My husband Bob, even in his 60’s now, remembers his junior high school art teacher. His job doesn’t require much by way of drawing skills, but he does have to sketch the occasional diagram or flow chart to illustrate a concept. Often while doing that, he finds himself apologizing for his lack of artistry.

He was generally a good student, but not in art class.

The art teacher told him he’d pass him under one condition: that he never enroll in another art class again. Now, Bob can tell that as a funny story, meant to make fun of his lack of artistic skills, but I find it deeply sad.

Think about the impact of that comment coming from a teacher. Granted, some people have more innate ability than others, but everyone can grow. What would a comment like that sound like had it come from a math teacher? “You’re no good at math. Why don’t you give up and focus on something else?”

True, my husband had no innate talent for art. But what are some other ways his art teacher could have approached the situation?

Excellence without the sting

  • Skills can be learned. Focus on teaching skills. Not everyone is destined to become an artist, but everyone can improve their drawing skills and move toward basic competency.
  • excellence in creativityDefine art more broadly as creativity. Maybe drawing isn’t everyone’s preferred medium, but that doesn’t mean artistry can’t be expressed in other ways. Some people are creative with words, with ideas, with people, with structures. Find that creativity.
  • Enjoy the act of creating art. Instead of feeling shame over the results, learn to experience joy in the creative process. This is the equivalent of singing in the shower– who needs an audience when expression is the goal?

How do parents handle similar issues with our children?

Do we place such an emphasis on excellence and proper behavior that we discourage or shame our children when they don’t fit the cultural standards?

Correction can be discouraging

excellence social skillsA friend of mine recently saw a mother and her three-year-old daughter at church. She was a cute, sweet little girl and my friend said hi to her, smiled and waved. The little girl immediately hid behind her mother’s legs and her mother began prompting her: “Say hi back, Klarissa.” And she started crying.

My friend felt bad for putting the girl into the situation in the first place, for it was one she recognized. Her own daughter, now a teenager, had responded the exact same way when she was younger.

Not everyone is naturally good at talking with people they don’t know very well. Yet it’s a skill that everyone will need at a basic level.

What if this mother explained to my friend– in front of her child– that she’s not very good socially and therefore excused from giving a polite response? On the other hand, what if she forced her to carry on lengthy conversations with strangers regularly, paying no heed to her natural inclinations? Both extremes can be damaging.

Or correction can be effective.

What the mother did was talk with her daughter at home and tell her, “Sometimes when we’re out, people I know will say hello to you. You don’t have to talk with them for a long time, but it’s polite to say hello back.” They practiced it and she understood the expectation. Next time they ran into that situation in public, the girl still hid, and the mother still had to prompt her to say hi back… but she had courage and did it. And her mother praised her for the effort.

This type of approach is the better one for setting her up to have successful social skills in the future: encouragement, teaching, practice, and taking small steps forward… even in areas we’re not naturally good at.

Tweetable:  We want kids to do their best, performing with excellence. Our criticism is intended to spur them on to a higher level, but here is a timely reminder to check ourselves before our words sting.  Click to Tweet