Updated: Apr 28
Of all art forms, I believe that drawing is the one that most young children move toward most naturally. Almost all young children will take up drawing with relative ease and freedom, and it remains this way for children until they experience criticism. Then they may become less enthusiastic and less likely to express things through their drawings. The child almost always starts with a free, creative mind, and then they learn to have a critical mind.
This is natural and really, there is no avoiding the experience of the critical mind. The question is whether or not we can develop a drawing practice that helps the child find a creative mind that resists the temptations to be critical. It is the adult's task to help the child navigate this emotional dilemma. I say dilemma because on the one hand we don't want children to experience negative emotions due to criticism and/or comparison. At the same time, we do want them to continue practicing various art forms. Not only do these various artistic practices offer a wider range of potential expression for the growing human being, they also enhance the learning process, more fully activating, developing, and protecting the neural potential of the growing child than only academic memorization and rote practice.
The parent finds that there is no avoiding the experiences. There is only how we help a child through it. I believe there are two important moments on this path of drawing and, if we can guide them through both moments consciously, then we give them the best chance of passing through this challenge and learning from it.
Drawing is an artistic expression, using a medium that renders the three dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface, such as a piece of paper. (We are not going to consider abstract art in this article about drawing with children.) The medium might be monochromatic (one color) or polychromatic (multi-colored). Homo sapiens have been drawing since at least 73,000 years ago, as evinced by cave drawings in the Blombos Cave of South Africa. So, it is an artistic practice that we come to quite naturally as human beings. In Australia, there are over one million drawings and carvings into stone of the flora and fauna. So, not only do we come to it naturally, but we naturally do it over and over.
This is the first lesson that we can learn in our dealing with the critical mind. If we hold a destination-mentality, then our children will learn to do the same. In other words, if we are constantly thinking that we will do "the" drawing, then we are thinking of an end-result. How often we think that we will draw, let's say, a flower. Look into your own mind and see which of these you actually hold. Do you picture one drawing of a flower to be done, and hopefully done really well? Or do you envision many drawings of that flower done over and over and over?
The first is destination-mentality. We want to draw a flower. We draw it. Then we typically judge it. If we are not pleased, there is a chance we decide that flowers are too difficult or, much worse, we conclude that we are not good at drawing flowers.
The second option is a journey-mentality. We surrender to the process. We accept that we have an ideal in mind and we will keep striving toward it many times, perhaps hundreds of times, with the confidence and trust that we are growing and learning with each attempt. How fortunate is that young person whose parents and teachers can impart this kind of mindset and approach!
There is a story from Zen Buddhism about a Buddhist monk who devoted himself throughout his long life to painting grass. No flowers, no animals, no humans, and no sweeping landscapes. Only grass. Only grass for decades. When the elder monk was lying upon his deathbed, one of his disciples asked him: "Master, do you wish you had drawn more than grass?" The master smiled and said, "No, for I have drawn the hem of heaven!"
Whether or not this story is historical fact or fiction, it gives us a portrayal of the mindset of surrendering to the process, of living in every present moment of the journey without concern for the journey's end.
Because drawing is something so natural for children, it offers us a chance to foster this kind of attitude in the young human being. Of course, our words will be of little consequence until we learn to embrace such an attitude ourselves. So, this is the first "moment" we can embrace. Whenever we draw, and especially when we draw with children, we embrace the moment with an open heart, with a playfulness. We do our best and enjoy the opportunity to do so, like the monk who joyfully believed each day that he was drawing the hem of heaven.
The second "moment" comes at the moment of the drawing's completion. It is the moment of reflection. Certainly, throughout the process, the critical mind was tempting us to fall into it. This temptation grows even stronger when we feel that the drawing is complete, for at that point, there is little-to-nothing we can do to change it. Now the inner critic wants to pounce upon the mistakes and imperfections. Without our help, most children will fall prey to this mind. They will judge their own attempts and they will likely compare their attempts to those of others. It happens to most children by the 9th year of life, if not before.
So, what can we do? I like to offer them another mindset. Instead of asking a child the typical questions such as "What do you like about this drawing?" and such, I ask them questions that pull them into their feelings rather than their minds.
I begin with "choice" questions.
Does this drawing make you feel more thirsty or more hungry?
Does this drawing make you feel more like flying or being able to breathe underwater?
Then I open it up to more options, but still based on what the child feels.
Which part of this drawing would you like to live in?
Which color would you like to have as a cape?
And so on. If I do this repeatedly, then I am building a very different habit in the child's mind and soul. Rather than allow the critical mind to put in roots, I grow a different kind of practice. We imagine all sorts of things in relation to the drawing, possibilities that do not fall into good/bad, right/wrong, better/worse, etc.
Obviously, when this becomes a habit, the child is more likely to refrain from the critical mind in other parts of life. The child learns to embrace the repeated process, experiencing the learning that happens along the way. The child also learns to reflect on things more broadly, making associations that are not obvious and linear. Whether such a child becomes a professional artist, a doctor, or a rocket scientist, having this kind of thinking as a part of their repertoire of skillsets will always be an asset.