Many of us parents spend messy mornings making art with our children at home. We delight in watching them swirl finger paint across a page or squish dough in their tiny hands. However, making art is only the first step in the creative process.
Art includes many subtle stages: contemplation of what to make, preparing materials, creating, cleaning up. Yet there is another important step in the creative process we often miss: unfolding meaning from the image.
The images any artist (aka: your child) makes contain the stories, emotions, intellect, and worldview of the artist. Don’t miss the opportunity to engage in uncovering the gems embedded in the lines, shapes, and colors that come from your child’s imagination. Not only will you learn something about your child, but this step often helps your child’s idea come full-circle and be integrated into his or her everyday life.
Here are some respectful approaches to talking with your child about art:
While your child is making art, support the process by reflecting back only what you see happening on the page.For example, reflect verbally by saying something like, “I see yellow lines across the top of your page.” If making art alongside your child, try to mirror the same types of marks s/he is making to to communicate the idea: “I see you. I am paying attention.”
It’s never safe to assume you know more than the artist about what it is or what it means.For one kid, a pig might represent the scary boar he saw at a state fair. For another kid, a pig could mean the sweet, soft, cuddly stuffed animal friend he hugs when he goes to sleep at night. So try to hold back from interpreting a child’s images until you hear their story.
Describe What You See
To keep an objective attitude about your child’s art, one easy way to begin is simply to ask your child: “What do you see?” Trust the artist’s words about their own art. Your conversation may lead into a story from the child about who is in the picture and what is happening on the page. Allow meaning to arise organically. You don’t need to translate art into what it must mean in the life of the child, at least not out loud. If you have a younger child who may not yet have the ability to describe the art, you can plainly tell about what you see. Be careful not to interpret what the image “must be” or what it means. Merely describe the lines, shapes and colors that you see. Try “I see a yellow circle up there” instead of “I see the sun.”
Dialog with Art
Another fun approach is to talk with the art itself. Kids are great at using their imagination to pretend in this way, so suspend any adult self-consciousness and disbelief and go for it with them. For instance, one way to begin might be to say, “If the duck you drew could talk, what would he say to us?” (Only after the child has identified that her picture is, in fact, a duck.) Then you, your kid, and the duck can engage in a conversation. Stay within the metaphor, behind the safe veil of play.
Sublimation through Art
Try to curb your own inclinations to change, brighten, or smooth over content that may seem angry or violent or negative — art is a safe playground. Art provides an opportunity for working with of the darker side of being human. If your child seems to be looking for a way to ameliorate a dark situation in the art, you might follow his/her lead and provide assistance in moving the story along. Allow space for the child to exercise internal resources to arrive at his or her own unique solution and make choices. Curbing your parental instinct to “save” the situation here fosters confidence and autonomy in your child.
When looking at someone else’s art, always check in with your own biases and opinions. If you were a child-centered art therapist or a play therapist, the convention would be not to criticize and not to (get ready for it) praise the art. Though as a mom, it’s understandably difficult not to say, “That’s a beautiful flower you drew, sweetie!” While it is most important to be your authentic parent-self, keep in mind that as nurturing as approval can be, compliments alone do not provide the solid type of positive reinforcement the examples above can give to your child.
Being witnessed and feeling “seen” are huge confidence-builders for any human being, especially our little friends who are forming their sense of self in relationship to the world. Reflecting upon the art process allows parents a concrete way to give children the affirmation they need.