In the book of Genesis, the snake comes to Eve in the garden and lures her into eating the forbidden fruit. His argument is that “…when you eat fruit from that tree, you will know things you have never known before. Like God, you will be able to tell the difference between good and evil.” (G 3:5) To Eve, ‘knowing things she has never known before’ sounds great, so she takes a big bite. In an instant, she loses her innocence. The first thought she has after gaining self-knowledge is embarrassment, because she perceives that she is naked.
I have thought the change from innocence to self-awareness lately, because I have been teaching 4th, 5th and 6th grade art classes. Earlier in the school year, I taught kindergarten through 3rd grade, which are wonderfully innocent. When I am introduced to a kindergarten class as the “art teacher,” the first thing that happens is that lots of kids come up to spontaneously hug me. They love art. They love teachers. They are (mostly) happy to be alive. This blissful state continues, in wonderful ignorance of the world, through 3rd or even 4th grade.
Somewhere in the years between 10 and 12, though, children develop a self-awareness of their status in the world. They become keenly aware of things that other people have that they don’t. Tragically, for me as the art teacher, one of the things they become aware of is that other adults and classmates will judge their art. Art, which had been a favorite activity, changes into an activity that exposes them. What if they draw something bad, and someone points to it and laughs? Especially for the boys, this is the worst thing they can imagine.
Kindergarteners, by contrast, are so wrapped up in their own world, that they don’t pay any attention to other people’s art. Young elementary school children love to make drawings, because they are unaware of the concept of judgement. Young kids hold up their drawings eagerly, saying “Look at this!” They are always proud.
I know I am in the upper elementary school grades if, when I start a guided drawing, kids immediately start saying “I suck at this,” or “mine looks terrible.” Then I know that they have lost their innocence. I want to hug them and say “Sweetheart, don’t beat yourself up! You’re too young to be bad at anything!” I think back to when I was in 6th grade and some girls shunned me because I had read the book report book too quickly. (Okay, maybe I bragged about it a tad.) Next, the book report poster I made was too elaborate, so they hated me for that too. I sat alone, wondering what had happened. That is the ruthless world of 6th grade.
What I would say to parents and adults around pre-teen children making art, is: always praise during these tender years. There’s no good that can come from telling a 6th grader that their drawing is bad. The truth about art is this: no matter how bad you are, if you keep making art, you will get better. A kid who draws lopsided in 5th grade, may grow up to be an incredible artist, through practice and determination. A kid who is criticized may never pick up a paint brush again.
When I enrolled in art classes as an adult, one of the books I was assigned was “Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.” I felt on fire when I read this book—all my secret thoughts were exposed. Fear of failure and public humiliation is a huge obstacle for many artists, young and old. If your pre-teen child is interested in art, I encourage you to support them unequivocally during this delicate time when they may be questioning their abilities. Just keep them in the game.