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"Wow! What a picture!" - How to skilfully respond to children's artwork

I can’t imagine there are many of us that have not been presented, at some stage or another, with a piece of artwork from a child and had that internal panic of “O gosh, what is it? “Or worse, we tell them how lovely we think it is and are then left mortified as the creator quietly explains that no, it isn’t their mummy, it’s actually a cat riding on a unicorn and by the way, we are holding it upside down.

As adults, there is often a well-meaning intention to prove to the child offering us their masterpiece, that we can see exactly what it is immediately, with the thought that if we can’t, we may damage their confidence and potentially ruin an artist in the making.

Take a breath; here's the good news: you don’t need to know what "it" is, and in fact, not knowing could actually be the start to developing a better relationship with this child and improving your shared communication.

Here are 4 tips and hints to show you why you don’t need to guess what they’ve drawn and how with just a few tiny language tweaks, you can respond in a way that will encourage positive internal growth for you both!

1. Seeing is enough

When a child shows you their art work, often, they are trying to communicate some or all of these three things:

“See me.”,"I want to communicate something to you." and "I'm looking for your approval." Sharing their work with you is like sharing a little piece of themselves. It comes with risks of criticism and rejection so it's very a brave thing to do. Part of developing a Secure Attachment in a child is giving them the validation they need to feel seen, understood, safe and secure in themselves. As part of this development, children will often look to the adults in their lives for reassurance during challenges and to celebrate successes. Presenting artwork to these adults is a way for children to gauge how worthwhile their offerings are and therefore, how worthwhile they are by extension.

To show a child you have seen them, acknowledge their process rather than the final product first. You could show them you noticed their enthusiasm as they worked, their focus, attention to detail or choice of colours to let them know that they, and their contributions have been witnessed without judgement. Stating facts says “I see what you have done and how you have done it. (I see you.)” without judgement. Try using phrases like, “I can see that you have…” and “It seems like you were…” to focus your attention on what you observed and how their experience looked to you so they can feedback if they choose.

Here are some examples:

“I can see you were really focused on finishing this piece.”

“It looks like you were really keen to use bright colours here.”

“You filled the whole page.” Or “ You decided to draw your picture in the corner.”

While none of these are questions, they leave the door open for the child to confirm, deny or expand on their process if they want to.

Giving consistent, non-judgemental validation will strengthen your child's attachment, and build their own confidence in their abilities, making them more self-reliant and Securely attached.

2.Art is communication

For some children, drawing a picture for their teacher, parent, carer etc is a way of conveying positive attachment: a gift from them to you. It may be an opportunity for them to start a conversation with you about a topic they are invested in like their weekend, holiday or hobbies to develop the connection you already have. For some, this could actually be the start of a communication about something painful, that they need to share with an adult they trust. Because we don't know what message they are trying to send us, receiving the work carefully is really important.

Mistakenly telling a child how lovely a picture is before knowing the content, could signal to them that you don’t understand or their pain is misplaced, and cause them to retreat.

Try using phrases like, “You’ve drawn a picture, would you like to tell me what it’s about?” or “This is your drawing, does it have a title?” to open up the conversation without judgement.

3. Alter your perspective

How we receive artwork can really set the tone for a child's perception of Self. How we view their work can become an extension of how the child views themselves; so if we see errors, unfinished aspects or illogical creations that don't fit with reality and point them out as flaws, rather than being curious about the child's creative choices, they can begin to question their choices internally.

So ask yourself,"What really is important?" Is it vital that they stayed in the lines or is it more important that they enjoyed the experience of putting colour on the page and expressing themselves with energy and bold choices? Highlighting this experience non-judgmentally offers a perspective for both thoughts without prioritising either. For example,"Wow! This looks so full of energy!"

Appreciating the work as is, can build confidence in children immediately and strengthen your relationship, as they come to see you as someone who can look beyond the curriculum and expected developmental milestones.

Respecting the composition is also important. Rather than suggesting it's unfinished or needs more added to it, try asking, “Is there anything you would like to add?” If it's a no, then celebrate that their work is complete.

4. Not every artist is an exhibitor

There is an assumption when we are presented with art that we should put it up on the board, the fridge or our desk for display, but some children may have created it for your eyes only. Instead of pinning it straight up, give the child a choice and try saying,” Thank you for this picture. Is it for everyone to see or just me?"When you have that answer, you can make an informed decision about where to put it or store it safely.

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