilege and responsibility we all share. I hope you feel inspired and motivated to encourage the children in your life with your words, empathy and attention.
If you’d like to dive deeper into this, to understand more about your child’s development in perception and art making, to know what their pictures mean and which materials are best at different ages, then join me in my Blaxland studio on Thursday 27 July, 7-9 pm for ‘UNDERSTAND YOUR CHILD’S ART’. Book tickets HERE - $20 including a complimentary glass of wine.
Bring examples of your child’s art to discuss and share!