Talking with Our Little Artists about Their Work

Eliza Clark
May 15, 2008

We hope some of you were reading along yesterday as we blithely advised that the best way to handle the stream of artworks your child produces on a daily basis is to "manage the art" -- save one thing and dispose of another, identify the keepers and toss the rest without guilt. And perhaps you thought, yes, I can do that! Here I go! I'm ready to bring order to the jumble of drawings, paintings, and crafts that are piling up in various corners of the house.

But it's not quite that easy, is it? Because when we start to go through the piles, and look at these images (hopefully *dated* which we urge you to do if it's the only bit of organizing you manage) that reflect our little ones' growing up, our steely resolve goes all to mush. These paintings are just gorgeous! We love the abstraction, the whimsy, the expressiveness of children's art, and most especially our own precious child's art.

So we're not exactly rational on this one. Not as objective as could be wished for. When our little artist holds up another work to add to the pile and says "Look!", we just want to exclaim "It's beautiful!" and give him a big hug.

But that's when the experts and parents and artists all tell us the same thing: take a moment to think before you speak. How we talk with our kids about the art they make is too important for a tossed-off compliment, no matter how sincere. So what are the dos and don'ts for talking with children about their art?

Don't overpraise. Indeed, try as much as you possibly can to avoid value-judgments of any kind. In their new book Practical Wisdom for Parents (to which we shall be referring often here at Being Savvy), two of the true sages of the preschool scene, Nancy Shulman and Ellen Birnbaum, directors of the famed 92nd Street Y, have this to say about about overpraising: "In the classroom, we see children who are overpraised at home asking teachers or other children, 'Is this okay? Do you like my picture?' rather than relying on intrinsic feelings of self-worth." Of course that's the last thing we want. So let's try to avoid that one.

Don't direct or take over. We all feel tempted to ask our kids to draw this or that, or show them how. Resist, resist as much as you can. Even when your child asks you to draw a sun, for instance. Instead, try questions to help him along. What shape is a sun? What color? Think how proud he'll be when he manages on his own.

Do describe what you see. When your child says "Look!", do just that. Really look. And talk about all that's in front of you: the colors, the shapes, the lines, the texture, the materials, the scene, or whatever it may be. It's the best way of showing our little ones that we're really paying attention to and valuing what they are up to. And it gives them a vocabulary for talking about art. The absolute parenting bible, How to Talk to So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, calls this "descriptive praise." We call it easy and just right, once you get the hang of it.

Do, as we've mentioned before, find a lovely spot to display your child's work so you can show your appreciation, and continue the conversation. And listen to what your growing-up-every-day child has to say about his creations of yesteryear (or yesterday). You'll learn a lot about that little mind in there.

And by the way: when presented with a wild swirl of green paint, few of us can refrain from blurting out "I love it!" every now and then. And there's nothing wrong with that. Just move on into the describing and noticing from there. We love it because we love them -- and that can't be helped.

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    The suggestion re: not overpraising caught my attention. I think there are probably a lot of well-intentioned "pc" parents who have been guilty of this at one time or another (myself included). It's sort of like teaching your child to say I'm sorry or to expect an apology from another child. There is such a thing as going overboard with this, which is generally an important learning stage in development. In some instances, though, a child can wind up expecting an I'm sorry for every little thing. The same think, I suppose, could apply to praise.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    These suggestions ring so true in the life of a preschooler. As a former Kindergarten teacher and a current preschool teacher and mother of preschoolers, I can't emphasize enough the need kids have for their own creative expression. So much individulaity is being stamped out these days. Don't contribute to the trend! I turned and walked out of a preschool I was looking at for my daughter because I looked on the wall and saw a group of 12 rainbows, all exactly alike. No suns, no clouds, birds, flowers, mixed-up colors. Not a place for my child, or yours either.

    over a year ago


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