I wanted to put together a rough guide for parents of artsy children, to hopefully help everyone thrive a little more.
I realize this is going to be one of those uncomfortable blog posts, because I’m basically telling other people how to raise their kids. But I believe that as someone who is 1) An Artist and 2) Was Once a Child, I am qualified to write it!
Here are some definite DON’Ts for those raising little creators, followed by some DO’s!
DON'T put them on a pedestal.
I was a pretty talented kid. Some might have even called me an art prodigy. I loved art; I did it all the time, and I was good at it.
Something that I heard all the time from people was that I was going to be massively famous one day and all my childhood drawings would be worth millions, so they were going to hang onto them as "investments." I don't know if these people were just trying to be encouraging, or if they thought this was actually how the world worked. But as a kid, I was picturing my sketches of weird knobbly-legged ponies being auctioned off one day to avid buyers. I started perfecting my artist's signature and signed ALL of my doodles.
In a way, it was nice; it helped solidify my belief that I was an artist and that I could do great things one day, but looking back, I wish people had been more real with me. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.
Just because a kid is talented does not mean they will be successful, and making them think that their future is secured by their inherent ability is just going to hurt them in the long run.
Post script on this one: DO brag about your child. DO get excited about their future. But DON'T lie to them or make them think they are the world's greatest artist, because when they realize that they aren't, it's going to be a pretty good slap to the face, maybe even hard enough to make them stop altogether.
DON'T drive them into more "financially safe" career choices.
This one really fires me up. Long gone are the days when artists needed to make it into galleries in order to make a living. LONG gone. Yet society is still stuck on this "starving artist" myth, and everyone grows up believing that most artists live in poverty to the end of their days. So when a child shows artistic tendencies, they are met with a barrage of cautionary tales, discouragement, and suggestions of other careers with a higher median income.
Here is the truth: today, most artists sell art independently of galleries and art dealers, and they do it using the Internet. Your kid is familiar with the Internet, right? It is more possible than ever to make art & sell art and earn a living. In fact, it is SO doable, that many people are actually quitting their day jobs to do the thing they were passionate about all along - art.
I almost typed the word "easy" but went back and reworded myself; it is definitely not easy. Like all jobs, success takes hard work and resilience. And persistence to the max.
So instead of telling your child they should become an engineer because "engineers make more money," teach your child that pursuing their passions is a worthwhile gig. If they really want to be an artist, they will be able to bring the bacon home. I promise.
DON'T tell them what sort of art they should make.
This starts as a well-meaning comment; after all, what are parents for if not to give advice to their kids? You want your child to be successful. You want to help get them there. You see their art, and you have opinions about it, just like everybody has opinions about any art, ever. So you say something like, "You should make it more XYZ, like the art that gets sold in Deseret Book. That's it! That's what you could do for a living."
Look, you're a great parent and a super smart adult that knows lots of adult stuff. But chances are you have a really, REALLY limited understanding of the art world. When you tell your child what their art should be like, not only are you trying to fit them into a box that they may not fit into at all, but you are frustrating them by not understanding that they are their own person, not someone else.
Let your child create whatever they feel like creating! They are still developing the ability to express themselves, so they will not be able to turn and look at you and say, "Mom, I know you think LDS Deseret Book art is the only art that ever sells, but you're wrong about that, and contemporary abstracts are really more my thing." They don't know exactly what they want to do yet, but they know what they like. So just let them experiment in peace.
Post-script on this one: feel free to introduce them to other artists and ideas that they might not have come across otherwise. Open their minds to new possibilities! But MAKE SURE THEY KNOW that you appreciate them for exactly who they are and what they create, and that there is no expectation for them to become like any other artist.
DON'T make them feel like art supplies are too expensive to be used.
I still remember the art supplies I received as birthday gifts growing up, and how afraid I was to paint on the watercolor paper. We were definitely taught the value of things in my family; we were not wealthy by any means. And somehow, I got it in my head that because a sheet of watercolor paper cost more than a sheet of regular printer paper, then ruining it with a mediocre painting was nothing short of a tragedy. My expectations for myself were ridiculously high.
I didn't want to make a bad painting on a piece of watercolor paper, because I was afraid that if I "wasted" the paper, my mom would never buy me any more. I mean, it makes sense; if I waste an entire bag of M&M's by dropping them into the toilet one by one, is my mom going to run out and buy me another bag? Laughable.
Of course, I never voiced these fears; if I had, my mom would have told me that it didn't matter if I messed up. She would have been happy to buy me more paper if I ran out.
Kids don't always talk about the things on their mind, so keep this possibility tucked away to help you understand why your child seems reluctant to make more art.
Buy your child art supplies. Buy supplies appropriate for their age and according to their interests. If you have no idea what to buy, ask a real artist. Then (and this is so important), encourage your child to use them up. You can't improve without practice! Make bad paintings! Do weird stuff! Use up all that paper, and then go buy more. A pad of watercolor paper is really not that expensive. Be thankful it's not football equipment.
DON'T force them to finish what they've started.
They're called "the formative years" for a reason. Your child is growing and becoming who they were meant to be, and that includes their art. They are going to start lots and lots of paintings and projects. Some will be absolutely ginormous. Some will not make sense to you. And there will be things that your child will start doing that will blow your socks off. So be prepared to be disappointed when they lose interest and stop.
Naturally, we want our children to finish the things they start, like bananas and books and all that good stuff. But with infinite artistic possibilities in front of them and absolutely no idea what they're going to enjoy or not enjoy, your child is going to start a lot of different things before realizing they hate them. Or they'll pursue something for a while but will just lose steam and let it die. And that's okay. Don't nag them about it.
DO offer light criticism and feedback.
You might not know anything about art. You might recognize that you don't know anything, and that keeps you from making any specific comments about the art that your child creates. You just keep saying, "Wow! That's amazing!" over and over again like a broken record.
Here's how to talk about your child's art: Make observations, ask questions, and refrain from sharing your own opinions and feelings too heavily. Take a good look at the artwork and point out something that you notice. "You spent a long time on the hair." "The pink really pops and catches my attention." "You chose just a few colors to say what you wanted to say."
Keep your comments light and objective to avoid offending your child. Ask open ended questions like "What inspired this?" and try to get them talking about it. Know that they won't always love the things they do; they might feel self-conscious about the art, and might just be showing you to gauge your reaction to it.
Instead of pouring out your own feelings about it right away, try to figure out how they feel about it first. Let them know it's okay to create something they're not proud of and that they can learn from it.
If you find that probing your child about their art gets under their skin, then do it less. Some kids just want acknowledgement, not commentary or criticism.
DO encourage them when they fail.
Like I alluded to in the previous paragraphs, all artists make some art that they hate and some art that they don't hate. The most successful artists make enough bad paintings to start a bonfire. Bad art is a good sign! It means your child is learning and getting better.
Help your child bounce back from a bad painting or drawing by asking them what they learned from it. Then laugh about it together.
DO help them make time for their art.
This one is easier said than done. All families have chores that need doing. All kids have responsibilities, and probably a mountain of homework too. And creativity strikes at the most random (and sometimes, the most inconvenient) of times.
If your child is able to balance school and home duties and their creative time without too many hiccups, congratulations. Your child is actually a unicorn.
For most children who are vibrantly creative, managing these spurts of creative energy in responsible ways is a challenge. I remember being incredibly discouraged that my life did not seem to be in harmony with my creative wanderings.
What would have helped me was a different brand of education - unschooling. But I will NOT open that can of worms in this blog post! I will sum up my maelstrom of feelings and opinions by stating that, in a perfect world, every child would be unschooled and would be given the chance to put their passions first. The world needs more people in it who have developed the ability to work hard because they enjoy the work.
DO provide them with opportunities and challenges.
Keep an eye out for local art fairs. Encourage your child to enter their best piece. Praise their vulnerability. Maybe they’ll win a ribbon. Maybe they won’t. It’ll stretch and mature them to walk around the room and look at all the other art that was entered.
Jump at any opportunity for your child to try their talents on a new front, such as designing and painting a mural, doing window art for restaurants, or illustrating a children’s book. If they do well, awesome! If they don’t do well, they learn more about themselves.
I was offered a chance to illustrate a book during my sophomore year of high school. At first I was ecstatic; I always wanted to end up on a bookshelf one day, and I couldn’t wait to see my name in print. Fast forward three weeks - I. HATED. EVERY. SECOND. And guess what - I quit! I was grateful for the experience because I learned the very important truth about myself that I am very picky about what I use my talents on. I have to be enchanted by what I do, otherwise it’s just not sustainable for me.
You can show your child so much love by learning about their interests and believing in them.
The very fact that you have read all the way to the end of this post shows that you are the kind of parent that every child deserves.
And congratulations on having a creative child! The life of an artist (and their family and friends) is vibrant, exciting, and filled with wonder. AND SO MANY TRIPS TO HOBBY LOBBY.
All my love,