It's taken me some time, but I've been learning more and more that there are times when the best thing I can do for my kids is to leave them alone.
I got my first lesson in holding back when I re-read the educational classic Summerhill. My grandmother had given me the book when I was 12, and its account of a long-lived and succcessful experiment in free schooling made a deep impression on me. Revisiting the book nearly three decades later, when I was beginning to think about how I wanted to educate my own children, one passage in particular jumped out at me, in which the irascible A.S. Neill offered some excellent advice: Never show a child how to play with a toy.
Never show a child how to play with a toy: It made immediate, perfect sense to me. "Teaching" a child how to use a toy robs the child of the joy, excitement, and challenge of discovery.
But we grown-ups seem powerfully drawn to show children how things work -- or rather, how we think they should work (children, left to their own devices, tend to see far more possibilities in things than we ever could). Is it vanity ... as if we have to prove to a two-year-old that we're more competent than they? Perhaps it's mistrust in the child's abilities, for that's certainly part of the message it sends.
I've had to train myself not to demonstrate things to my children -- to let them try out new playthings in their own way, at their own pace, and to hold off on offering assistance until asked.
The same principle, I've come to see, applies powerfully to young children's art, especially drawing. I had read advice similar to Neill's in Susan Striker's Young at Art: Teaching Toddlers Self-Expression, Problem-Solving Skills, and an Appreciation for Art. It, too, made sense to me: Don't draw on your kids' paper or "demonstrate" drawing for them -- it makes them focus on your creations rather than their own, and make them feel that what they are doing is somehow inferior.
Yet one day, when my twins were about two, I nonetheless began absent-mindedly drawing little stars on the corner of the paper where my kids were scribbling with markers. They were suddenly transfixed. They put down their markers and asked me to draw more. I reluctantly agreed but then gently tried to nudge them to resume their drawing. Forget it: They could focus on nothing but the little stars I had made. That drawing session was completely overtaken by my stupid doodles; so were the next two or three. I didn't draw any more stars, but they kept begging me to do so and couldn't focus on their own lines and swirls.
More recently, a series of well-meaning babysitters I was auditioning began doing little drawings for my kids: stick figures, clouds, little cars, that sort of thing. I wasn't happy about it, but I didn't want to come off as some whacked-out, overcontrolling mother, so I didn't say anything to them.
My daughter had been in a phase of drawing and painting quite imaginatively: creating loops and swirls on the paper and happily calling them snails or fish or seahorses. Then one day I got out the paper and markers, and she asked me to draw a mouse for her. I demurred, saying I would like to see her do it instead. She shocked me by bursting into tears: "It's too hard," she said. "I can't do it. You do it for me."
I nearly cried myself. My sweet, eager, world-conquering two-and-a-half-year-old, suddenly filled with self-doubt and self-deprecation?
Needless to say, I talked to the babysitters. It took a few weeks, but Nini stopped asking me to draw for her, and regained her sense of confidence in her own drawing. Her squiggles, scribbles, and marks have meaning for her again, and I'm delighted to sit on the sidelines, watching her create.