Parents and Teachers

Building Character

Nurturing Creativity & the Arts

How to Talk to Your Kids (or Your Adults) about Their Art

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“Kids are not little adults. But they are professionals. Their job is to play, their job is to experiment, their job is to try different things.”

Chuck Jones (the guy who drew Bugs Bunny)


Why Do Art?

Practising art, as a child or as an adult, is a joyous activity that awakens our senses in the rest of our day-to-day life. A few of us may eventually become working artists. But there are many more benefits to be gained doing art.

  • self-esteem
  • manual dexterity & physical coordination
  • organization
  • self-discipline
  • creativity
  • risk-taking
  • problem-solving & decision-making
  • visualization & planning
  • spontaneity & responsiveness
  • a personal aesthetic
  • relaxation
  • communication
  • emotional expression
  • respect for the individuality of others . . . and oneself

What you say to your kids about art can either reinforce these goals . . . or undermine them dreadfully. Who doesn’t remember some devastating experience—in grade two, perhaps, with a well-meaning adult who “corrected” your painting because “trees have to be green, dear”?

Five Tips on Talking to Your Kids about Their Art

1) “Right” or “Wrong” applies only to the use of tools & materials, not to the artwork or subject matter.

Creative folks try to practice divergent thinking (where we get lots of different answers and ideas) instead of convergent thinking (where we're trying to conform by arriving at the one correct answer). It’s usually a good thing when your kids’ paintings don’t look like any of the others in the class. P.S. Give them more blank paper, fewer colouring books.

2) Focus on the process, not the product.

What you’re trying to do is feed back their explorations to them—being neither too critical nor too gushy—and leave lots of room in the conversation for them to talk, too. What they think about their artwork is more important than what you or I think.

What you’re trying not to do is impose adult standards on kids’ work. You probably know, from your own childhood experience, that the most crushing thing you can say is “What is it?”

3) Let your kids decide which works are the best for display.

Sure, you may save everything (dated) in a box so you can look back on their progress, but you obviously can’t show it all off. The latest work can go on the fridge door. Then buy a clip frame (easy to change the artwork) and encourage your kids to select their favourite of the month to decorate the front hall. Doing art is one of the only opportunities kids have in their week to exercise, explore and develop their own judgement. At the easel, they're in charge of what’s right, what’s best, what’s next. Instead of learning and conforming to an external adult standard of excellence, they’re discovering their own.

4) Don’t over-praise.

If you gush all the time, your kids stop valuing your praise and may eventually doubt that anything they do is praiseworthy.

5) Praise them for doing, not being.

Focus your praise on the work accomplished, not on your kids’ innate brilliance. (“What a great idea!” or “You really worked hard on this painting!” rather than “You're so clever.”) Get it? Kids who are rewarded for “doing” (working hard and making progress) continue to thrive. Kids who are congratulated for “being” smart—or artistic or imaginative—often start playing it safe to protect their image.

What NOT to Say . . .

Even “Tell me about your painting” can embarrass young or non-verbal kids. For example, here are some of the most notorious things never to say to an artist of any age or experience.

“What is it?”
“Is it done yet?”
“Who ever heard of a green cat?”
“Next time, try to be tidier.”
“Let me do it for you.”
Honourable mention goes to the great classic, “It’s so . . . interesting.”

What to Say . . .

> Focus praise on the effort, not the product. For example:

“How did you do this?”
“You seemed to be having fun.”
“You were really concentrating.”
“What an interesting way to use the brush.”

> Talk about the shapes, colours and marks you see. For example:

“What I notice first about your drawing is . . .”
“What I like most about this is . . .”
“Isn’t it interesting how you've used lots of . . .”

> Promote self-evaluation. For example:

“Have you put in everything you want to show about the subject?”
“Do all the parts of the picture look like they belong together?”
“Which of your paintings from today do you like best, and why?”

> Encourage effort, enjoyment, and risk-taking. For example:

“It’s fun to try it different ways.”
“We learn a lot from our mistakes.”
“Can you think of other ways to use this tool?”
“Let’s try anyway.”
“It’s okay to get dirty.”
“I’m proud of you when you try hard things.”

What to Read . . .

I am especially indebted to Peggy Jenkins for most of the suggestions on “What to say.”

Doing Art Together, by Muriel Silberstein-Storfer with Mablen Jones

Art for the Fun of It: A Guide for Teaching Young Children, by Peggy Davison Jenkins (originally published as Art Principles and Practices)  

The Creative Spirit, by Goleman, Kaufman & Ray
(especially Chapter 2—“Creativity in Children”)

I'm not a fan of Mona Brookes’s Drawing with Children.

You are the first art teacher your kids ever know.

Your interest and informed praise contribute daily to your kids’ creative development.

My own parents never studied art or teaching. (My mother says she was actually excused from grade five art because it was too damaging to her self-esteem.) But Mummy always got the movers to leave behind big heaps of the blank newsprint paper they used to wrap our dishes, and she never bought me colouring books. Daddy said, “Of course you can learn to run a jigsaw” and everybody said it was okay to get dirty. I thank them every chance I get.

Linda Carson (@lccarson) grew up in Canada as an Air Force brat, studied math then went to art school. After teaching art for several years, Linda went back to school to figure out how we learn to draw. Since earning her PhD, she teaches drawing, colour theory and perceptual psychology at the University of Waterloo. She also consults to a Canadian design thinking firm, Overlap Associates, blogs at and maintains just enough of a studio practice to keep her eyes and hands in shape.

Updated on 10.01.15