Parenting an artist

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” — Pablo Picasso

Young children know they are artists. Give them a pencil, and they’ll draw. Play music, and they’ll dance and sing. Forget the music. They’ll dance and sing anyway. Give them an instrument, and they’ll play you a tune — most likely an original composition. Children do not doubt their artistic ability. They are uninhibited by social definitions of art and the evaluative process. They exhibit the fundamental human drive to create, to discover, to express themselves, to share what they have come to know, to tell their story. That is the purpose of art — to communicate and connect with others.

Unfortunately, by the age of 9, the artist has been socialized out of many children. Perhaps, more accurately, he have learned to doubt or mistrust the artist within. He begins to believe, “I can’t do that.” “I’m not good at that.” “That’s not for boys [or girls].”

However, for some children, the desire to create is more powerful than social pressure to stifle their talents. For those of us parenting these children, there are steps we can take to insure that our young artists achieve their full potential:

Recognize your child’s gifts. If your child wakes up singing; dances rather than walks; draws on every scrap of paper he find; can play a tune by ear; enjoys making up stories; or creates costumes and stages plays — chances are you have an artistically gifted child. These children are often talented in more than one area. Help them discover and explore all of their gifts.

Demonstrate your approval of and appreciation for their abilities. Provide them with the materials they need to create. Take the time to be an audience when they want to sing, dance or play for you. Display their artwork. Offer to write down their stories. Help with costumes or sets for their productions. Let them know that you value what they are doing.

Look for opportunities that will motivate them to improve their skills. Arrange for classes or private lessons. Involve your child in school or community art groups and activities. Attend exhibits, concerts, productions, and museums.

Emphasize the importance of discipline. Provide outlets for your child’s artistic energy but make it clear when and where this is appropriate. Build practice into his daily routine. Set reasonable expectations based on age.

Teach him to be his own best critic. Be an enthusiastic, but honest, audience. Show appreciation for effort, recognize progress, but also help him identify areas for improvement. Avoid being either overly critical or overly complimentary. It is important for him to learn to discriminate between excellence and mediocrity in his work.

Avoid unnecessary competition. Encourage your child to strive for his best, not the best. He can be the former every day of his life. He can waste his life away trying to be the latter. There is no such thing as objectivity in art. It is by its very nature subjective.

Encourage them to share their gifts. Participating in the creative process enriches the life of the artist. Sharing that which has been created enriches the lives of others.

Support the arts. Become an advocate, not only for your young artist, but for the arts in general.

Research consistently demonstrates that participation in the arts improves everything from attitudes to academic performance to health and well being. In short, art has the potential to bring out the best in us. Perhaps, Terry Semel, chairman of Warner Brothers, said it best: “Kids who create don’t destroy.”

Reasoning, decision-making, creative and critical thinking, problem solving, visualizing, communication, and collaboration have all been identified as keys to success in the 21st century. Enhancement of these skills is a direct outcome of participation in the arts. When we nurture the artist in our children, we are investing in their future success.

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Kentucky. She has degrees in Child Development, Family Studies, and Marriage and Family Therapy. She spent 15 years in various agencies and clinics as a family therapist and parent educator. She has written extensively on the topic of parenting. After six years as Arts Facilitator for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, she chose to return to her favorite place of employment — home. Her son, Douglas, 24, is now based in New York City when he is not on the road performing. He is an actor, singer, musician, dancer, writer, and visual artist. Joseph, 14, is a freshman theatre major at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts who also sings, dances, plays piano, and creates visual art.

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