Why Not Draw For A Child?

When we draw, mold, paint, or even build a sandcastle for our toddler, we can discourage her from doing those things herself. If she can’t do as well as mommy or daddy, why bother? The unfortunate result of this is that our children disengage from an activity that might have provided a creative outlet. I witnessed vivid proof of this theory several years ago…

My husband and I brought our three-year-old daughter to his company’s family picnic at the park. One of the children’s activities was to decorate T-shirts with tubes of paint.  My daughter was given a white T-shirt and we sat at the picnic table together. I was utterly amazed when all the parents began showing their children how they should design a T-shirt by painting it themselves. There was not one parent who would trust a child to decorate his own T-shirt; the adults completely dominated. “Let’s put a sun over here. And now I’ll write your name.” Was it because it was a T-shirt and not just a piece of paper? Was a T-shirt too valuable to leave in the hands of a three-, four-, five-, six- and even seven-year-old? Would the child’s creation not be ‘good enough?’

The end result of this spontaneous experiment was illuminating. The T-shirts were hung out to dry in a tree. None of the children showed the slightest interest in the finished T-shirts. The parents retrieved them after they had dried, but the children could not have cared less. They had contributed nothing to the shirts and felt no ownership.

Meanwhile, my daughter sat completely absorbed as she took a tube of paint and squeezed it to make a short vertical drip on her T-shirt. Young children are more inclined to experiment with the mechanics of art materials than they are to conjure up a design. She chose another color and made another line on her shirt. Immersed in this process, she made one line after another, each with a different tube of paint.

She and I lingered, long after the other children, who had watched their parents paint designs on T-shirts, had left the table. There were just a few latecomers left. When my daughter finally finished she admired her work and said thoughtfully, “I’m an artist.”  “Yes, you are,” I replied. A parent across from us smiled at me in a conspiratorial and slightly demeaning way.

We hung the T-shirt up to dry and my daughter wanted to check on it twenty minutes later. At the end of the company picnic, she proudly took it home.

This event was a profound lesson for me, and it reinvigorated my belief that children are best left to direct their artistic endeavors. There is little reason for a child to be involved in an art project if it’s not produced by the child. When we well-meaningly demonstrate our own creative talents for our toddlers we risk making them feel incapable, discouraged and disinterested. Our children need to be trusted to participate, not only in art projects but in all the activities they encounter, to the furthest extent of their capabilities.

Jackie shared her success:

“Thank you for encouraging me to refrain from helping my very particular and easily frustrated daughter with her drawings. She just turned 3 and drew this dog this morning- and it’s amazing! So realistic and not a simple, “kiddy” style dog at all.”

why not draw for a child Jackie Asvig
You might ask, “What’s wrong with showing my child how to correctly use a paintbrush?” Well, it shortcuts her exploration, thus limiting her creativity, and ( if she is often shown how to play “correctly”) it may eventually erode her trust in herself,  her desire to be an active explorer, and her willingness and ability to work things out for herself. Children quickly come to look to adults to show them or tell them “the right way to play,” and even to do it for them.
 – Lisa Sunbury,”What Is Play?

More in Don’t Move the Muffin Tins by renowned educator Bev Bos


(Noelle and Jackie, thank you for allowing me to share your beautiful photos!)



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I’ve come here as I really need advice! I think what you say above is spot on, but wondered what I can do when it seems the damage is already done? Whenever I get crayons/pencils out for my 2yo daughter she says “don’t want to draw, I’m not good at it.” It breaks my heart! How can I encourage her to try drawing again?

    1. Ask her “If you were good at it, what would you draw? What colors would you use? What would it look like? Can you show me?”

    2. Kristin Mullen says:

      Something I have found in early childhood is the frustration with fine muscle control may be too much for her. Use blank pieces of paper where you do not have to stay in the line. Give her markers or paint and glue and as she explores and becomes confident in her creative side she may add crayons. For fine muscle control play with play doh, pick up small stones, string beads, etc

  2. Illuminating. So insightful. Thank you for sharing. I am learning so much from your blog and stories.

  3. My daughter always asks me to draw something or mold the play doh into something. I’ll say, why don’t you try but she wants me to do it. How do I get her to do it?

    1. I am experiencing the same thing with my 2.5 year old son. He wants daddy to draw a truck or a train because his father has some artistic talent so his drawings look more realistic. My son draws too, but always asks us to draw specific objects. How should we approach this to encourage our son?

  4. Thank you so much for such a wonderful article! I totally agree, as I remember bitterly school art projects which were taken over completely by my mom (a very creative person herself), but I was left feeling utterly incompetent and useless. The question that I have is… now that J am a mom myself I sometimes like to arrange “family paiting evenings”, just grabbing a brush and painting a little side by side with my kids. They watch me obviously, but mostly do their own things, I try to refrain from commenting as much as I can. Sometimes I embroider or fold paper or we are making Xmas garlands etc, and here I have to “teach”. I feel their original spark dies down quickly once I start explaining how-tos. Am I doing the right thing? How can I try being creative myself without becoming a “teacher”? Thank you.

  5. I don’t think Mozart became a musical genius because his parents left him to experiment by himself. He came from a very musical family, and saw his parents and siblings playing music all the time. We also model loads of other things for children: eating, dressing, manners. Why would something creative be any different?
    Sure, taking over the child’s art project and doing everything yourself does definitely defeat the point. But why not paint (or play music, or put on a puppet show, whatever), while also giving your toddler a chance to do the same themselves?

    1. I’m also curious about this, as an educator, often I will sit down with the children and draw with them. While I would never instruct them on how or what to draw, or even what materials to use, I have never hesitated to make art beside them. Often i’m able to engage a small group for longer and with more enjoyment and conversation when I myself am participating. Recently I was told that I shouldn’t be doing that, that drawing representationally demotivates the children, that drawing “better” than the children limits their creativity. It was explained to me that I should only be drawing to a standard that matches their abilities e.g. If children are still scribbling abstracts, then I should only be drawing abstractly. I’m not sure what the philosophy or intention is behind this? As an artist, I find it problematic.

  6. Jooyoung Kim says:

    Hi Janet,

    I feel like I made the biggest mistake of my life. My 20 month old a little a couple weeks ago loved doodling on paper. Then one day she asked me to draw her dad so I did without thinking about the consequences. Now she won’t draw and wants me to draw things for her. I’ve finally wised up to what I had done and been making efforts to encourage her to draw and she will become frustrated with herself for trying and mad at me for not drawing pictures for her. I don’t know how to undo what I had done. I wish I found this article beforehand. I look at videos of her just enjoying her drawings and I am so sadden by my innocent mistake. Please help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations