Nurturing Our Children’s Creativity

mother_daughter_art

words Sally Chung illustrations Amy Sihyeon Jeong

When we hear the word “art”, we often think of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night and hastily conclude that we aren’t skilled enough to do that kind of art. We draw a line and limit our creative potential as the imaginative and experimental individuals that we are meant to be. Somewhere in our transition to adulthood, we pick up a false notion that creativity is for the gifted and the gifted alone. As a result, we grow up into adults who have a limited and rigid understanding of what is “good” and “bad” art.

Maybe you began to think of yourself as not “creative” or “artistic” enough after a negative childhood experience. Perhaps it was that elementary art teacher who praised your friend’s artwork with enthusiastic statements such as, “Wow! That looks amazing!”, but passed you by with only a gentle nod and a reluctant smile, even though you were very proud of the sketch you made. Or, perhaps it was when you attempted to draw your favorite car for the first time, but a friend looked at it and laughed and asked, “What is that?”. Still, maybe it was the time when you received a C- on a new invention you made in science class that your teacher criticized as unoriginal. Whatever your story is, I’m sure that many others can empathize and agree that they too do not consider themselves as the artistic types.  

If we are not careful, our hurtful memories from the past can negatively impact–not only our own beliefs about our creative potential–but also the way we educate and care for children. We might find ourselves critiquing our children’s works just as our works were once judged as “good’’ or “bad’’. Or, we may resort to continuously praising children for their art by remarking, “ooh” or “wonderful” all the time.

However, in my training to become an art therapist, I realized that continuous praise is not the solution. Instead, to help nurture children’s creativity, we need to look beyond the surface and make an effort to connect with the deeper thoughts children have when creating art. As art therapists, we are trained to maintain a neutral stance towards our clients’ art. We try to approach their art with a sense of curiosity and allow our clients to explain their art because we are not the experts of their artwork–they are. Let me explain why superficial praise should be avoided with two cases from my previous art therapy sessions.

Too Many Disappointing Hearts

In my training, I practiced individual art therapy sessions at a child and family treatment center in Toronto Canada, where I worked with children who had low self-esteem and difficulty expressing feelings because they faced various challenges at home, such as family domestic violence.

One time, I worked with a child who was drawing a heart. When he finished drawing one heart, he looked extremely dissatisfied. He angrily scribbled a number of other hearts next to the first one, relentlessly trying to draw one that he was happy with. As an inexperienced art therapist in training, I did the exact opposite of what I was taught to do. I began to comfort him with words of affirmation, encouraging him that his drawings looked like hearts. In response, the child became unmotivated and anxious throughout the session.

Looking back, I have realized that it would have been better to affirm his feelings of disappointment of not being able to draw a heart in a particular way. Instead, I had failed to connect with and empathize with his feelings of disappointment.

More Than a Glittery Mom

Another time, I was paired with a girl who had experienced feelings of abandonment from her family, which formed challenges in her relationship with her mother. In one of my art therapy sessions with her, she began to write the word “MOM” with glue and sprinkled glitter all over it so it stuck to the paper, spelling out the word. At this point, I had been doing art therapy with this girl for a while and understood that the topic of her mother was sensitive. So, I cautiously observed her art-making process and asked inquisitive questions to facilitate self-reflection. The session ended positively and I learned the importance of allowing the child to guide the conversation about his/her art.

If instead, I had commented, “Wow! That’s so beautiful!” or “You must be really close with your mom!”, I would have missed the fact that her sparkly artwork is actually tied to complicated feelings about her family. These arbitrary comments would have turned a piece that holds such a deep meaning and story into a general piece of art merely labeled as ‘’pretty’’.

Hope in the Process

As you read these two case studies, you may be wondering: then, how are we to know that a piece of artwork that looks so bright and colorful may actually mean the complete opposite? How are we supposed to understand if we aren’t trained as art therapists? What should I say? To begin, we can work towards becoming a more quiet and unobtrusive observer who allows the child to explain their art in their own words. You may (and probably will) fail the first few times, just like myself–but don’t let those moments discourage you. If we practice asking unassuming questions and allowing the child to take the lead, your child will thrive as creative individuals who understand and practices the process of meaningful art making.

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