Wednesday, March 1, 1995

Follow Your Own Drumbeat

When it comes to my children's artistic endeavors, I am frequently a source of frustration for them. When they bring one of their creations to me and ask how I like it, I always respond, "How do you like it?" "Mom, why do you always say that?" my son will exclaim in an exasperated tone. I will then remind him that my opinion about his efforts doesn't matter. What's important is whether or not he's satisfied with what he's done. If there's some aspect of his work he wants to improve, I'll gladly help him do it. But if he's satisfied with his accomplishment, then so am I.

So, what's the harm in telling my kids my opinion about their work? If I tell my child I dislike her drawing, or if I criticize some aspect of it, she would be crushed; and rightly so. What she would hear is that she's not good enough. If I tell her I like it, there's two problems. First, I'm creating a dependence on my approval, which is something I don't want to do. I want my children to be satisfied with meeting their own expectations, rather than constantly trying to please others. Secondly, if my child is not completely satisfied with it herself, she may take my compliment as something coming from a mother blinded by love (which is probably true), or she might think I wasn't looking very closely at her drawing, otherwise I would have seen what was bothering her about it. Either way, my opinion does not help the situation at all. The bottom line is that my opinion is irrelevant.

Rather than having my child's work presented to me expecting to receive my seal of approval, I would prefer to have my child tell me about her drawing. Why did she choose the subject matter? Was she trying to tell a story? How did she use her tools to create the look she wanted? What about color - were they randomly selected or is there some meaning to them? To work hard on something, put your heart and soul into it, and then have some other person determine whether it's good or bad, just doesn't make sense to me. Having my child tell me about her creation is infinitely more beneficial, for both of us, than my telling her whether or not I like it. 

Judgment is far too commonplace in our society. We get graded in school, performance reviews at work, there are winners and losers in most of our recreational activities, and we often willingly enter contests to have our abilities compared to others and rated. Judgment is so much a part of our lives that we too often value other people's opinions over our own. When we constantly look to others to tell us what to do, how to do it, and whether or not we're good enough at it, we pretty soon stop thinking for ourselves. This is not what I want for my children.

We all try out a variety of skills over the course of our lives. We may learn to draw, play an instrument, sew, dance, fix our plumbing, or develop photographs. But we have the freedom to choose which ones we want to learn about in depth, and which ones we just want some basic skills in. If all you want to do is fix your toilet, you don't need to become a master plumber. Just because you like to play the piano, doesn't mean you have to become a concert pianist. However, if you find you truly enjoy sewing and want to improve your skills to a professional level, that's your choice. No one else should be telling you which skills you should pursue for fun and which ones you should strive to excel in. That's a personal decision that only you should make.

Children have a right to that same freedom and respect. If they want to draw, their skills should meet their own standards. They can choose to do it just for fun, or work to refine and perfect their technique. By encouraging our children to judge their own work, rather than relying on someone else's opinion, they learn to analyze, problem solve, and get in touch with their own goals and interests, rather than feeling inferior or defensive in response to someone's opinion. When we respect and support our children's choices, we are teaching them to trust and value their own feelings and perspective.

This is why I answer their question with a question. When asked, "Do you like my drawing?" and I reply, "How do you like it?" my oldest daughter will sometimes say, "But I want your opinion." To this I respond, "Who's opinion is more important - yours or mine?" She knows the answer I expect from this, and so replies with a smile, "Mine." I may be their mother, but each of my children have to decide for themselves what they need to keep their lives happy, interesting, and fulfilling. They may as well start figuring it all out now.

This article originally published March 1995 in Parent Guide, a SLO County newspaper.