Your child runs to you eager to show you what he has created, pushes the paper close to your face and says, “Look what I made!”
What’s wrong with these responses:
“That’s a beautiful painting!”
“I love that!”
“How nice! What is it?”
“That’s a nice face you drew, but there’s no nose, silly!”
We are our child’s first audience. The language we use to respond to our children’s artwork can boost their imagination and confidence, or inadvertently tell them their choices and feelings are not important.
What’s Wrong with Complimenting Your Children’s Work?
Isn’t “That’s a beautiful painting!” a nice thing to say? Vague compliments lack essence and sincerity. When we rubber stamp every piece of their art as “beautiful”, our compliments become meaningless. And who should judge what is beautiful anyway? Only the child.
“Great work!” Isn’t this a better response? At least we’re encouraging effort instead of judging results. Yes, but this is still a superficial reply. Children know when we aren’t really looking or listening. Would you want your boss or client to simply tell you you did “great work” without any further explanation? Again, this is an easy response that loses meaning the more children hear it.
“I love that!” Now, how could this sweet exclamation be a problem? It’s great to love your child’s work, but this makes the creating about you, not them. Children should not be making art to please adults, they should be creating to please themselves.
When we ask our child, “What is it?”, we are telling them their art needs to be something representational and they have failed to show that to us or we wouldn’t need to ask. Most children have neither the skill nor the need for their art to look like a specific object. This concept is part of the adult world of expectations.
Many young children cannot form their personal thoughts into an answer. They might want to say, “I liked watching the yellow blend into the blue”, or “this is how I feel when I don’t get my way.” When we ask them, “What is it?” children will likely give us an answer they think we want to hear just to end the conversation.
Do not assume that you know what their art is about. When we say, “What a pretty purple flower!”, and our child says, “It’s a unicorn!”, we send the message that we are taking charge of their work, and their ideas are secondary. They might feel bad that you don’t recognize something they think is obvious. Let them tell you the story of their artwork.
“That’s a nice face you drew, but there’s no nose, silly!” Even correcting in jest discourages children’s explorations, hampering their growth. They know they have a nose, they have chosen to omit it and they have their reasons.
So, What DO I Say?
The next time your child shows you his art, pause and reflect, say nothing for a few seconds. Show him you are studying the work. Pausing also gives the child a chance to speak first.
Not every work of art needs a lengthy discussion. Often a few well chosen sentences will do. The best time to talk about their art is right after they have made it or taken it home, they are most enthused and have the experience fresh in their minds.
Use children’s art as a springboard to increase their vocabulary and communication skills.
10 Thoughtful Ways to Talk to Children About Their Art
1. Specifics – Point out what you see, not what you think you see. Use the vocabulary of the elements of art – color, line, shape, form, pattern, texture, space. “I see you have drawn three wavy lines.” “You used a lot of colors!” “The hole in this sculpture is interesting!” “Let’s count how many red dots you made.” Find the elements of art in everyday items to emphasize art’s connections to life.
2. Ideas – Praise imagination and enrich understanding. “Tell me about your work.” “How did you get the idea for this picture?” “I wonder what you were thinking about.” “I wonder what this shape would say if it could talk?”
3. Process – Dig into how they did what they did. “How did you do this?” “I see you made these lines go up and down.” “What an interesting choice you made here.” “Wow, the oil pastels show through the watercolor paint!” “How did you blend those colors?” “What did you do first?”
4. Effort – Show that putting forth your best effort is more important than a nice end result. “You spent a lot of time making all these different shapes.” “You must have really enjoyed using all these materials!” “You were really concentrating!”
5. Feelings – Validate your child’s feelings and opinions. “What part did you enjoy the most?” “You must be proud of the new color you discovered!” “How did you feel making this?” “This looks like it was fun to make!”
6. Materials – Encourage a love of trying new things and exploring a variety of materials and techniques. “How did you make the chalk smear?” “What materials (or tools) did you use?” “I wonder why you chose the burlap?” “What did you learn about using watercolors?”
7. Knowledge – Use vocabulary and concepts. “What kinds of shapes did you use?” “I noticed these lines are wavy.” “What makes a sculpture different from a painting?”
8. Reflection – Stretch your child to think deeper. “What title would you give this work?” “What do you like best in your artwork?” “Do you want to add anything to your artwork?” “I wonder why… (the girl is larger than the boy, the ground is purple, etc.)” “What could you try differently next time you paint?”
9. Future – Get excited about learning more. “What will you make next?” “What would you like to learn more about (or, how to do)?”
10. Encourage and support – “You made a lot of pictures today. Which one do you want to hang up?” It’s nice to conclude your chat with “Thank you for sharing.”
Not every child is going to want to talk about every piece of art they produce. Don’t overuse these conversation starters or feel you need to have a long conversation every day. Letting go of results and allowing kids to enjoy the process of creation can reap big rewards.
Art is a valuable way for children to make sense of life and the world. By being an interested observer and patient listener you’ll help your child develop confidence, communication skills, problem solving abilities, self awareness, and so much more. When you think of art as more than just what you see on a page, you will see your child in a whole new light. This is what art should do.