How do you encourage children to be more open about the artwork they make so they’ll really tell you what’s on their mind?
Do you ever find yourself telling your child that his drawing is great, that you really like it––only to see him try to make that same drawing over and over again, just trying to please you? We’d all like our children to be able to create something because they enjoy making it, not because someone else wants them to do it. We’d like them to express what’s really on their minds or in their hearts without trying to find out if it’s good or bad according to someone else.
Watch out for the trap of them asking you if you like it. Even if you really do like the piece, resist the temptation to say so. When you compliment something a child does, you’re not doing anyone a favor, in fact, it can be a disservice. Here’s why. By gushing out positive comments in response to your child’s inquiry, you’re telling her that you approve of what she has done, you’re focusing on the final result and not acknowledging the process that went into creating it. Instead of having her seek your stamp of approval each time she completes a “work of art,” how about trying to find concrete details that show you are really looking at the specific qualities of her effort? Show her that you appreciate the energy, imagination, and courage it took for her to put her work on paper (or whatever form). This way, you are returning the power to your child. She will learn to appreciate her own work and be proud of her creative effort. You’re giving her the gift of self-esteem, and you’re contributing to her ability to be internally motivated. With the confidence she gains, it will be easier for her to overcome creative challenges. And if she doesn’t quite accomplish what she wants to, it will be more likely that she can pick herself up again and try again.
Try not to say what you think it is. You never know. Even though something in his picture looks blatantly like an airplane to you, it actually may be some new species of robotic bird or an alien space craft. You just don’t know. You don’t want to take the risk of mislabeling anything in his picture, because this can be discouraging. A child might walk away believing that he is not as great an artist as he thought he was, because you didn’t immediately know what he was drawing. On the other hand, what you want to do is give the child the opportunity to open up about his story. You might say, “tell me a story about this picture.” Or perhaps, you’ll describe some specific things you see in it that can’t be mistaken for anything else. Try saying, for example, “there’s a lot of green over there” (and point to what you’re looking at), or, in a tentative way, “wow, that person [again, don’t try to identify who it is, or even the gender, if it’s not clear] looks mad (or happy, or sad,…)!” Maybe you see lots of circles, or wiggly lines, or other shapes. Simply observe it in a scientific and genuinely curious voice. “You put some squares here and a little bit of blue swirls right over there…” This provides a springboard for your child to elaborate on his story. He won’t be trying to offer you something that he thinks you’re expecting. You’ll be giving him the gift of a clean slate where he can tell his very own story. All possibilities are open!
Your child’s stories are hers, not yours! Kids can be spontaneous and inventive when it comes to inventing drama and dialogue for the people, animals, and things that they draw, paint or sculpt. It’s a real treat to hear you child tell you all about what’s going on in her picture, but beware! Treat your child’s stories with the utmost respect. You might be able to peer into your child’s private world––her beliefs, wishes, hopes, and dreams, when you ask questions like these: “If [point to one of the figures, shapes, or objects in the picture] _________ could talk, what might it say to you?” Or, “what would ________ say to [point to another thing in the child’s picture] ____________, if it could talk?” You’ll be bowled over by some of the dialogue your child makes up about her characters or the other things she’s drawn! Remember, though, that your child is being vulnerable by opening up about some of the thoughts and feelings most important to her. Don’t interrupt with your own characters and dialogue. Let her be the director of the drama. Don’t be an elephant in the china shop by trampling on the content or style of her story.
You’re better off not trying to guess what your kid’s picture means! When a kid draws or paints a picture, he’s making his own imaginary world and it says a great deal about what’s going on for him. Every detail in the picture is special and has it’s own coherence and reason for being in the picture. Looking at the whole picture, even the most chaotic scribble, you’ll have an indication of what the child’s state of mind is at that moment. Resist the temptation to believe you know exactly what he’s saying. You don’t. Adults tend to want to interpret children’s artwork, but we can serve children better by empowering them to describe their own experiences. To do so, we might suggest that they attempt to visualize themselves inside of their own pictures. For example, to get a feeling for your child’s view, you might ask him: “what part of the picture do you like the best?,” or “if you could be anywhere in this picture, where would you want to be?” If you’re willing to sit back and listen with no agenda of your own, you’ll get a whole different perspective on your child and his picture.
Your child’s intent and focus on the art is what’s important. You want to let her own the experience of making the piece, from start to finish. What she likes about it, what she experiences when she sees it, whether she wants to hang it up, fold it into a tiny package, hide it, or throw it away is her choice. To help her hone in on what the picture might mean to her, you could ask if she’d like to give it a title, “what would you call this picture if you wanted to give it a title?”
Last, but not least, know that you’re giving your child the best gift of all when you give him the opportunity to talk about his work. Enjoy and cherish the moments when he allows you to explore his inner world by his side. You’re opening the door to his brilliance and creativity. Know that, when he shares his thoughts and feelings, he gives you a window into his own magical world.