Last month, the teachers at my son’s pre-K assigned the students a diorama project. I will admit that my first thought was, “Oh geez, like I need another thing to add to my to-do list. And why did I just throw away that shoebox? Dammit.”
Soon enough, I acquired another shoebox (my kids’ feet grow so fast I can’t keep up!), and I realized something too. This was an art project for 4-year-olds. It didn’t have to be fancy, complicated, or stressful. I’d just tell my kid what the assignment was, and use stuff that we already have at home to make the thing.
The kids were studying habitats — what they are and the different kinds of habitats that exist in nature and the world. I told my son to pick a place where people or animals live. Pragmatic realist that he can be, he chose our living room and asked my husband to draw in the walls, the furniture, and the fishbowl on the bookcase.
Then he went around the house finding toys of his that were small enough to fit inside the shoebox and asked me to tape them in, to represent his toys. And that was that. It seemed kind of silly to be sending him to school with a box full of toys, but to him, it was the most beautiful and authentic thing in the universe.
And it was his creation, depicting what was most precious to him. In a way, I found it kind of riveting, like some trippy Salvador Dali painting — a mini plastic purple croc taped to the wall and a Shopkin hanging from the ceiling.
But when we dropped it off at his school, I was taken aback by the other projects. Almost all of them were bigger, fancier, and far more complex than his. One depicted the habit of a frog perfectly, complete with felt lily pads, and a little list of frog factoids on the side. Another had a handmade but very realistic looking bird’s nest and what looked like real blue jay eggs.
One or two dioramas had the mark of a pre-K student (messy scribble, crooked glue job), but most looked close to something you would “pin” on that one website we all hate to love.
I mean, obviously at barely 4 years old, these kids can’t do everything themselves — and I know that my son needed us to help him with some aspects of his project — but walking into his classroom felt like we were walking into some type of exhibit that showcased the talents of parents posing as preschoolers.
Before going off on an endless rant in my head about helicopter parenting and “parents these days,” I took some time to reflect on my annoyance.
See, I totally get the desire to participate when it comes to our kids’ art projects, science projects, homework, and really anything that they set out to accomplish. Many of us have this ingrained need for perfection, and it’s hard to abide by the standards of tiny humans who don’t share the same vision for the end-product as we do.
And there’s the other aspect to all this that we need to acknowledge, which is that getting a young kid to accomplish anything with a deadline or structure can be extremely frustrating, and it can often be much easier to just do the damn thing yourself.
Likewise, trusting anyone under the age of 7 with art supplies is a dicey game, especially if glue or glitter are involved. (Full disclosure: There’s a lifetime ban on loose glitter in my house.)
At the heart of the matter, I think what this might be about most is wanting our kids to look good — to have the best project out there and impress the pants off of anyone who sees it. Let’s face it: When our kids look good, so do we.
The thing is, it serves no one for parents to do their kids’ projects themselves. Eventually, kids need to learn to do things themselves, in their own ways — even if it means their work will be less impressive. When we “help,” we need to evaluate if we are helping for our kids’ sakes, or for our own gain. And if it’s just so we look good, we need to take a giant step back, maybe several, and let our kids express themselves and bask in the glory of their own accomplishments.
As a creative person myself, I take particular issue with art projects. Pablo Picasso put it perfectly, I think, when he described the capacity of children to make art: “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
He’s absolutely right (after all, he was Picasso). Children are born with a natural inclination toward creativity and artistry. And it’s our responsibility not to stifle that, which means letting them make the messiest, most authentic art projects out there, even when those projects will be displayed outside of our homes. It means keeping our hands off of their work, unless they ask us for specific help.
Listen, I’m not in la-la land over here, and I know most kids aren’t going to grow up to be Picassos themselves. But even if art is not their chosen field, it is important for them to cultivate their own unique style of expression and learn how to think outside the box in a creative manner. These are important life skills and vital to almost all careers in one way or another. Feeling confident in expressing oneself is something we all need, especially in today’s world.
But most of all, we need to step back whenever possible and just let our kids be kids. It’s the best gift we can give them, even if it occasionally means our house is covered end to end in glue and glitter.