Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

January 31, 2011

Being a parent is challenging enough without making issues where they don't need to be any. Last week in the Times the topic was how to dispose of the volume of works on paper kids generate—too much to save, so what do you do? 

Really, this was one of my last concerns as a parent. I can only guess that writers on parenting have run out of topics—or, parents are over-involved and over-identifying with their children to the point that they assume their little ones must feel possessive about their "art" in the same way adults might.

My observation of children is that they’re much more interested in the process than the product. When my sons were small the house was awash in drawings, and when it got to be too much, I simply saved the ones that meant something to me (some of which I still have) and tossed the rest. If they’d cared, I would have instituted a regular time when we sat down together and decided—on the basis of “interesting” rather than “good”—what was to be kept. I would not have thrown away anything they really wanted, even secretly. However I can assure you it would not have been an issue. 

Parents often ask me how they can encourage their children's artistic abilities, and appear disappointed when I suggest that, outside of providing them with materials and unstructured time alone, they do no such thing. Children don't need encouragement; they are by nature obsessive, creative beings. Why turn something they love to do for themselves into an opportunity for praise and approval? It's only when it becomes drummed into them that the activity (as opposed to, say, building a Lego© tower, or a sand castle that gets washed away) has something to do with their self-worth, that they begin to consider the end product—to the point that by age 10 or so, they’re so self-conscious most give up drawing up altogether.

When I was a child, I didn't care if my parents saw what I did —in fact it would have been ruined for me if they had. That it was private, completely mine, made it special.

Now that I think of it, drawing was always in my life—and the same for my children. My father, an engineer with an artistic bent, drew for pleasure and my children’s father could usually be found, of an evening, penciling designs for futuristic cars. Drawing was a pastime, nothing to be fussed over, just something people did, like reading the newspaper

I know two people who grew up with parents of wildly different attitudes when it came to their children's output:

Artist Marilyn Minter’s mother not only didn’t keep the things she did as a child, she discouraged Marilyn from drawing altogether (see the story in the Times).

Then there’s Erica, whose parents allowed her to save everything she touched—EVERYTHING, no exaggeration. Not just art, but all of her written papers, tests, party invitations, and myriad keepsakes, such as her 8th grade boy friend’s football jersey, were stashed away in their Great Neck home until just two years ago when, at 32, Erica, a documentary filmmaker, began dismantling, disposing, and documenting, what she refers to as the Erica Spizz Archives and Presidential Library (I was gifted with an invite to her Sweet Sixteen). It’s still an ongoing project.

Anyway, from what I can tell, both Marilyn and Erica have turned out just fine.

Published with permission from the Erica Spizz Archives and Presidential Library.
October 23, 2009

Photo: Rachel Short

The wedding under the Big Sur redwoods was vivid and mythical (son Matt’s words), a true love fest—made even more so by the presence of Zach, Nick, Nora and Maisie, ages 3,4, 6 and 8, the children of both Michelle’s best friend and Matt’s step-sister. Today, reading “For Some Parents Shouting is the New Spanking” ("most emailed" in the Times), I thought about how happy and expressed everyone was, how the children intermingled with the adults for the entire weekend without incident—no tears, no drama—their presence adding significantly to the joyous vibe. I’ve observed that parents who yell and feel guilty about it tend to be those who are most afraid to assert themselves, letting bad behavior go until they can’t stand it anymore—like my friend who, instead of nipping it in the bud, used to tolerate her daughter’s endless whining before exploding (and 15 years later she still whines). The hallmark of such parents is the anxious “Okay?” they attach to every directive, as if begging permission from their children to set the terms. I can’t claim I never lost it as a parent, but I found that being clear and tenacious enabled me to truly enjoy my children (looking back, although my life has always had richness and depth, the time when my sons were small was the happiest of all—as well as the most artistically productive). The parents of the children at the wedding had done their work beforehand so could trust them to roam free and have a good time. Hardly repressed, here’s little Zach on the dance floor:

Thanks to DJs Mike B. & Adam Freeland for turning us all into dancing fools.
May 12, 2009
I don’t believe in children’s music—which doesn’t mean I don’t believe in children engaging with music, just that I don’t know why children should be subjected to music that not only talks down to them, is irritating to the adults around them. “They like it,” you’ll hear parents say by way of justifying this annoying genre (they like TV and junk food, too, if you give them enough of it) but trust me, children like any and ALL music, even—and especially—your music, if you give them the chance. I wouldn’t read them books I didn’t enjoy with illustrations I didn’t like either.

I can also tell you that their father and I brought two sons into functioning adulthood without any of that crap—and it’s something they’ve continually thanked us for.

Although Matt's the music professional, my most vivid early memories of my children and music have to do with his younger brother, Adam, probably because of the dark winter when Adam was two and had pneumonia, which meant long weeks inside with just mom and the stereo. He spent hours dancing to the Beatles in front of the speakers, identifying which side of the album he wanted to hear by pointing to the cut or whole apple illustrated on the label. Among his other favorites were Bob Marley's “I shot the sheriff but I didn’t shoot the dead tree” and Paul McCartney’s “Man on the Rug." I remember trying to tear him away from Elton John’s "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" when we were late for a doctor appointment, by promising that we’d listen to the radio in the car. He was screaming “Yellow Brick Road! Yellow Brick Road!” as I carried him out and once in the car, insisted on hearing it there. I tried to explain that the radio played what it wanted, not what we wanted, but lost all credibility when I turned it on to find it playing—of course—“Yellow Brick Road.”

This all comes to mind as I’ve recently been spending much delightful time with various friends’ toddlers, loving the way 1-4 year olds are so trustingly imitative while remaining true to their emerging personalities—a combination that’s often hilarious. Then this morning Cary Smith sent me the link to this video of Thom Yorke singing the Radiohead classic “Weird Fishes” with orchestra (wait for the sound to start)…

…after which I found this, and it cracks me up:

Don't skip over the song links to the music videos above, each one better than the next, ending with Elton John accompanied by Muppets, the Sesame Street album being a big exception to my rule—because I enjoyed it. Happy parents, I always think, make for happy children. And why not give them something that enriches not only their present, but future life?
December 1, 2008
Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene on the front page of yesterday’s Times is an article about how Atlas Sports Genetics, in Boulder, CO “is playing into the obsessions of parents by offering a $149 test that aims to predict a child’s natural athletic strengths…The test’s goal is to determine whether a person would be best at speed and power sports like sprinting or football, or endurance sports like distance running, or a combination of the two.” One mother said, “I think it would relieve a lot of parental frustration.”

In our rush to control our children’s experience, we forget that people sometimes learn most from attempting to do those things for which they’re not naturally gifted.

As a child, my most obvious talents were musical, and although I studied classical piano for 20 years, I turned out to be an artist—no doubt because, not in spite of, of the challenges art continues to present.

I don’t practice yoga because I’m naturally flexible, but because I’m not.

In Lawrence Wechsler’s biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Irwin says:

In my years…as a teacher, I’ve seen it over and over again. It’s the kids with the greatest facility who can run up against the biggest problems. You are the best in your class without even trying, which is the best way to learn nothing…The not-so-facile kid just plugs along, every step is a working step, and he comes to the twentieth step and it’s just another step. But facility is a funny thing—it takes you way up, you soar, and you look like you’re really doing something—but at a certain point you go as far as you can with facility, and then you hit the big questions. And for you, who’ve never been pressed, that can present a huge roadblock. I’ve seen a lot of kids get waylaid at this point…

I’m convinced children are best served when the quality of their effort is applauded, rather than their success. ("The process is the reality," as Samuel Johnson said.) And because there’s a Times article to back up every opinion, here’s Praise Children for Effort, Not Intelligence, Study Says, from 1998.

September 23, 2008
Upholstery eater (photo by Aunt Nicola)
Terry and Traer tell me they found big chunks of upholstery gone from the back seat of the car, only to discover that their 16-month-old daughter, Nya, had been eating it. Interestingly, when they told Terry’s mum, she said that Terry and his twin brother also used to eat car upholstery. Then the other day I had a conversation with Sherry, the mother of a 17-month old who CANNOT STAND to eat two foods of different textures together. It turns out that Sherry’s in-laws are almost phobic about not eating sauces or condiments, separating the food on their plates so that it doesn’t touch, and making sure they consume each serving fully before going on to the next. No spaghetti and meatballs for them, or pizza, or....It makes me wonder if there's anything to the nurture part, if we're as original as we think we are, or just walking bundles of endlessly reshuffled genetic traits--and if Nya would tolerate a little ketchup with her upholstery.