Wisdom of a 7-year-old

We celebrated my daughter’s 7th birthday last week with a “craft” party in the park. (Our house is torn up, but that’s another story!) Having the party in the park turned out to be a plus though, because we got to pull out the glitter.

Everyone has a pet peeve. For my husband, it’s glitter. It drives him nuts to find little flecks on his clothes or his face and he does not allow glitter in the house.

My daughter and I went through an Oriental Trading Company catalog and picked out some fun projects she and her friends could work on. They each made a bracelet, decorated journal covers (with LOTS of glitter!), created fairy tale pictures and drew cartoon characters.

And for the record, I’m still combing glitter out of our hair!

But what caught my attention at the party was this conversation.

Girl 1: This picture is ugly.
Girl 2: No it isn’t.
Girl 1: It doesn’t matter. I could make the ugliest picture in the world and my Mom would still tell me it was beautiful.
Girl 2: Really?
Girl 1: It’s kind of funny. I’ll show her something really ugly and she’ll say, “Oh, Goose, that’s beautiful!”

At first glance you think, Oh, that’s sweet. Her mom loves her artwork even if it isn’t very good. But the nuance in her words, the expression on her face… If I was writing this as a scene for a book, I might show it this way:

Sara stared at the picture she had drawn, her eyes unfocused. “This picture is ugly.”

“No it isn’t!” Maria rushed to comfort her friend even though in the back of her mind she agreed.

Sara shook her head and pulled out a large blue marker. She studied the picture carefully then drew a gash in the side of the queen. “It doesn’t matter,” she sighed. “I could make the ugliest picture in the world and my mom would still tell me it was beautiful.”

Maria stared doubtfully at the picture as Sara added harsh strokes in the sky above the queen’s head.

“It’s kind of funny.” Sara’s mouth was a grim line. “I’ll show her something really ugly and she’ll say, ‘Oh, Goose, that’s beautiful!'” Sara clapped her hands together as she mimicked her mother’s voice.

Maria laughed at the imitation of her friend’s mother but her eyes were worried.

Sara smiled slowly. It was fun to make Maria laugh. She folded the picture in half, then in half again. She kept folding until the paper was nothing but a fat wad. She jammed the wad in the back pocket of her jeans and skipped off to the swing.

So tell me…is it more important to make someone think they have done a good job, or to be honest with your opinion? If you tell a child something is beautiful when it’s not, have you made them feel better about themselves or worse?

19 thoughts on “Wisdom of a 7-year-old

  1. In some ways I think it depends on the age of the artist. I wouldn't tell my 15 year old that everything was beautiful. I probably wouldn't tell her that things were ugly either unless she was intending for them to be ugly–which she does sometimes. Criticism can be complimentary and helpful at the same time. For a younger artist, if something is truly ugly, I might say that it's not their best work. I might say it's a wonderful ogre. So much depends on the individual child. By the time they were 7, I could usually tell if my child was trying to make a nice picture or goofing off.

  2. Wow this is actually a fascinating debate, isn't it? I think we need to be honest with children and with peers about our opinions. It's important to see value in everyone's effort, but lying and saying something is beautiful will result in trust issues. Great post Sherrie!

  3. That's a hard one. I just spent some time with my younger sister who has a 4 year old. She is very direct with her daughter, without being mean or discouraging.

    With art it's more subjective and therefore difficult to say what is ugly or not.

    I noticed with her letters, my sister was very honest about they way she way drawing her letters. If she nailed it she got praise, if not, she was told it needed work and she should keep trying…. I thought that was 'fair'

    Parenting has no handbook unfortunately! 🙂

  4. I wonder what Sara's mother would have thought if she could hear her daughter saying that! I vote honesty. Children are a lot smarter than most parents give them credit for and can totally tell when adults aren't being completely up front. My mom always used to give advice on how to improve. “Sweetie, that's a good try but how about you use this” or “do this next time.”

  5. That is a tricky line to walk. One shouldn't lie to children but they can lose confidence and become embarrassed easily if you are too frank. I think constructive criticism would be okay if it includes praise for what is done well and helpful hints for what could be done further.

  6. Good question. I say sincerity is key. Of course art, like writing, is subjective. And you have to ask yourself: Did the child spend a lot of time on the project/put a lot of heart into it and then ask for an opinion? How old is the child? Is he or she looking for constructive criticism? I would try to stay positive without lying. Kids are smart. They want support, but not meaningless praise, IMHO.

    That said, I just saw T. Anne's comment, and I really liked it!

  7. Goodness, Sherrie. This is one of the topics I've been thinking about for twenty years, first as a teacher, then as a mom. My master's thesis even has a chunk devoted to it. Short version: case by case.

  8. We were taught at my kids' pre-school co-op to never evaluate the kids' art. Instead, we said things like, “I see you've used a lot of purple,” or “You've spent a lot of time on this, haven't you?” The thing is, kids can smell sincerity and false praise doesn't help them. Those simple observation statements opened up great talks with the children about the choices they made in their art. Lots of them were excited to go on about WHY they'd used so much purple or how they drew those lines. Focus on the process vs. the product was what we learned.

  9. I think it's important to make sure you mention when someone has done a good job. I would never say anything my kids brought home wasn't good, but there are some pieces that get special attention.
    Also, as my son gets older, when I know he hasn't tried very hard, I might comment on the effort he put in and question it.

  10. Great question. I think in the case of telling a child THEY'RE beautiful, you can't go wrong saying it even if they're covered in mud. Because everyone doubts themselves (especially girls) and needs that one person to tell them how beautiful they are.

    As for art and school work and stuff… I go with the honesty policy. Mostly because I'm a teacher and I don't accept work that is less than the child's best. And if that's chicken scratch so be it. But I expect their best work. And that makes it beautiful.

  11. I have that dilemma all the time. My boyfriend's daughter was on a cheerleading squad. They didn't do very well. We were showing it to the boyfriend's mom and her stepdaughter, with his daughter in the room. The stepdaughter made a comment about how 'the routine being bad was a reflection of the coach, not the kids,” and I quickly said something to cover it up. Even though it wasn't her fault the routine was bad, I know it probably hurt her to hear it if she'd noticed. True…yes…but necessary? NO.

  12. You guys have some great responses, here!

    I think because I know the child and the mother, it was much easier for me to reach the conclusion that the mom needs to be honest with “Sara.” Because at this point “Sara” thinks (a) that her mom is clueless and (b) that there's no point in making any effort because no matter what, she gets the same response.

    It was a good reminder for me to focus to my child and what she really needs from me when she's sharing things she has done.

  13. I think it partly depends on their age AND whether they've honestly tried their best. Of course, if my two-year-old draws a picture of herself resembling Humpty Dumpty, I would praise her for doing a great job. But now that my kids are a bit older (the youngest is 8), I don't hesitate to point it out when I think they haven't tried their best. And I always point out when I think they've done an excellent job.

    Also, if my child were to ask me for my honest opinion, I would give it to them. Constructive criticism is a good thing, even for kids.

  14. I do tell my kids that their artwork is beautiful most of the time. Especially if they seem so proud. I probably have made some suggestions here and there, but everything they make is fabulous 🙂 But with schoolwork I do point out what they can do better.

  15. Love the glitter story … I have to agree … outdoors is the place for glitter – – very smart!
    WOW … what a question … I think it may depend on the age of the child; and another way to approach it may be to ask what the picture is and how they came to draw it, etc.
    I loved what you did in transforming their conversation into a scene!!!

  16. Happy Birthday to your daughter!

    You did a wonderful job capturing the scene, Sherrie. How sad for Sara.

    I'm a big believer in encouraging my children and offering glowing praise when it is deserved. My kids are thrilled when I scan the artwork I absolutely love — we use it to make cards and gift tags. And to see the pride on their faces when we hang their artwork on the wall — matted and framed is the way to go — is priceless.

    Children are smart and they can see through false compliments.

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