Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why I no longer draw with my children


So many children are easily discouraged about their creative abilities. Even my own.

I first realised this while drawing. I love to draw, but for all my resolutions, I rarely make the time to do it. Every now and then, however, when my kids were drawing and I had a few minutes, I would sit down at the end of the table, pull over a piece of paper, and begin to sketch. Within minutes they would stop, every time; and it took me years to notice.

Why are you stopping? I'd ask.

Because I can’t draw, they'd say.

And so I'd say useless things like, We all draw differently just as we all have different singing voices; what you’re doing is fantastic; and if you’re looking at mine you need to remember I’ve had 30 years’ more practice. But it was too late; they’d have shoved the paper away by then.

Worse still, they might then ask me to draw an elephant or whatever, because they ‘couldn’t’. Sometimes I did, but then I felt like I’d failed them; sometimes I didn’t, and they made me feel so mean. Yet I couldn't see how me doing their drawing helped them to develop a style or build confidence, so I finally solved the problem by refusing to draw with them at all.

I ran into a similar issue at school. I read and write with school kids in a one on one program. During first semester of this year, I thought we could play with journaling. Each week I read out a story, we asked wondering questions, then we sat side by side writing a response to the questions raised by the story. And week after week, despite the constraints of shaping my handwriting to Victorian standard cursive, I’d still fall into my own little world and get lost in a story; and the kid would look over at some stage and sigh. Yes? I’d say, Would you like to share what you’ve done?

Nah, the kid would say; and then sometimes they’d exclaim that they couldn’t write. No matter what I said, and no matter how much praise I lavished on them, if the kid looked at my page of neat handwriting, discouragement would set in. Yet I was so desperate to write with anyone, even a seven year old, that it took me a while to realise what was happening.

Finally, I began to wonder about how I related to people who were ‘better’ than me. I have a very competitive streak, held firmly in check, and so I have always found it difficult to make friends with people who are smarter / more qualified / better at everything. Because I know this about myself and have worked on it for years, most of my friends are indeed smarter / more qualified / better at everything and my life has been enormously enriched by this; but it has taken me a long time to get to this place.

Even now, I struggle to go out on a limb in front of anyone except a child. I can write, sketch, sing loudly and do a dance if there’s a child needing to be drawn out; but never, never for an adult. I wouldn’t want to draw in front of a ‘real’ artist or write in front of a ‘real’ writer, so how could I expect a child to?

So I began opting out at school just as I did at home. Because I hate the idea of sitting there idly or, worse, watching, while a kid dreams and writes awhile, I take in the cryptic crossword. Now we do the reading and wondering together, then the kid is cut loose to respond while I scratch my head and fill in a few clues. They glance over from time to time and see my pathetic scratchings, and the mistakes crossed out, and all the empty boxes, and grin to themselves, then stick their nose back into their own story. At the end of the session my puzzle is still only a quarter filled in while their story, about something in which they are the only expert, is an accomplished piece: something to be really proud of; and the only one left feeling like an idiot is, very happily, me.

PS - I came across this piece on *not* drawing for children; it clearly articulates that towards which I am fumbling.

Pictures show my oldest daughter's portrait of 'Sam' from Sam and the Tigers, a gorgeous Black reclamation of the story of Little Black Sambo by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney, drawn when she was three; and a spinning top, which she drew at 8 - the things she gets up to when I'm not looking!

Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo

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