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The Art of Talking About Art

One day a few decades back, I was sitting on the couch watching reruns of the Brady Bunch. In one episode, Peter made an art project at school. He brought it home to show his mother, who casually praised his work. Peter dejectedly responded: “Mom, you’re holding it upside down” – cue the canned laughter. I remember this clearly because I was awful at art. I was pathetically terrible at drawing, coloring, properly holding a paintbrush, etc. etc. Or at least that was my perception. And I found the few comments I received about my artwork to be patronizing. It seemed people were saying, “Poor Aimee can’t draw, but let’s tell her we like it anyway.”

When I started out as a teacher I went out of my way to praise everyone’s artwork. Oh I love this…and I love that…and this picture is so beautiful…on and on. At this early stage of my career I did not yet know the difference between praise and encouragement and so I loaded on the praise. After all, what I did know was that children do not need to be criticized, especially for something as subjective as art. And frankly, the praise was genuine on my end–I do love children’s art, so I wasn’t concerned with coming off as patronizing. It makes me happy and brings me such joy. It’s just uplifting. Even so, it didn’t take too long to see that the praise wasn’t working; most of the children who were self conscious of their art did not suddenly embrace their abilities and light up because of my comments. The few who did take my gushing to heart began to follow me around the classroom constantly asking for my opinion and drawing me more pictures than my refrigerator could handle.

At some point in those early years of teaching I learned about the difference between praise and encouragement. I learned the importance of teaching a student to value their own work. And I learned how to help them make the switch from being defined by my opinion (or omissions) to embracing their own effort and process. It starts with asking about the work. Not: “What in the world is this?” But, “Can you tell me about your painting?” “What’s happening in this picture?” “ I notice you chose red and purple for the sunset. Will you tell me about those choices?” Encouragement also relies heavily on making observations about effort– commenting on the hard work it took to get the job done. “I noticed you spent a lot of time on your painting today.” “I saw you erased your work several times until you were satisfied.”

Displaying your child’s artwork is also another way to affirm them without focusing on your opinion or judgement of their work. Inviting your child to help you decide what to hang up, where, and why is another way to create conversation with your child about their effort, passion, and interests.

I’m not going to lie: for me, art is one the hardest subjects not to praise because, as noted earlier, children’s art is one of my favorite things. It’s much easier for me to say, “I see you persevered through figuring out that calculation in your math work,” than it is to say, “I see you blended blue and pink to make your lilacs look more realistic.” I just want to say, “I love the colors you chose for your flowers!” But the truth is “I love…” in large doses does not build intrinsic motivation and often does not allow an artist to grow.

Just like so much in life, there is a time and place for praise. It’s also worth noting that some children, especially those who have had adverse childhood events, need praise more than others. There are subtle differences in praise versus encouragement and it’s important to be aware. Encouragement is a healthy diet that feeds internal drive and success. Praise is a little dessert –a nice treat–but shouldn’t be overused.

There are plenty of ways to talk to authentically talk your child about their art (and other schoolwork). Use encouragement, ask questions, recognize their effort, display their favorite work, and empower them to form their own opinions about their talents.

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