Nurturing Creativity, Confidence and Trust in Children through Art


I see a rather menacing cat and some other things that are really best not mentioned to the artist because THAT is NOT what she sees.

Bismillah al Rahman al Raheem

This note is primarily for a friend of mine who is looking to start up a little “subversive” art program amongst the immigrant and 1st generation kids in her community. I think. Actually, I’m not too sure what she is doing and probably neither is she. But, it sounds good so far. Anyway. It also applies to anyone working with kids, so I’m sharing because I am so, so sweet like that.

Many, many years ago I had the privilege—like truly the privilege, because not everyone gets to do this kind of blessing filled work and learn from such dedicated, smart folks—to be an art class facilitator for extremely high risk kids. You know terms like “under privileged” and “at-risk” are really gross and I apologize for using them—I mean Allahualim what kind of “risks” these kids were vulnerable to. Fact is, many had homeless or formerly homeless parents, their parents were often addicted to various/multiple substances, they often had an incarcerated parent, were being raised by someone other than mom and/or dad, and some were affiliated in gangs. They were hard little kids and trust was a huge concern for the program. If we uber-privileged staff did any flippant little thing to hurt these kids or break their trust they wouldn’t continue to spend their free time coming around to us. And then where would they go? And of course, we would also have added to the heap of abuse already piled on these kids.


So the basic thing we/I did was set up some paint, paper and brushes at as many work-spots as the kids would fit without rubbing elbows at three or four large collapsible tables. On a rotating basis, one child was asked to come help set up while all the others waited in another room. Later another child helped rinse the brushes. This may all seem pretty obvious, but to some of us airy-fairy and/or permissive parenting-types we may overlook this crucial point. It is necessary that the environment be as stable as possible. If you have kids vying to get “more paint” or “better brushes “or whatever then you won’t ever get to the Real Work. Worse, if the kids feel like someone has been unfairly singled out for favoritism or discrimination—as they all experience daily outside the security of the room—then they won’t trust you and the Real Work will never happen.  So make simple, clear rules and follow them.

Rule Number One: Create a Criticism-free Zone.

No one is allowed to criticize anyone or anything. Be firm. This is The Golden Rule. There is no name calling and nobody says anything mean, hurtful, rude or unkind about anyone else’s work. Now, in this program we never, ever did little show and tells of the kids’ work, and I would strongly discourage that. You know at least one child will be emotionally destroyed with such an activity and it is just not worth whatever intention may be behind such an activity. At various fundraising events the kids’ work was displayed and maybe you could aim to do similar, but the children were not present at these sort of events. The fostering and protection of their confidence is the primary work and always comes first. When someone breaks this rule, you must continue to follow it. Whisper in the child’s ear, maybe enough for the offended to hear, but don’t make a big deal out of it, that they are breaking the rule and will need to leave if they continue. You may have to ask someone to leave once or twice. You may have to suspend someone from the program.  In working with high risk kids this was very rare, so don’t worry too much about it. Just do it.

Applying The Golden Rule:

Never criticize or praise the children’s work. I know, that latter part sounds bizarre and maybe you will find an appropriate time and place to praise the kids’ work, but be very, very careful. You don’t want another child to overhear that someone else’s work is “beautiful” or whatever and now you have broken a little heart who didn’t hear that about their own work. And really Mariam may not have been trying to create something “beautiful.” Maybe she was going for “scary” or “edgy” and now you have broken two hearts. I hope “edgy” made you laugh or at least snort, because you are going to need a good laugh as really you should be horrified right now and thinking about retreating into your cave. And that’s a good thing, be scared, tie up your camel and run with the wolves! (insert cheerleader emoticon) The thing is, too many of these well-meaning (hurts to type that) airy-fairy (refrain from swearing) people go into this kind of work seeking that feel-good high (you know the one) and they wreak havoc. They wreak havoc, that’s what you are working against, right?–with a smile. 😀

You are a Witness, an Observer

You want to “acknowledge [the] child’s work by describing it, rather than qualifying it by saying only that  it is ‘neat’, ‘wonderful’, or ‘good.” * You do this by making simple, straight-forward observations, such as:

I see a circle there.

I see you used red and blue and yellow.

I see some lines here.

Yeah, that simple. You want to avoid adjectives. See my “beautiful vs. edgy explanation.” It can be agonizing to have to do this after you have been trained to so flowery and endlessly describe a hue or a curve, but trust me, this is what you have to do.

And then, you ask the child if they want to tell you about their painting. Do not ever say “Can you.” Of course they can and will minimally think you are stupid for asking. And “will you” is too much of a power play. When they set up the widdle bwushes and whatnot just direct, be direct “now put” “pour a little more” and so on. But. When it comes to their work, ask politely. “Do you want to tell me about your painting.” And maybe they will trust you. If they do—don’t break it!!! This is where well-timed “Mmms” and “Oohs” go. That’s it. And of course be gracious and say something like “thank you for telling me about it.” But don’t be canned. Freaking out again? A well-placed hand on the shoulder says a lot too. You’ll do fiiiiine. Insha Allah.

*Ganked from Family Math for Young Children by folks at the Lawerence Hall of Science UC Berkeley


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