I love when people reach out to ask important questions. I received this one the other day:
Any advice for a child who struggles when his art isn’t perfect and he gets upset? My son gets easily frustrated and will crumple the paper and give up. I’m working on resiliency/frustration tolerance overall, but I wondered if you had any tips for helping children embrace the “imperfection” of art.
My kiddos do and have done this too! Even when we think they’re past it, the Gremlin rears its ugly head and makes these sweet little Creatives doubt themselves. It happens to the best of us … even as adults!
And for kids? It’s totally normal because they’re getting an overload of feelings as they try to process what’s “in here” (imagination) and what’s “out there” (coming through their hand and onto the paper).
I don’t have a quick fix, and it may not feel like it’s paying off in the moment, and focusing on resiliency and emotional regulation is absolutely key to overcoming this Gremlin.
But, here are 5 ways to help the struggling, frustrated, creative kid in your life:
- In the heat of the moment, it’s time for a forced break. With our little guys, we give them a forced break when they want to keep going but are so mad that it’s a spiral, and then talk about it after. Our 4 year old seems to do better at that point and then sits next to us while we use our calmest voices (so unnatural, amiright?!) to coach him through and celebrate small wins.
- What made the biggest difference for my oldest son was when it finally clicked that if he looked for shapes, he could draw pretty much anything he wanted to. I think he was about 4, and he was trying to draw a bear because I was drawing a bear. He was so frustrated, so I pulled out a paper and showed him how I used shapes to make the main Drawing. (Note: I didn’t show him by saying, “This is how you draw a bear.” I showed him how I draw, using shapes, and encouraged him to look for shapes, too. With our second son, when he was angry that he couldn’t seem to draw his stuffed Bunny, we sat her in front of us and found the shapes. He was so proud of his work when he was finished.) After a few tries, a light bulb went off. He hasn’t stopped drawing since.
- Celebrate the small wins. When they’re frustrated and upset, they need to gain some momentum. “I love how you made that line so curly!” or “These colours are really beautiful!” are often enough to make them feel good about their skills and choices, and to encourage them to keep going (without saying, “Keep going! Keep going!”)
- With the parts of art they don’t like, that “failed” or didn’t work out the way they’d wanted, one key skill is pointing out what works. “I know you’re not happy with this, but look at how great the eyes are! If you could make these eyes again on a different head, I bet it would look more the way you wanted!” This, in time, will help to become their inner dialogue, and they will start to provide their own feedback after a while. (And spoiler alert: that’s gonna help them in school, and to just take feedback and use it effectively as overwhelmingly great humans in the future! We could use more humans who can take feedback.)
- Read Ish by Peter Reynolds if you haven’t yet — or haven’t in a while. It doesn’t really matter how old your kid is, because this is such a great story that it even inspires 35 year old ME, and I’ve read it with kids in grades five and six, while it’s being read down the hall in kindergarten. While you read, you can point out how imperfect the art is in this book. Frankly, most picture books that really speak to us has a wonderfully imperfect style – like Oliver Jeffers and the illustrations done in Roald Dahl’s stories by Quentin Blake.)
… and here’s one more.
- Your frustrated, creative kid might get something out of hearing it from someone else too. Here’s a video I made: https://youtu.be/D4aPE9WjT1c
I hope you’ll try one of these out, and let me know how it’s going!