Appreciating Children's Work

A three year old had been busily engaged at the art table, working on brown paper with broad strokes of black paint. When her mother came up to admire and ask about the picture, the little girl announced with pride and pleasure that it was a rainbow. Her mother burst out laughing. I could understand her response. It was hard to imagine how any picture could look less like a rainbow. But I felt for the child. I could just imagine the pleasure she had taken in her creation dimming in the light of such a reception.

I wonder how often we do this to our children--imposing our standards and assumptions on their creative endeavors. I certainly remember when I was told in grade school that I didn't draw very well, and how that kept me from even trying for twenty years. (Its taken becoming the parent of wildly creative and uncritical young children to give me the space and permission to start exploring that love again.)

My guess is that most of us try hard to appreciate our children's work, to not be judgmental, not impose adult values. But I'm realizing just how subtle and pervasive the adult perspective it. Being around a man who does wood-shop work with young children, and is very thoughtful about his language with them, has been an eye-opener for me. When they come to him, rather than asking what they are trying to produce, he simple asks what he can do to help. Then they don't have to focus on the product--which they may not even have thought very much about. They don't have to make up a description of something that an adult would recognize. They can just get some help fastening two pieces of wood together or drilling a hole, which may be all that they were really wanting.

When the project is complete, he never asks (or tries to guess) what it is. He always says, "Tell me about your work." Again, they don't have to fit into a mold. Maybe they were making a boat or a bird feeder or a car, in which case they can tell him that. But maybe they weren't. Then they are free to say what is interesting about it to him ("I made it so that this little piece can go around and around") rather than feeling obliged--or unable--to produce a description that meets adult expectations.

I like this approach--and I find it remarkably hard to implement. I keep hearing myself saying, "Oh, that looks like a cat," or "Is that a boat?" Sometimes I'm right. But when something else entirely was in their minds, I'm acutely conscious of having done them a disservice, of failing to fully respect their creativity.

So I plan to practice. When the next child produces a dark brown paper painted with broad black lines, I plan to say, "Oh, I see you've been working hard. Would you tell me about your picture?" And when he or she announces that it's a rainbow, I'm going to say, "Well, that's a very distinctive rainbow," look more closely, and maybe appreciate rainbows--or that child--even more.