Don’t Discipline the Artist

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Confession: When my daughter was 4 years old, I left her alone in her room for a full 30 minutes.

She was sitting comfortably in her big purple lounge chair watching an episode of Good Luck Charlie. I saw it as an opportunity to steal a date with my DVR, so I snuck into the living room with a mug of hot chocolate and caught up with my girls from the Housewives of Atlanta. That was a mistake.

When my half hour of child neglect was over, I went back into my daughter’s room to find her wearing nothing but panties and covered from head to toe in paint. The floor and walls looked like the crime scene of a rainbow massacre.

We stared at each other in shock for moment until she broke the silence with, “I wanted new clothes.”

Let me give you some background here.

My daughter is a child who used a dress-form jewelry holder (a gift she received for Christmas) as a mannequin on which she made dresses out of paper. I video taped it. She made these paper dresses for each of her dolls. She still cries if you tell her to put down her paint brush to go outside and play (unless, of course, she’s bringing sidewalk chalk).

I’ve always been the kind of mother who encourages artistic expression. Once, a friend of mine complained that his daughter was constantly drawing on her walls. He said that he tried all forms of discipline that he could think of, and still, while tucking her in at night, he would find an army of hairy stick figures finding shelter behind her stuffed animals that sat on the wall. My advice to him: Stop fighting it. Pick one wall in her room, and cover it top to bottom in paper or chalkboard paint. That will be the wall that she is allowed to draw on. Who knows? Maybe she’ll be a muralist someday.

So you might wonder how I handled the paint explosion in my daughter’s room.

After making sure that she didn’t swallow any, I had her help me clean it up, and after a bath, we took a trip to the store and bought children’s body paint intended for bath time use.

This situation, in my opinion, didn’t require any discipline. To be honest, in her six years of life, I can’t say that she has ever been disciplined. She’s been enlisted as a member of the clean-up crew, she’s had meetings with her father and I to discuss better ways of handling things, and she has gone to bed earlier than usual on particularly crabby days, but she has not been disciplined. I don’t think discipline is a word that should be linked to childhood as strongly as it is. That’s not to say that children do not need guidance and direction, only that it doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of discipline.

Admittedly, I could be completely wrong about this. I mean, I only have one child, and perhaps that’s not enough to make me a parenting expert. But my experience has lead me to realize the power of mutual respect.

Our daughter is free to express herself in any way that she chooses (artistically, verbally, etc.). She knows that we respect and value her feelings, her opinions, and her imagination. In turn, she willingly respects our requests. We don’t impose our will. Instead, we allow her to choose what decision she is going to make on her own.

I asked her if she enjoyed having her walls and floor full of paint. She didn’t, and because she takes pride in her room, she willingly agreed to clean up her mess. Most importantly, she was never reprimanded for expressing herself artistically.

Just one year later, our daughter Leeana (aka Leli) received a sewing machine for Christmas, and now she really makes her own clothes. You can read more about that in this blog post that I wrote for Parents.com.

I often wonder if this approach would work with other children. I’m still too afraid to find out.

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