How to talk to your kids about their art?

As parents and teachers, we are often faced with a child who presents their artwork to us. As we look at the jumble of shapes and colors, sometimes dripping with gobs of paint, we struggle with what to say, so we fall back on the old exclamation of: “Oh it’s so beautiful!” or “I like it!” We say this when in actuality the artwork often isn’t beautiful and we don’t really like it. We simple don’t know what-else to say.

The problem with this kind of feedback is a few things. To begin with, the child presenting us with his/her artwork may eventually see through these types of remarks to what they often are: a lie. They may be confused when they don’t think it is beautiful, but you are telling them that it is. Also, by giving this type of feedback, we are telling the children what to think of their art rather than how to think about it. As an art teacher, I’m a firm believer in the creation of art as a trial and error process that encourages creativity, dexterity, and problem solving. When we as adult offer these generic phrases, we fail to recognize the artwork for what it truly is: an expression, practice, or exploration of an idea or art technique through creation whether it is through painting, drawing, sculpting or any other art making practice. This process has really nothing to do with beauty and it really doesn’t matter whether or not the adult in question likes it or not. Along this same vein, children (and adults) go through scribble stages when trying something new; this can include making art, riding a bike, learning to read music, learning to write, learning math…you get the picture. This means that when learning something new such as drawing, painting, or sculpting, we have to try out the tools— literally “scribbling” or dabbling until we build the dexterity and proficiency in that particular task. Therefore whether or not your child’s art is beautiful is completely irrelevant as the point is for your child to go through the necessary stages of learning so that they can become proficient in a particular task.

So what  do you say when faced with your child’s artwork?

The next time you are faced with a child’s artwork, there are several things you can say.

You can make a remark on what you see, such as, “I see lots of squiggly blue lines that create a lot of movement that move my eye around the art.”  Try remarking on things like:  color, line, shape, and texture, etc. (these are called the elements of art. More information about these and the principles of design can be found here: http://www.oberlin.edu/amam/asia/sculpture/documents/vocabulary.pdf ) that you see in the art. Saying this type of remark in a positive voice will reinforce what the child is showing you as well as help them pay attention to what they see in their own work. One note with this technique is to be careful when making assumptions about what you see. Saying “I see a fish” can be misleading especially if your child never thought of making a fish. Often time’s children, especially small children, will make marks for the sake of making marks that have nothing to do with a recognizable image. We as adults often want our child’s artwork to mean something when the child isn’t thinking that way at all.

Another thing you can say is to ask your child to explain their art to you. Some types of questions you can ask are:

Why did you choose to use that color? Or describe to me the steps you went through when you were making your art. What did you do first? What did you do next? What did you do last?

When you do this, be open to what your child says. Sometimes it may be a simple explanation such as “I like blue.”  That is perfectly ok. The point of this type of questions is to get your child to talk and think deeply about their artwork. This also, reinforces the importance of their voice and critical thinking in their work rather than making artwork to please the adults in their lives.

This isn’t an easy technique to do, so be gentle with yourself. I still struggle with this even after teaching art for many years. Please post feedback on questions or your ideas of this technique in the comment section.

We here at Inquisitive Lantern would love to see your and your children’s projects. Please share them and your feedback at the end of this post. Please note though that Inquisitive Lantern will approve all posts for their family friendly content before they become public.

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