With parents phoning me these past few months about art lessons for their children, I have noticed a worrying pattern. Quite a few of them have conveyed serious angst over their child's supposed inability to draw. Initially, my first question was whether the child wanted to come to art class. I no longer ask this of the parent. The same anxious parents also have a tendency to make an apologetic or otherwise negative comment to me, or to their child in front of me, about the artwork he or she has done in our first session. I have had a parent ask me conspiratorially; "how bad was it?" What child would want to put themselves in line for this kind of confidence-shattering review by their parent? No wonder the kid wouldn't draw at home!
I was reminded of this during the week, when I received a call from my daughter's art teacher. She was concerned because my husband had criticized a piece of work that our daughter is doing. She didn't refute the correctness of his observations about scale and proportion; merely, the delivery and its crushing effect on a 12-year old. Sure enough, my daughter had come home with a grumpy face and mumbled that "Daddy was horrible about [her] dolphin."
Like my husband, the parents of my art students are not awful, unloving people. They are achievement-oriented. Unfortunately, they have gotten in the habit of emphasizing the standard of the finished product over the joy and effort that went into creating it. They also hold their child's ability to an adult standard of perfection. I have witnessed the immediate dampening effect this has on a child's enthusiasm and self-esteem. Faces fall, pictures are shoved into the folder or left behind, accidentally on purpose and the joy of experimentation is replaced by the fear of doing something wrong. It's slightly heartbreaking.
Granted, the pictures are not always beautiful. Shapes are wobbly, colours are muddy, objects lack dimension and body parts don't necessarily connect in all the right places. But as the weeks go on, children learn to handle the materials, compose a pleasing picture and gain insight into proportion and perspective. It all comes in time. I find myself on a mission to reinforce the kids' self-esteem as much as their drawing and painting skills. Everyone discusses their artwork; what they plan to do, how it's going and whether it has come out the way they hoped it would. I make a point of asking:
- Are you happy with your work?
- What did you learn today?; and
- Did you have fun?
When they are finished, they sign and date their piece... a simple act that lets them "own" it and also creates a pictorial timeline, so they can go back and review how they are improving.
The weight of parental expectations can be very heavy. If your child lacks self-confidence, ask yourself whether your reaction to their efforts is supportive, positive and motivational. If they feel they can't please you, they may stop trying. If you can't find anything positive to say, a genuine smile and a hug will do the trick. Whether it's about a drawing, a homework assignment, the way they have handled a friendship issue or any challenge they take on, I prefer to take the emphasis off the adult's judgment. Ask the child; "Are you proud of yourself?"