A visitor gushed over my four-year-old daughter's new and quite abstract painting on our refrigerator. "Oh, what a beautiful painting. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
I was pleased that my daughter had remembered to say, "Thank you", to a compliment. I thought she would also enjoy the "non-mom" appreciation.
After our visitor was gone, my daughter turned to me and said, "That lady sure doesn't know anything about art. I guess she's never been to a museum. It's not the most beautiful picture in the world. It's just a picture I did about trains."
That's the day I learned that a four-year-old can spot a phony compliment.
It's also the day that I discovered that blobs and scribbles may actually contain an important story.
"So your picture is about trains. Tell me about it," I said.
I had been amazed that the picture was about anything. It resembled the drop cloth of a messy house painter.
"This is the train we saw with all the circus animals on it. Here is the yellow engine, and here is the green caboose."
At least six weeks before we had stopped to watch the Ringling Brothers train roll through town. The train had a yellow Santa Fe engine and green Burlington Northern caboose. I hadn't realized she remembered any of it.
"What's the blue here?" I ventured.
"That's the car with the elephants."
On and on she went about the day we saw the circus train. I was delighted by the detail she remembered and had expressed in her painting. I thought of her other "artwork" I had thrown away. So many stories I tossed out because I didn't ask a few questions. I just didn't know.
This incident with my daughter taught me to ask open-ended questions about artwork.
Instead of some "Oh, how nice!" compliment, I've learned to approach children's artwork with phrases such as:
- Tell me about your picture.
- What is this red?
- Tell me about the yellow.
- What is the blue about?
I also include the famous five questions of who, what, when, where and why.
- Who was there?
- What did they do?
- When did this happen?
- Where did this happen?
- Why were you there?
These questions have helped me understand the story inside a picture.
With these few questions, I hope you'll discover something new about your child.
Splotches of color on a piece of brown craft paper let me experience something that was important to my daughter. With her drawing, she was able to share with me a memory of an important event in her life. Her refrigerator artwork became one of the most beautiful pictures I had ever seen, because I took the time to try to understand the artist.