From the Archive: Want Artistic Children? Show ‘Em How

Gabriel's_self_portrait_Cropped Gabriel's Self-Portrait, detail

Mark Vickery has some solid observations about creativity and parenting and Esthetic Lens felt now would be a good time to pull this article from the archives. In the pandemic state that we have all been living in this past year, we have all been a lot closer to one another at home and having to find different ways to keep ourselves and our children actively engaged. There is some very direct and sage advice about setting a good creative example for your children to help connect with them on a more meaningful level.

If you’re raising a family these days, you already know this to be true: your life is largely an exercise in logistics management. Because we naturally want to give our kids “more than we had growing up,” instead of letting them rot their brains with passive entertainment we engage them in a variety of programs, workshops and other extracurricular activities.

Halloween Art, 7-year-old

These choices obviously say a lot about the kids we’re raising, but they say arguably more about us as parents. After all, these kids are not only “of us” but reflections of ourselves, as well. If we want them to excel in athletics (whether or not we were ever good at sports ourselves), we’ll be signing them up for activities that are largely sports-based. Other parents are interested in enhancing their kids’ creative expression, so sign them up for painting classes, vocal study, and the like.

New Flag for Art Class, 10-year-old

All of this is fine, though children’s personalities don’t always provide ideal subjects, especially after a full day of schoolwork they may also have been less than enthused about. Many of us have gone to great lengths to push through a waiting list for a popular after-school activity on behalf of our kid, only to find the kid wants nothing to do with the activity once there, or tires of it too quickly. Being forceful and insistent about following through obligations such as these teaches plenty of lessons, but not necessarily the desired one — to help your kid find an artistic voice or style, and ultimately contentment within themselves.

Self-Portrait in Fall Colors, 7-year-old

Set this aside a moment, and look at how our kids learn most directly — by imitating behavior they see to their liking. If their older brother gets laughs telling jokes at the dinner table, chances are they’ll try for the same reaction. If Mom and Dad tend to raise their voices at their kids and one another, it’s quite probable their kids will understand yelling as a viable form of communication.

I once complained to a work associate of mine that my older kid doesn’t read books. When I was his age, I read books all the time. “How often does he see you read books?” Truth is, almost never. Most of what I read is online; I’m almost never curled up next to the fireplace with a good page-turner anymore. He said, “See? It’s learned behavior. You don’t read books, so why should he?”

“See? It’s learned behavior. You don’t read books, so why should he?”

Fair point, for sure. Which brings me to the point here: if you want to see your children blossom into engaged, thoughtful, sensitive artists — with the appetite to improve their skills to more fully articulate their visions — then show them how it’s done. Find a creative goal: make something. Try your hardest to make it the best you can. If you flop and need to start over, do it without frustration or anger (it’s not that important, especially if you’re not actually an artist).

Maybe you take the painting class yourself, if you’re interested in learning — and passively teaching — more refined techniques. Because your kids are always watching you for signals, working earnestly on an art project is a good way to lead by example. Even if they wind up telling you to your face they don’t like what you’re making (it’s clear my younger kid does not like my singing voice, nor the type of songs I write [I manage to persevere, nevertheless], you’re still getting through to them the idea that creating something is good. It’s important. They’ll want to be part of it, and will be self-motivated to make something themselves — perhaps with the idea that it will be better than Mom and Dad’s.

Day at the Zoo and Aquarium, 6-year-old, 2016

Of course, that’s fine with you, the parent. After all, we’re still engaged in giving our kids more than we had growing up. Unless we ourselves came along in households inhabited by working artists, giving our kids the motivation to express themselves materially is a nice way to bestow something we likely didn’t have.

10-year-old’s favorite car, Corvette. 2017

And, who knows? You may actually like it. There may be some hidden aptitude there, long buried by concerns that are of less value than originally believed. Not only that, there’s even a chance you might be good. If you want to know you’re doing it right, check out this article I wrote on how to write a good song (it applies to other forms of creativity as well, believe me).

10-year-old’s favorite football player, Jordan Howard

Mark Vickery is a writer, editor and musician in Chicago. He writes a daily investment research column, fronts an original music project called Cosmic Bull, hosts the Cosmic Bull podcast and is an optioned screenwriter and playwright.

If you don’t want to take his word for it, have a look at this.