“Hey, mom! Want to color in Cutielicious?”
Yes, I do. I love Cutielicious. It’s a super fun doodle book with just enough structure for the creatively challenged (me) and more than enough freedom for the artistically inclined (Helen). One of the best purchases I’ve ever made, it makes me happy to color in this ultra cute book with my little girl.
“Ooooh! Let’s color the cookie page,” my little one exclaims. “Which cookie do you want to do?”
I select my cookie declaring, “I’m going to color it like one of the yummy sugar cookies with the slick pink frosting on it. I love those. I’ll try a pink circle in the middle and then color around it with tan.”*
“No. You have to color it all brown first.”
“I don’t want to color it all brown first, then it won’t look like I want it to.”
“But I want you to make it look like this one,” my little girl asserts, pointing to the sample cookie provided.
Um. That’s an ugly cookie. I don’t like the way it looks. I wanted to color it like the delicious cookie in my brain.
“Why can’t I color my cookie the way I want to color my cookie?” I ask a little petulantly.
“Because I want it to look like this one!”
“Then you can color yours like that one. I want to make mine a pink sugar cookie.” I’m a little surprised at how strongly I feel about this and how grumpy I am to have my small opportunity for creativity wrestled from me by my tyrannical daughter insisting I recreate the uninspired cookie offered as a model.
At her further insistence I copy this stupid cookie, while she criticizes my efforts.
“Those circles aren’t round enough!”
“That’s the wrong color.”
I take a deep breath and remind myself that I am a grown up, that the activity in front of me is not about my artistic (ha!) expression but about connecting and sharing time with my precious daughter. So I copied the ugly cookie.*
And then I thought about how often we suck the joy out of our children by asking them to copy the ugly cookie.
It may go something like this.
“Hey mom! Can I help you clean the bathroom?” a child asks enthusiastically while grabbing the spray bottle of homemade non-toxic cleaner.
“Sure! Here, spray right here. . .wait, no, that’s too much! No, don’t spray there, here, that’s enough. Okay now. Wait! Where are you going? I thought you wanted to help me!”
Or maybe this is more familiar.
“Mom! Look! I wrote a poem! Want to read it?”
“Sure! . . . Oh, you misspelled this word. You should put a comma here. Do you think it would be better if you. . . “
Or sometimes around here it’s:
“Mom! Can I make a cake?”
“Sure, first you need to . . . okay now . . . wait, let me just . . . good now . . . wait! I thought you were going to make a cake!”
The resentment I felt at being forced to copy that ugly cookie, the disappointment at having my joy and vision subjugated to someone else’s agenda, made me realize just how damaging it is to interrupt a child’s inspiration. Not only does it prevent their expressing their creativity, but it robs them of the motivation to act in any way. I copied that ugly cookie, but I didn’t want to and I hated every minute of it. And when I was finally allowed to create my own cookie, the joy was gone.
I’m pretty sure that had I had the freedom to create my own cookie first, I would have happily copied that ugly cookie to please my little girl. Of course, I’m a grown up. I can get over it. But every time we ask a child to copy the ugly cookie before they’re allowed to create the cookie that inspires their joy, we rob them of the opportunity to express their unique vision. We deny them the satisfaction that comes from acting on their internal motivation to create something that pleases them. Ultimately, we prevent them from learning to be self-motivated individuals who can conceive of an idea and follow through on it’s implementation without always having someone else tell them what to do and how to do it.
I’m going to try to cultivate an awareness for when I’m asking my children to copy an ugly cookie. I’d much rather see the beautiful pink-frosted sugar cookies lurking in their brains.
* I would like to say for the record that I can see that the “ugly cookie” I created under my daughter’s direction is, in fact, much cooler than the pink sugar cookie of my imagination. But that’s hardly the point now, is it?