To create a magical context that fosters spontaneous inspiration and self-expression, parents and teachers need to become aware of possible intrusions into children's joyful processes. Commenting on children's paintings is extremely delicate and can be unknowingly threatening to a child.
It may not seem like it because these questions can feel natural, but here are the three basic intrusions to children's creativity:
Asking a child: "What did you paint?"
Asking a child: "Why did you paint that?"
Asking a child: "Tell me something about your painting."
Asking a child, "What is it?" is comparable to saying to the child: "I can't figure out what you tried to paint. Because I can't figure it out, it does not really work. You have failed in your representation." Children do not know that you cannot recognize what they created; to them their images are obvious and accurate. They naturally do not judge their work unless they have been conditioned to do it. The question "What is it?" always disappoints and saddens children, who later try to avoid such remarks by painting what is expected and by trying to reproduce images exactly, losing the joy and freedom to feel and invent. Although you may have good intentions, the question "What is it?" shows a lack of respect for the children's world. Your demand to label what they do instead of observe and appreciate is perceived as a denial of their reality.
Asking a child, "Why?" is very disturbing to the child. Children, being spontaneous, move through images as if in their dream world, flowing with the current of inspiration. In the truthfulness of their response to intuition they paint things they cannot explain. They paint what they could not express in words. For example, when Cathy's mother asked her, "Why didn't you paint a neck on the little girl?" Cathy could not give her a good reason and felt very bad. She just said in a pitiful tone, "I forgot." She had not painted necks on her people since she joined my class. It was her way of expressing her feelings about the body. She was naturally responding to her intuition, which is an integrative and harmonizing force. When her mother came to the studio and asked Cathy in a disturbed voice, "Why is it missing?" she took away her daughter's confidence in her spontaneous expression and with it stopped the natural evolution of her process. She set a barrier to Cathy's creative path by giving her the message that her intuition was not trustworthy.
Asking a child "Tell me" is asking a child to leave the nonverbal world so full of the potential of expression and to go into his or her head to satisfy the adult. It is a major interruption in the child's creative flow. Freedom, mystery, and spontaneous exploration are lost instantly. That question tempts the child to give adults what they want. Children will often make up stories to please adults and, sadly, abandon the adventurous process of their creation.
When children are truly ready because creativity has helped them move through their feelings, and when they want to talk, they will do so spontaneously. Parents and teachers cannot gain trust or find valid information by asking children those three questions about their paintings because:
- Whatever children paint is often not directly related to what is going on in their lives.
- What is most important about the painting is hidden to the child.
- What the child expresses CANNOT be told in words.
- The process of creation affects the child more than the images and scenes that are coming out of it.
Children are more likely to open when we do not intrude in their work and keep a safe and understanding atmosphere. Often, when children share about their lives, their confidences are not directly related to the painted images, yet that unsolicited contact is always significant and gives us a springboard to being with them in a more intimate way.
Parents and teachers can support children best by allowing the nonverbal expression of creativity, with its mystery and privacy. In the following pages, you will find ideas and pointers to help you respond in the most efficient way when the situation seems to call for the What, Why, and Tell Me.