By Tammy Samuels (9/27/12)
I was observing a classroom one day that was partaking in a particular art method called Monart. The aim of Monart is to teach art at its simplest level, for instance, teaching lines – thick, thin, straight, wavy… teaching shapes – circle, square, triangle, ellipse… and so on. Through copying and mirroring designs containing these simple forms, students build their drawing toolbox. Then, as a class, students copy certain forms for the day that when put all together, create a masterpiece. The day I was observing, the students created sunflowers, and oh MY were they absolutely gorgeous!! I was astounded that these small children had depicted this complex beauty of nature and each had done it so well and made it uniquely their own. I had a great urge to express my appreciation for their art, yet, I remembered one of the most important rules of Monart:
No judging another’s art.
In other words, this means that not only is it discouraged to make comments such as, “I don’t like your drawing,” or “You drew that too big,” or “That looks funny,” but it’s also looked down upon to share thoughts like, “I really like your picture,” or “That looks great,” or “I like how you did… [such and such].” I found the reasoning behind this fascinating: once a person judges another’s art in this environment, the activity becomes unsafe. The activity is meant to be done in a place of complete openness and vulnerability, where the focus is the individual’s own creative process and satisfaction, and the artist is free to explore. Once judgment becomes acceptable, the activity’s place shifts to one of limitation and the artist’s potential becomes endangered — the artist’s freedom to create and explore is now restrained by judgment, others’ approval or disapproval. What was once boundless, perfect, and celebrated for its own sake becomes limited, inadequate, and diluted.
So, I kept my judgment to myself. I did not want to disturb the sacredness of the work these children were doing, the beauty of their limitless freedom, and the perfection of their own creative journey. Upon reflection, I realized that the concept of “judging another’s art” and the damaging effects thereof also pertains to every aspect of the child’s journey. For example, how many times, in the purest of intention, had I told a child, “Good job!” after the child had completed a task? “Good job” is one of the most commonplace reactions to children in our society today… with great intentions. However, is this habit of “Good-jobbing” children actually aiding them in their journey? The answer is shockingly and resoundingly “No.” It definitely hinders our children’s process. Exactly like the rule in Monart, the judgment of another, even a parent, makes the activity unsafe and limits the child’s potential and freedom.
Alfie Kohn, author of twelve books in 15 different languages, and lecturer at parental groups, universities, and education conferences, writes about the issue of “Good-jobbing” in his article, “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’” (And he writes about this way better than I do!) He believes the five main reasons to quit saying “Good job” are that it: 1) Manipulates children, 2) Creates praise junkies, 3) Steals a child’s pleasure, 4) Causes loss of interest, and 5) Reduces achievement.
Kohn states, “Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us… kids come to rely on our evaluations, our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.” He implores us to be more aware of why we are giving these judgments, even if they are positive ones like “Good job!” Ask yourself, “What’s my motivation?” and “What are the effects of me doing this?” Is it to reassure them (resulting in a dependence on other’s approval)? Is it to encourage the child so that he or she is more likely to abide by our wishes (such as using a tangible reward, manipulating towards the desired result)? Is it to help the child give a verdict on the effort (thus telling the child how to feel instead of letting him feel his own pleasure from the effort?) Is it to motivate and encourage them (drawing more attention to the praise and away from the actual activity)? You get the idea.
For those of you, like me after experiencing this epiphany, thinking, “So… now what do I say instead of good job??” … there is a light at the end of the tunnel. What we ultimately want is to offer unconditional love to our children. We want to unconditionally support the best within them. The reason why judgments like “Good job” aren’t ultimately effective are because they’re conditional. Kohn says, “Whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done.”
What does this look like? Well, in the classroom, there are plenty of times a child proudly shares with me something he or she has accomplished. What would be my best response? My opinion, almost identical to Kohn’s, is to either: 1) Say nothing and nod (this meets their need for just sharing their joy with someone); 2) State what I see without evaluation (like, “You did it,” or “You cleaned that all by yourself.” This lets them know that I noticed); or 3) Ask a question (such as, “How did you decide what to draw?” or “What do you like best about it??” This may help cultivate their interest in the activity even further.) Each of these responses protects the child’s sacred process and journey, encouraging them to continue doing the activity for its own sake.
There will be many times that you are surrounded by the magnificent fruits of your child’s labors. The temptation to judge will be titanic. Will you give in? …especially when so many of your friends, family, neighbors, and community members are doing it? … especially when the urge to judge is heightened even more by the habit of doing it so many times before? Or will you remember the rule? … the simple and important life-giving, journey-honoring, unconditional-love-giving rule of Monart and of life? “No judging another’s art.” I have a feeling you’ll remember. And you’ll be gifting your child with something truly magnificent in doing so.