Samantha Rodman, advice columnist, answers what she believes is the best question she’s gotten yet.
Reader Damn Awesome Dad writes,
Hello Dr. Psych Mom. I’m amazed by how much I have learned from your posts. They have made me a much better communicator with my fiancé, and it’s a little easier to get her to explain to me where she is coming from.
Anyway, I’m writing to you because I have a question which you may be able to help me with. My three-year-old likes to draw, and her pictures are blowing everyone away. Trouble is, I am blind, and her drawings and paintings are not accessible to me. I’ve tried giving her Plato, but she doesn’t seem too overly interested in it. Right now she is using watercolors because, while she is talented, she is still messy, and we feel that at this point in time puff paint may be a disaster. So in the meantime, I would like to let her know that I support her and care that she succeeds with her art. Would you have any ideas as to how I can do this, despite not actually being able to see her pictures? I just want her to know that I am not disinterested in her art, just that unfortunately I cannot see it.
Thanks a ton for all your insight thus far.
This is the best question I have ever gotten on this site. It may also be the best question anyone ever asked, on any site. I would like to tell you that I felt very moved when reading your question, because it shows what an empathic, engaged, and loving father you are to your little girl. The fact that you care this much about connecting with your daughter is far more important than any words you could say about her drawings. When she is older, she will appreciate that you try so hard to see the world from her perspective. This question is the definition of empathy.
If you’re looking for concrete ways to convey your support and appreciation of your little artist in the here and now, though, don’t worry, there are lots of options. According to psychologists, the finished product of the artwork is the least important thing to appreciate and praise. In fact, research shows that praising your child’s ability (e.g., “you’re such a good writer”) or an outcome or final product (e.g. “good job getting an A on that paper”) is much less helpful than praising effort (e.g., “you worked so hard on that paper, I’m impressed”). This research is very heartening in your situation, because you can’t even comment on the final product, only on the effort! So you can say, “Wow, you have been coloring for so long, you really are working hard on that picture!” or “I like how you are thoughtful and choose just the right crayon you need.”
Other research shows that the most important thing to do when your child loves an activity is to show that you love seeing them love doing it. For example, college athletes’ favorite thing to hear their parents say is, “I love to watch you play.” And obviously this is a metaphorical “seeing” or “watching.” Your daughter will feel loved and supported from hearing you say how much you love that she loves creating art. You can say, “I love hearing you hum as you draw. I know you love drawing and you’re happy, and that makes me happy” or “I love sitting next to you while you draw pictures. I bet there are so many awesome ideas inside your head.”
Another way to bond with your daughter over her artwork is to let her explain it to you. I also have a preschooler who loves to draw, and she could explain her pictures all day long. A special activity might be you asking your daughter to draw or paint you a picture and then tell you what everything is. “Here is the sun, and there is the cow, and there is the other sun (she’s three, after all)….” This would probably be more fun for her than showing her picture to other people, who give it a quick look and say “good job.” You would be taking the time to listen to what she finds important about each picture and discussing it with her. “What color cow is it? Did you draw anything else next to the cow? Oh, a goat. That’s a good idea, now the cow has a friend.” My mother does this with my daughter over the phone, and she explains her pictures in detail to Grandma.
Children also love to hear “overheard” praise, so it would be nice to tell your fiancee, “Wow, do you know our daughter has been coloring for 20 minutes? What a hard worker. I can’t wait to hear what wonderful things are in her new picture.” If you work in an office, you can also take a picture with you to hang up, and report back to your three year old all the things that your coworkers say about it. You can also show all the pieces to other friends and family and say how you know all about what’s in it because your daughter told you. She would love to hear her pictures discussed with seriousness and appreciation, especially in front of other adults. In my house, we framed and hung some of my daughter’s artwork, and she is very proud of being a “real artist.”
As you alluded to by mentioning puff paint, there are other forms of art that you can certainly engage in with your daughter as she gets older, and some you can do now too. Playdough, making collages, making necklaces or bracelets out of macaroni strung on string, and so forth. (You’ll need to peruse some crafty mommy bloggers’ sites for more ideas than that, sorry.)
Your daughter is very lucky to have you as her father. It is very touching that you care enough about her emotional connection with you to ask this question, and you are very insightful to realize that if art is important to her, then it needs to be important to you. Not enough parents take a true and genuine interest in what is important to their child, and then are surprised when their child is defiant or uninterested in family activities. If you’re interested in your child and their likes and preferences and needs, you are showing them that they are important and worthy of respect and love, and also modeling for them how to act when you love someone. They will then act the same way with you and with others, both now and in their adult relationships. Kudos to you.
Originally published on DrPsychMom.com