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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Monday, October 15, 2007

There's more to those squiggles than you think


When your preschooler comes to you for the upteenth time with a drawing he's made and he's, oh so proudly showing it off, what, exactly, are you supposed to say? "Oh honey, this is sooo beautiful!!" Isn't t here a law about how many times a day you can say that? "Oh honey, what a nice..uh, ...." Isn't there a limit to how many times he's going to fill in the blank for you?

Questions like this plagued me when my son was at the early stages of drawing. I wanted to be encouraging without being phoney, helpful without being hokey. What's more, I wanted to know: Do these squiggles have any meaning? Is there something I should know about them? So, like so many issues in my parenting, I did some research and wrote a column. It's below. I suppose this is an odd one to include in my all-time-favorite list but I love it because it is a reminder of a very specific time in my son's life, and also because I learned so much in the process of reporting. I hope you will, too.

Thursday, February 25, 1993
Child Caring
By Barbara F. Meltz


The day a 3-, 4- or 5-year-old puts marker to paper and draws, for the first time, something we can recognize is an exciting time for most parents. It is also a major cognitive and developmental milestone.

This tends to be a time when parents are especially attentive to their children's artwork. But early representational drawings are not the only ones with value. The artwork of any age child, including the scribblings of a toddler, offers us a window into her development, sometimes even a peek at her thinking.

"Children of all ages have a lot of sensations, input, ideas. They need to have a vehicle to give order to them, to make sense of them. Art is that vehicle," says educator Nancy Langstaff, director of the Creative Arts in Learning masters' program at Lesley College in Cambridge.

With children 2, 3, even 4 years old, it's the process, not the product, that counts, says Malcolm Watson, professor of developmental psychology at Brandeis University, who studies what happens in the preteen years when many children stop drawing.

In the early years, he says, parents can learn more from watching their children create than from looking at what they make. What there is to learn, however, may not be what you expect.

A preschooler slapping paint here and there, or stabbing markers on paper, could be venting anger, but most likely, he's not, says early childhood educator Sylvia Feinburg.

"He's experimenting with the medium," she says. Does the paint drip more if you slap it on instead of dab it gently? How wide a mark does the brush make holding it sideways, not flat?

"Young children do not do the same thing over and over again to perfect the outcome. They do it to master the process," says Feinburg, an associate professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study at Tufts University. She is known for her work on children's artistic development.

That's why, when your preschooler proudly shares her handiwork with you, you should mment on what the process appears to have been, not on the product.

Instead of saying, "This looks like a tree!" or even, "This is beautiful!" say such things as: "I love the colors you used." "How hard it must have been to make this color not run into that one!" "This looks like it must have been fun (or hard or tricky) to draw." "What a beautiful shape!" "Wow! You filled up the whole space!"

These kinds of comments are not only more genuine -- "This is beau-ti- ful" gets to sound pretty trite after a while, even to a 3-year-old -- but they also tap into what was really important to the child -- the process -- and are more likely to elicit a response that can lead to a conversation:

"Yeah, this line almost went into this one, but I stopped the drip in time."

"Tell me how you did that!"

Does a 3- or 4-year-old have an idea in mind before he puts marker to paper? Once in a while, says Feinburg. "Mostly," she adds, "the hand just moves."

At some point, this age child does begin to label drawings. "A tree. Our house." They do this because adults keep asking them, 'What is this?' -- not, says Feinburg, because there is a relationship between an idea and what's on paper.

As children's art gets more representational, there is a tendency to look at it as a barometer of emotional well-being. These professionals caution parents against doing that.

For one thing, it's easy to overinterpret the art. A lot of what 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds draw, for instance, says Watson, is wish fulfillment, and not a sign of a problem, as some parents might conclude. "They draw what they like, what they don't have or what they wish they had. Or they draw a scene from a movie over and over, as a way to relive a pleasurable experience."

It's also easy to misinterpret. Many themes in the drawings of 5-to-8-year- olds that are upsetting to parents are simply developmental. "When little girls draw princesses and rainbows -- which they do over and over -- it doesn't mean they want to grow up to be queens," says Feinburg. "They are mastering power within a feminine context."

Likewise, when boys' drawings are predominantly about dinosaurs or superheroes, about fighting or blowing people up, it doesn't mean they are turning into bullies. They, too, are mastering aggression and power, winning and losing.

"They will move on," assures Feinburg.

Watson says parents tupically don't need to do anything about these repeated patterns in artwork. "Art is a chance to work out feelings, experience good ones and work through bad ones," he says. He advises worrying about a specific theme that seems troublesome only if it shows up consistently over time: "He always leaves out the father in drawings of the family, he always makes himself tiny." Or, adds Feinburg, if destructive themes in art -- "He always tears up his work or belittles it, or always draws a boy and says, 'He's bad' " -- coincide with other troublesome behaviors. In such cases, parents should seek professional guidance.

Sometime after age 7, most children begin to be more discriminating in judging their own art. They expect you to be, too. You can begin to say, "I like this picture better than this one," and give them evaluative reasons, even talk about composition, says Feinburg.

But, here, too, there are cautions. Two things are going on for these older children, according to Langstaff and Karen Gallas, a first- and second-teacher at the Lawrence School in Brookline who studies how children use art as a way to understand their world.

First, they begin to compare their work to peers'. "They can be very hard on themselves," says Langstaff, "so they really need your support to be able to continue."

Second, the older they get, the more they want their artwork to be truly representational, almost photographic in its realism. "This becomes a real stumbling block. Kids get frustrated because their drawings aren't 'real,' and they start to drop out of drawing altogether by age 12," says Gallas.

In part, this is because parents and teachers typically aren't as encouraging of a 9-year-old's art as a 4- or 5-year-old's.

Gallas says this is unfortunate: "Art at any age is a form of communication, an outlet. Having to always communicate in the spoken or written word limits a lot of people."

Feinburg says it's not because you might have a potential artist on your hands that you should support a child's interest in art as much at age 9 as you did at 4. "Through art, children gain confidence in themselves and their ability to develop, execute, and express ideas. What parent doesn't want that?"


- Show your preschooler that you value her art by beginning in preschool to keep a portfolio or box of selected artwork. Make your selections together, and begin the process by explaining, "We can't keep everything because it would just be too much, but we can choose ones we want to save." Doing this at a young age will make life easier when your child is older and wants to save everything.

- Have a public place where you display each child's artwork.

- Drawing and painting are not enjoyable to every child, but other forms of creating may be. Have other tools available -- clay, glue, scissors, fabric scraps, stapler, paper punch.

- Young children may get discouraged at being unable to draw as well as older siblings. Comment on the shapes and colors they use and send a message such as this one: "Everybody draws in her own way, that's what's important in our family."

- With older children who get frustrated at their inability to draw as realistically as they want, encourage them to draw designs or fantasy figures and scenes. Also encourage them to try different media, such as clay or collage.

- Don't emphasize accuracy or correct a child's drawing, and don't show him how to draw things. Instead, say, "Everybody draws differently. You draw it your own way. There's no right or wrong way to draw something."

- A child's first representational drawing, typically at about 3 1/2 years, is a "tadpole man": a circle for the head, with eyes, nose and mouth and with arms and legs coming directly from the head. This is true for children in all cultures.

- Between 4 and 6, the tadpole man evolves into figures from geometric forms: triangles for dresses, rectangles for torsos. Objects float all over the page and their size is irrelevant. A "mommy" may have a head, arms, legs and hair, all in good proportion, but an earring may be bigger than the head.

- The next step in representation is to find a baseline: grass or floor at the bottom of the page, with objects lined up on it. Size is becoming more relevant.

- Between 6 and 7, there is greater attention to size relationships: the earring will no longer be out of proportion. But emotional factors influence
size: a 7-year-old taking tennis lessons could draw a girl with a racket that is enormous, because that's how it feels to her.

- Children 8 and older are moving into a literal stage, where they want their drawings to say things, much as words do, and to be as realistic as possible.

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 05:57 PM
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