How to Engage with Your Kids About Their Artwork
Christine Henry, LMFT, Board Certified Registered Art Therapist
As part of their typical development, children are naturally drawn to making art. Whether kids are doodling with markers and crayons, or gluing colorful, fuzzy pipe cleaners, they are exploring materials, making messes, and expressing their thoughts and feelings through creativity. They delight in trying out new materials, whether from art and science kits, or random found objects like recyclables and old boxes. Kids have an ingrained urge to explore their world around them and make things that both reflect what they see and give them a place of fantasy to escape and try out different roles.
When children spontaneously make art on their own, they are both putting parts of themselves into their creation and tapping into larger themes of the world around them. Artwork can reflect how children see themselves, both as they are and as they hope, wish, or fantasize to be. The details of children’s self-portraits become more complex as they age, reflecting their brain development through showing more details and concepts. Kids’ fantasy drawings also become more development as they become exposed to more kinds of stories/movies/ TV shows with superheroes, mythical creatures, and other kinds fantasy characters.
Parents often wonder about what their children are creating and what the imagery means. This includes wanting to know what is important to their child and how the artwork reflects the child’s relationships, perceptions, and self-identity. Sometimes we can get stuck on how to approach asking our children or talking about it in the first place. Often parts of children’s art can look unrecognizable or abstract, making parents feel bad if they can’t guess the “right” person/object/animal that the child had in mind. Having some key communication skills when interacting with your child can make the difference between opening doors for more creativity or your child shutting down and giving up.
Ways to for parents to open conversations with their kids:
“Can you tell me about what you are making/drawing?”
“I notice you put figures/people over here [point to specific part of drawing], can you tell me who they are?”
“What are those people/animals/characters doing in your picture?”
“Can you tell me a story about what is happening?”
Ways to praise the artwork when kids are stuck on “it is good?” or “do you like it?”
“I am so proud of you for working so hard on it.”
“I saw you draw, erase, and kept drawing. You really wanted it to be just right. I am proud of you for keeping at it.”
“It looks like you had so much fun playing with the colors, mixing them, and seeing what you could make.”
“I hear that it is important for you to know if I like it. Of course, I like anything made by you because it is special to me. How do you like it?”
Ways of validating children when they get frustrated:
“It seemed like you got frustrated with the materials and how they weren’t turning out how you wanted. This art can be a ‘practice’ piece or an experiment and you can try again another way when you are ready.”
“You wish this looked different than it does. You can keep at it and transform it into something new or you can take a break and look at it again when you aren’t as frustrated.”
“I can tell you are really upset/disappointed with this. What do you want to do with it?” [throwing in trash, ripping up, cutting up are ways of doing a “ritual deconstruction” to let go of it]
Things to avoid when talking to kids about their art:
Criticisms/devaluing: “You didn’t do that right, that’s not what X looks like, that looks [derogatory word like ‘stupid, babyish, etc.’”
Projecting your own meaning: “Is that (specific) person/animal/object?” “Why did you draw me doing X action?”
Comparing them to siblings/peers or even professional artists: “This isn’t as good as so-and-so” can make children want to give up.
Important points to remember:
Children absorb the feelings/judgements they take away from interactions with adults around them. Keeping a positive, encouraging presence and instilling a sense of competence and curiosity will build a child’s resilience to continue even when things seem hard/challenging. Praise what you want to keep seeing them doing (focusing, effort, exploration) and ignore what you don’t want to be ingrained in their self-esteem/internal dialogue (“I can’t do this, this is too hard, I am bad at this, etc.”). Only compare them to their own previous artwork made by pointing out how they are learning more techniques/skills, and showing their own personal growth.
All artwork is a combination of the process (the act of making it), and the end product (the final image/object when someone says they are “done”). When kids make art, they can swing to either end of the process versus product continuum, or fluctuate in the middle between the two. Be non-judgmental, embrace messes, and celebrate the little victories to keep the motivation for making art beyond childhood.