elevating child care

Nurturing Creativity (How I Learned to Shut Up)

Years ago, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was coloring Easter eggs. She had dipped an egg into the purple-dye cup and was about to blend it with yellow dye, when I stopped her. “You might not like the way those colors will look together,” I warned.  Spirited girl that she’s always been, she overruled me and proceeded to mix colors that I was certain would combine to look like a putrid shade of late sixties shag rug.  

To my amazement, her finished egg was indescribably beautiful. The luminous green-brown hue was unlike any I’d ever seen – glorious – beyond classification by any Benjamin Moore chart. And (to think!) my pedestrian Easter egg vision could have easily discouraged its existence.

The question –which came first, the chicken or the egg? — will always be a puzzle. But I feel certain that if the ‘egg’ represents a child’s creative endeavors, a parent’s trust must precede the egg. Trust in a child’s instincts is the key to encouraging free access to her creative power.

Creativity is in all of us. It cannot be taught. It doesn’t come in a craft kit, a toddler dance class, or in a parent’s slew of brilliant ideas. Creative sparks happen, seemingly out of nowhere sometimes, and often when we least expect them. They flow freer when undirected, certainly when un-judged.

Creative ideas come to me after a few minutes of running when my mind can wander. Sometimes they come to me in the shower, or in the semi-dream state I bask in when I first wake up before self-judgment has the opportunity to barge in with rights, wrongs, and self-doubt.

When we are babies, the lines of connectivity to our creative power are clear.  We encourage our children to keep those lines open by being patient, accepting, providing lots of open-ended time for free play and choice, and most importantly, refraining from directing, judging either positively or negatively (both are perceived as judgment by a child) or otherwise interfering with our well-intentioned help.

Early Childhood educator and popular lecturer Bev Bos urged adults, “Never draw for a child.” Her advice extends to include painting, sculpting, crafting, block tower and sand castle building, story creating, or anything artistic or creative. When we show a child how to do those things, we intend to encourage creativity, but we can interfere with it instead, by demonstrating for our child the ‘right’ way. We can create doubt for our child in her abilities, and encourage our child’s dependency on others to affirm for her what is ‘right’, or good. The artistic genius of a budding Picasso will persevere and overcome our influence, but we don’t want to discourage any child from experimentation and the therapeutic benefits of the wide variety of creative outlets at her disposal.

Creativity comes to us naturally, but it takes courage to follow our intuition and express it. Whenever I write and post something new, it feels like a leap from an airplane. Creative courage is shining a light in the darkness of boredom by dreaming up a new activity, or daring to fill blank space with our words or images. It is drawing a picture of a girl in bed “dreaming she is riding an elephant,” as a 3 year-old I know did, even if no one else understood it (but if you looked closely, it was all there).

Einstein once said, “I believe in intuition and inspiration…. At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.” Children are born with that conviction, but they are easily swayed by our doubt in their judgment and abilities. We must be vigilantly aware of our children’s powerful instinct to please us if we want them to keep trusting that voice inside. Some of us have to learn to shut up (as I did) so our children can continue to listen.

***

For more about respecting and nurturing our children’s creativity, please read Blue Sky Thinking, Creative Spirits, and my compilation, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting.

Photo entitled “To the moon and back”  by Frolic! (My egg girl)

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31 Responses to “Nurturing Creativity (How I Learned to Shut Up)”

  1. such a great reminder, I find myself micro managing my children and then frustrated that we are both at odds with each other. I find that now that I am raising my 3rd toddler, I am more relaxed to let them learn on their own and am striving to do the same for my older two. I once read that when you do things for your children you save time at that moment, but in the long run you will waste time and energy, with the same reasoning, to teach a child independence takes time and patience but the rewards will save you time and energy in the long run. Thanks for the reminder.

    • avatar janet says:

      Yes, those are wise words. It does take more time and patience to stay out of our children’s way sometimes, but the autonomy, and especially, the ownership it gives our children of their creative projects makes it well worth the effort. Another challenge for us it to also let go of adult ideas like “product.” Children enjoy process and don’t expect their projects to amount to something as we do. We can learn much from them about staying in the moment, and out of the ‘results.’

  2. avatar ellen says:

    Children should be encouraged and praised for all the effort they do in all fields. There should be no room for critisicm because this will only hinder them from doing more- for all you know, they are far better in their thoughts and ideas because most often than not, they have pure hearts and minds that are not yet tainted by the negativity of media. Let the children explore and bring out the best in them when it comes to expressing themselves- guidance and constructive critisicm is what they need!

  3. avatar Anna says:

    This is really well written and persuaded. Thank you! I completely agree and even though it’s a mantra I followed as an early years teacher I already have slipped into this at times with my own little ones.

  4. avatar Denise says:

    I learned very early as a early childhood educator to always ask “Tell me about your picture”. Because what may look like a bird to me, just might be a flower to the child that has created the art work. When they do tell you about what they see, write it down on the picture with their permission. Love Bev Bos and the work she does with her children.

    • avatar Sarah says:

      I wonder why you would write on a childs picture, even with permission. Are the notes you take for the child or for you? Labeling and defining things is an adult concept that children dont necessarily need for things to be understood. If you need to remember what they drew, take notes for yourself, in your own notebook or journal.

  5. avatar Charity says:

    I’m not yet a parent, but I feel that this will be one of my great challenges – avoiding micro-management. I think this is one of the many ways that my child will be teaching ME how to be better at being human – letting go, and having the openness to allow for magic, even if it doesn’t come in the package I expect it to.

    Thanks for the great article!

  6. avatar Madelyn says:

    This article had such an impact on me that I am in tears. I suffer from slight OCD and the action of the my 2 1/2 year old putting the brown paint into the yellow paint is enough to send me into a panic attack (amongst many other things). I have been reading your articles for some time now and have made major progress in the strive to stay out of the way so her creativity and independence can shine through. Today I will make a promise to myself to ‘let it go’ before I lessen her chances of becoming an albert einstein or picasso. I just hope it is not too late.
    Thank you so much for this life changing lesson 🙂

    • avatar janet says:

      Thank you, Madelyn! Don’t worry, it’s DEFINITELY not too late. 🙂

    • avatar katie says:

      We use a lot of finger paints or poster paints, so I just dab little piles of paint either on a plate or put portions into an old egg carton so that even if the paints get mixed up, it’s not in the original conainers. For watercolors, after the child is done painting and the paint is still wet, just get a paper towel and carefully wipe out each well, and you’ll clean up most of the mixed color.

      I just lose my mind over tiny parts. Lost parts everywhere…

  7. Janet, I STILL find it hard to stand back and shut up! Sometimes the words just slip out of my mouth before I can bite them back. But I try.

    • avatar janet says:

      Jenny, all that matters is that you know to try! 🙂

  8. avatar Roule says:

    I love the idea to encourage creativity by not judging. And lettin children’s natural creativity flow. I know so many people who believe they are not creative.
    What bothers me as an illustrator the idea of never drawing for a child. Imagine the stories you can create together on a blank sheet of paper. I think the point of not judging or directing is excellent. But I do not agree with the idea to not draw for your child. It is like saying do not sing or dance with your child.
    Great post though.

    • avatar janet says:

      Roule, I totally understand your point of view, but I’ve noticed that our children’s budding creative abilities can be fragile… For an accomplished artist like yourself (unless you “dumb yourself down”), you are going to draw things far beyond your child’s ability and in the first years that can be overwhelming and intimidating. I know many, many parents who have found themselves stuck in a pattern of drawing for their children, because they once agreed to “draw a horse for me, Mommy” or just innocently drew “together”. Quite often, the child then refuses to draw because Mommy does it so much better. BUT, my children invented a wonderful game with their grandma that they all loved. They called it “copy” and they would take turns copying the drawing that the other one did and each end up with a picture that was somewhat the same, but also different. Obviously, these drawings had to be simple enough for both participants to accomplish.

      • avatar Kscourageous says:

        I LOVE this post. I remember my first time years ago as an assistant teacher in a preschool classroom when a child handed me a piece of paper and asked me to draw a pig–I was firmly corrected by the head teacher when I innocently played along with the child (having no background in this approach at the time). It is so easy to slip up in the name of “playing together” and accidentally and unknowingly stifle a child’s creative flow. But it’s a fine line to walk, and I get Roule’s viewpoint, too. As an ex-dancer, it would sadden me no end to not be able to dance with my toddler son because I might move “better” than he can. Or to say that my husband, a self-taught drummer and guitarist, shouldn’t play music for our little boy because he can clearly keep a beat or finger a guitar “better” than a 22 month old can. I don’t think that’s what this post is saying, by the way…but I can see how someone might interpret it too strictly and stifle their own spontaneous, creative flow in front of their children for fear of setting the bar too high. It’s a very gray area between exposing our children to creative pursuits we ourselves love and ‘showing them how to do it’, and it’s a line I’m constantly trying to balance on without falling too far on either side of it.

        And a question more specifically related to block building with toddlers…my son is at the stage where he is stacking everything. He has several sets of different kinds of blocks and can be very self-directed for a long time playing with them. But recently he’s been wanting me to build “with him”, which usually involves me just sitting near him and watching and occasionally adding a block he has handed to me to whatever his structure is. Today, he built his own piece as high as he could possibly take it, and then asked me to continue adding to the height. He would hand pick which block he wanted, give it to me, and ask me to “stack it again? way up?”. I feel like this way of building together still honors his creativity, as he’s clearly calling the shots of where the blocks should go and what the structure should be, while also giving us a “teachable moment” about teamwork and helping each other accomplish a common goal. But this post seems to suggest I should just keep my hands off. Thoughts?

        • avatar janet says:

          You’re so thoughtful and sensitive! I think what you’re doing is perfect. As I was reading along about the blocks I was thinking, “just ask him where he wants you to place it”. You could even try to take it a step further and say, “show me exactly how you want it.” That might get him to do it himself and then you can be %100 sure of his intention, but this certainly isn’t an exact science…it’s an art in itself! I found these kinds of interactions both interesting and challenging.

          Regarding your dancing and your husband’s guitar playing, I certainly wouldn’t worry. I agree that we must do what we love doing. That passion is wonderful modelling. The difference would be sending a toddler who enjoys moving to music at home to a dance class where he suddenly switches from creating to imitating. These are all creative judgment calls. All that really matters is that we are mindful and sensitive…and you definitely are.

      • avatar Ginna says:

        Roule, I agree with you. One thing this article assumes is that children will know that the adult’s drawing is ‘better’ and will feel discouraged by that. That does happen sometimes, esp as children get to school age, but it’s often not the case! In my experience as a babysitter, young children often like their drawings more than mine (and often theirs really were amazing in ways I can also appreciate!). We enjoy drawing together and showing each other what we’ve done. Sometimes we even make pictures together.

        Once on the subway, I saw something that bummed me out. A dad was drawing in his art journal while his young preschooler watched. When the child asked for a turn to draw in the journal, the father acted insulted and finally found a page in the back (which he undoubtedly later tore out).

        I think what we need to get rid of is the idea that an adult with more developed motor skills is a ‘better’ artist than a child. That’s the great thing about art — there are lots of ways to be good, not just making perfect outlines.

    • avatar Heather says:

      I draw with my child, and try as much as possible not to draw for him. He had a phase of requesting (i think due to his grandparents way of drawing for him every time and trying to instruct as they went..), I would just get out a different media for a while, something more abstract, so that if he made a request i could do something that he may not recognize as what he asked for, and just encourage experimentation. After a short time he went back to being able to draw his own thing while i draw too.

      it would be impossible to not do art in front of my children, it is a part of my life, so they’re going to see it – no different than them seeing me cooking dinner

  9. avatar Jess says:

    Hi, I love this post and it is something I have always been very aware of and always have to grit my teeth when my inlaws are drawing for my daughter, grrrrrrrr, she doesn’t stand a chance. But because of this she always asks me to draw for her i.e. as you mentioned previously “you draw mummy”, when she insists I just draw random squiggles, much as she would draw, but then she will ask me to draw specific things i.e. house, dog etc…what would you do then, (she is nearly 3yrs old btw) …?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Jess! Sometimes you can do what @Kat suggests in her comment…bouncing the ball back to the child with a couple of gentle questions: “Can you show me how tall the house should be? Is there a door? Where will you put it?” You might also want to say, “I know Grandma draws pictures for you. I’m not going to draw for you, but I would love to draw with you.” Then, you each have paper and you just slowly “scribble” next to her.

  10. avatar Anna Rode says:

    Janet,

    I love this post and appreciate the reminder. A question for you: What do you suggest saying or doing when the child asks the adult to build something for him? Our 3.5 year old son frequently will ask my husband to build something specific with his tinker toys, Legos, or will ask one of us to build his marble run or train track “with” him (he doesn’t help much, if at all). When I encourage him to try and reassure him that he can do it – that I will help if he gets stuck, he insists that he can’t do it. He tends to be more self-directed if he is cutting, gluing, painting, sometimes with drawing – though he often will ask me to draw with him. He has never been one to play independently for long if I am in the vicinity … should we put away building toys until he is older??

  11. avatar Genevieve says:

    I like and agree with this approach but like some of the others commenters here I sometimes struggle with it. The other day my daughter and I were playing with play dough and while I never try to “direct” her (she is playing independently beside me) I am never sure what I should be doing. Is my playing disrupting her creative flow?

  12. avatar Jen says:

    So timely for us. At some point we drew for my son showing him how the Magna Doodle worked and it spiraled from there. He would call out things for us to draw and we did our best. Then gave him a turn and he told us what he drew. I think he has found his limitations at 2 years old discouraging and hardly wants to do any of the drawing himself most of the time, calling on us to draw a rainbow or a garbage truck; ordering specific pictures over and over. I keep telling him I want to see him draw it. He says, “No, Mama draw it” or quickly scribbles something and then hands the crayone to me telling me it’s my turn. It’s been a very hard habit to break and I worry that I’ve messed up his whole flow.

  13. avatar Teresa says:

    Any suggestions for those of us with kiddos who are already reluctant to draw on their own (in our case, I think it is in part due to daddy and grandma drawing for our near 4 year old a lot, combined with his contemplative, hesitant temperament)? Just a short time ago, he asked me to draw a picture of a certain car as a gift for his grandpa. When I’ve tried asking him to tell me how to do it, he tends to get frustrated and give up easily.

  14. avatar Grace says:

    This post is wonderful, and expresses an important truth about encouraging children to explore.
    I would add the point that we need to be very mindful of what we provide children to explore WITH. As children grow, there are different materials they can explore with effectively and without frustration.
    Someone mentioned music– which is a great example. Should two year olds be allowed to explore a violin “in their own way”? I would say, no. But percussion instruments? Absolutely!
    With visual art materials, the same might be true– provide materials which are safe and can be effectively used for exploration.

  15. avatar Dianne says:

    Such a great reminder! My children are in their teens and such advice was not around. At some level I did follow my intuition in this regard, however, felt a bit odd and a bit complacent about their work but in hindsight I knew it was my knowing in line with your above comments. thank you

  16. avatar Karin says:

    You’re SO right Janet… I remember an hour of painting in my school when I was about 7 years old. I was in a school where they did a lot of creative stuff, music, painting, sculpting, etc. Most of the time they liked what I did and that was it. But that day we had to make aquarel paintings – very light. And I was in a full color mood. So I used almost a whole pot of paint to make my painting dark. The teacher told me loud and clear that that wasn’t right…. Nowadays I enjoy all the arts, but painting… no. (I have to paint some times, and the reactions are always great, so I know I’m able to paint – but I hate it since that aquarel incounter).

  17. avatar Erin says:

    My 3.5 year old daughter attends a lovely Montessori (AMI accredited) school. She adores it and the guides (teachers). Sometimes I worry, however, this methodology flies in the face of this support of creativity because it is all about showing them the proper way to use the materials in the room. My daughter is very creative but can also now be very opinionated about”the right way” to play, store, for example. Any thoughts on supporting both of these theories simultaneously. We do love what the school has done for her independence and confidence…..

  18. avatar Nicole says:

    Today I bought my 5 year old some fabric to do what she pleases with…and she came up with ideas to build a kite. I started envisioning and wanted to help. I stopped myself and let her cut away at her fabric, become frustrated, and end up with something incredible. She shows me often to step back and observe and I love her creativity.

  19. avatar Ivana Paunovic says:

    Dear Janet,
    I made ​​that mistake and now my 3.5 year old girl does not want to try to draw. Should I just wait for her to be self interested or is there something else I can do because I am now terribly sorry about that.
    I have been recently discovered your blog and I am thrilled with the results I am achieving with this approach and at the same time I feel terrible about everything I was done wrong.
    Best regards from Serbia, small country in Eastern Europe.

  20. avatar Frida says:

    Hi Janet,
    I think Im doing all these the wrong way!
    I dont judge what my daughters (2 and 4 yo) do but I love arts and crafts so I usually sit by them and do my thing (I build something with the blocks, or sculpt something with dough alongside them) and yes, I usually see my 4 year old daughter cringe and ask me to help her. I see I shouldn’t help her but should I just sit with them and watch them or is it better if I leave?
    What do you recommend?

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