Have you heard the expression, “Every child is an artist”?
It’s true – drawing is one of the most instinctual and natural ways for children to express themselves and externalize their thoughts and feelings.
The vast majority of young children really enjoy making marks on a page and exploring their artistic abilities. They also love to share what they’ve made.
As adults we often wonder what happens. Why do children outgrow their artist identities?
Yet many adults, yourself included maybe, can tell you the exact moment when they stopped believing they were an artist.
It’s a moment when their art stopped feeling free and limitless, and started feeling not good enough, or not right, or not what others expected. This moment usually involves a comment from a well-meaning adult about the child’s artwork: “Oh I think that cat looks like a dog! / Why is the house purple? / Here, let me show you how to draw an apple.”
And just like that, the child’s relationship with their own artistic expression changes. Instead of using art to explore and share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas, they now experience art as something with expectations and rules. They reflect on their art product and consider how it compares to others. And this is an ideal opportunity for the “perfection bug” to sneak in (more on perfectionism here).
This is why I believe that it is so important for caring adults to be mindful of how we respond when children approach us with their art.
In art therapy, we understand a child’s art as an extension of themselves. Art does not have to reflect reality, or look a certain way, or demonstrate improvement with fine motor skills. Art is about self-expression, communication, and connection. Sometimes a child’s art tells a story, represents a feeling, or expresses an idea. And sometimes, the process of drawing or painting supports a child to move through their feelings, to experience enjoyment, or to connect with themselves in a new way.
Sometimes a scribble is the child’s representation of their worry. And sometimes a scribble is just a scribble, and the picture is all about the joy of scribbling.
How do we know the difference? Here’s the key: the CHILD decides what their artwork means and what they want to share about it.
When a child shares their artwork with us, it’s an opportunity to connect with them and to learn more about their inner world, if they are open to letting us in.
Our job is to invite communication and connection. Our job is not to teach or correct or project our own feelings or opinions. Our intention is to show the child that we are interested in their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and expressions, and that we are open to whatever they choose to share with us. We hope that after this interaction, they continue to see art as a way to express themselves and connect with the world around them.
To support these goals, we want to avoid judgement statements, even if that judgement is positive (ie. praise). When we comment that a drawing is good, then suddenly the art becomes less about personal expression and more about performance. It’s possible that children may think that if you like this picture, they should only draw this kind of picture from now on. Or if you say you like that colour, what about all the other colours?
This is SO HARD TO DO, because it’s not what we have experienced ourselves. But I can tell you from personal and professional experience that the potential for connection made possible through this approach is 100% worth the effort of trying something different.
Here’s a little roadmap to follow if you want to try this approach at home.
When a child presents you with their precious artwork…
Begin with an acknowledgement.
“Oh wow! Look at this! You made this and you’re showing it to me!”
Next, invite the child to lead the discussion.
“Can you tell me about your picture? How did you make this? What materials did you use? Does this picture tell a story? Would you like to share what this is about for you?”
If you don’t know what something is, don’t guess.
If you’re wrong (and we all are sometimes!), it can really influence the child’s feelings about their artwork and their artistic abilities. To them, it’s perfectly clear what they intended. Instead, try pointing and saying “Can you tell me about this part?” Usually kids will say “Oh that’s the airplane!” Phewf! If possible, try not to label anything in the artwork unless the child has told you what it represents for them.
Ask questions that invite the child to share their own feelings about their artwork.
“What’s your favourite part of the picture? How did you feel when you were working on this part here? How do you feel when you look at it now?”
The child will probably look for some reaction from you. They might even ask if you like their artwork. Instead of giving praise about the finished product, try offering encouragement about their process and their effort.
Instead of saying “This is such a beautiful picture” or “I love it!,” try saying, “I can see that you worked so hard on this. You used all the colours in your marker set! It looks like you made so many little circles there. That must have taken lots of concentration. I love seeing and hearing about your artwork!”
These kinds of comments encourage relationship, connection, and the process of self-expression that your child participated in, instead of putting the praise and the focus on one particular art product.
I recommend this approach all the time, but it’s ESPECIALLY important if a child is sharing artwork that they made at art therapy. In art therapy we teach children that they can use art to express and communicate all of their emotions. This means that not every picture or creation is meant to be beautiful or pretty. Sometimes the artwork might hold and express more challenging emotions. If you tell a child that their anger monster is pretty, this may be confusing or conflicting for them.
If a child does tell you what their picture is about or what the narrative is, you can join them in exploring the theme with your own observations.
You might say, “Those red marks you made with the crayon really give me the feeling that the monster is mad!”
If at any point a child doesn’t want to answer a question or doesn’t accept your invitation, that’s okay.
Just being shown a child’s artwork is a huge honour. We don’t need to know what it is or to understand what it’s about for them. By asking a few non-judgmental questions and expressing interest, we send the message that we would love to hear more about their artistic expressions both now and in the future. We also demonstrate that we will welcome any kind of expression. We’re a safe person to show the ugly, messy, scary artwork to as well.
Once a child stops answering questions or appears ready to move on, follow their lead for ending the discussion. Finish by thanking the child for sharing their artwork with you.
And that’s it! You’ve totally got this. I’m so excited for all that you’ll learn from the little artists in your life when you try it!
Need a 10-second recap? Here it is: When a child shares their art with you, don’t make judgmental statements or praise performance. Don’t start with your own feelings or assumptions about it. Do ask thoughtful questions about the child’s connection with their artwork and their experience of making it. Do make neutral observations when you’re stuck. Offer questions or observations as invitations, and follow the child’s lead for the discussion (including when it ends!).
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT