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There's no such thing as perfect art

Published on: February 01, 2007

"I messed up on this one, mom. I need to start over." Six-year-old Hunter is making a birthday card for his aunt. The card seems fine to his mom, but he says he's used the wrong color pen. As far as he's concerned, the whole thing is ruined.

Hunter's not alone in his frustration. According to the Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence, perfectionism is a state of mind which can be caused by either nature or nurture. You can usually spot a perfectionist at a young age; look for impossibly high standards and a driving need to avoid mistakes. The irony is that those high standards can actually get in the way of peak performance; all of that trying to be perfect becomes an obstacle instead of a means to achieving the goal.

Cathy Ross, a longtime elementary art educator and adjunct education professor at St Martin's University in Lacey, says perfectionism in elementary-age children is especially evident when it comes to art. She tries to help kids work through their frustration by problem-solving.

"One thing I used to do is give kids one piece of paper and they have to resolve the problem of whatever they were trying to do on one piece of paper," Ross says. "And don't let them have erasers.

"It's not about the right or wrong answers, but how can they use a supposed mistake to shift their thinking about what they are trying to do," she says. "What does this new mark mean and how can they use it?"

No right answers

Because art is abstract and subjective, there is no one right or wrong way to do it -- a tough concept for perfectionist kids. Winnie Chapin Young, elementary arts teacher at Seattle Country Day School, says: "Students with these tendencies have difficulty coming up with their own art problems to solve and their own art solutions, as well. They become frustrated very easily." She says many have yet to become comfortable with the process of art exploration. "In fact," she says, "they have not yet connected that art is about experimentation and exploration and think there is one right way to do something."

These children often develop very complex and detailed visual ideas in their heads of what they think that art is, with little use of metaphor and ambiguity, Young says.

"The perfectionist child is highly tuned to noticing who gets kudos for what. How fast can you regurgitate math facts? How many history dates and names are memorized? It's not a very conceptual approach to education. You can hardly blame the parents, considering how much emphasis is being placed on standardized tests in education."

To combat some of these tendencies, Young has created an environment where there is no right or wrong way to do art. She says the art room is a "free zone." Children have the opportunity to explore possibilities in materials and techniques to make self-satisfying artwork.

"This is a freeing and surprising environment for the young student to walk into," Young says. "They delight in the idea."

What you can do

Both Ross and Young recommend parents set up an area in the home where kids can be messy and explore the world of art. Parents should also try sitting alongside their child and exploring with them, trying out different mediums, textures and colors. "Once children see their parents taking some risks and perhaps coming up with their own imperfect works of arts, these kids will feel more at ease at exploring on their own," says Ross.

Moms and dads should stop themselves from controlling the outcome of an artwork, and watch the type of feedback they give to their young artists. "Instead of asking what it is," Young says, "you can ask: how did they do that? Instead of saying, 'what a pretty picture,' you can say, 'tell me about what is happening here.'"

Young recommends parents allow children to do some freestyle art that isn't paint-by-numbers or color-inside-the-lines. Give children a piece of paper and a set of water colors and let them explore. Always encourage them, regardless of your own feelings about their artwork, she says.

She also recommends parents introduce children to art experiences -- whether performing arts, art museums, dance classes or similar programs. Seeing parents react to art will help children craft their own responses to art. This could help perfectionist children who are seeking approval from parents.

Perfectly creative

Perfectionism can inhibit students from performing in other art arenas, including the performing arts. Ross says children who feel uncomfortable in experimentation often experience severe performance anxiety when participating in music, dance or dramatic arenas.

"Perfectionist tendencies can truly stress your child out -- whether it be performance anxiety or purely frustration from the ambiguous nature of art," she says. "It can end up making them sick. It's important to remain supportive and assure them it's OK to try new things and experiment.

"This isn't about failure. It's not about trying to get kids to be perfect. It's about teaching them how they can discover. If parents really want to emphasize perfection, maybe perfecting being creative instead of perfecting the product is the best route," Ross says. "I've heard from studies that the work force wants creative thinkers. Creative thinkers aren't being formed if they aren't taking risks. Risk involves sometimes not being perfect."

Sarah Kahne is a freelance journalist and mother of a 5-year-old boy.

Helping your perfectionist child

Here are some activities around the region that can give your child a sense of the imperfect and ambiguous world of art.

  • Most art museums offer children's programming. Take your child to Tacoma's Museum of Glass, the Hands On Children's Museum in Olympia or Seattle Art Museum to explore some of these opportunities. Don't rush through the exhibits -- allow your child to take his time and really appreciate the art.
  • Several communities offer free museum admission on certain days of the week. Tacoma Art Walk and First Thursday in Seattle are good ways to give your children the experience of art inexpensively.
  • Several theater companies in the Puget Sound provide musical and dramatic entertainment appropriate for children. Seattle Children Theater caters all of its productions to the younger crowd.
  • Remember: don't discourage your child from exploring artistic ventures -- whether it means pounding on the drums in the garage, painting monstrous murals in the garage or making a mess in the kitchen dabbling in macaroni art. Positive reinforcement will help your child learn creativity.

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