When Parents Are Embarrassed By Their Child’s Art

Remember the days when you went to school.  Probably once a week, you had art class.  You drew and painted and explored and created.

And then you took your work home, proud and eager to show Mom.  And she would gush over it and tell you how proud she was of you.  She might even hang it on the fridge.

Every day that I spend with kids in the art room, I assume this will be the final destination of nearly every project we complete together.  As we paint and draw, the work being done needs to be seen.  It needs to be shared.  Every time I hang a class’s work outside the room, I always get lots of compliments from parents and teachers.  It feels good to be the art teacher.  When the kids’ work looks good, I look good.

So I was surprised recently when a mother came through my door to say, “I am so sorry about my daughter’s project.  It’s embarrassing!”  She let out a laugh as she left my room and walked past her her daughter’s work, hanging with the rest of her class.

What kind of mother would call her own daughter’s artwork embarrassing, much less tell her daughter this?

Could this mother actually be doing her daughter some kind of huge favor?

Embarrassing Ourselves Without Knowing It

The laugh that mother let out reminded me of my own mother.  Dad called it a “bar room” laugh.  It’s a loud, shouting laugh that can be heard over a crowd.  It’s tinged with snark.  It invites other people to laugh along.

I knew I was being invited to laugh along.  Because we weren’t talking about a seven-year-old and her precious fingerpainting.  We were talking about a pre-teen girl.

“I wanted something we could hang up.  This is going straight to her room,” Mom added.

It wasn’t that the work was done poorly.  The quality of the craftsmanship was adequate.  The subject matter was the problem.  The girl was simply fixated on some embarrassing pre-teen idols and icons (you know how preteen girls are), and her work was saturated with it in the most melodramatic way possible.  And there it was, hanging on the wall for Mom and the entire school to see.

This entire exchange made me realize two things:

For All Our Embarrassing Moments

I had wrongly assumed that all the art brought home by students was precious in their mothers’ eyes.  Not this time.  The student will take it home, and Mom will somehow tell her the truth.  She probably won’t laugh in her face, but it will hurt a little bit.

Think of all the moments your parents were there for you in those moments, to tell you that you were embarrassing yourself.

The awkward teenage years when your parents tried to guide you through relationships and general hygiene.  Some of us had a harder time than others.  Sometimes in our younger years, we’d blurt out embarrassing words that we heard at school, and Mom and Dad would deal with that.  All of the stumbles and embarrassments and “accidents”…many times, our parents were there.  In fact, our parents were probably embarrassed more often by us than we were by them.

And as I think back to all the times my dad gently, lovingly, quietly informed me in private that I was embarrassing myself, I shudder to think where I would be if he had just let me keep carrying on in ignorance.

As difficult as it is, we need someone who we trust to tell us we are embarrassing ourselves, to tell us not just that our fly is down, but that we are going the wrong way at something big in life.

Can’t Afford to Be Sentimental

Secondly, we simply cannot afford to be sentimental about everything we do.

Sometimes, what we make is just lousy…

…or embarrassing…

…or just not important.  It’s chaff.

That’s okay, because finding out some work we’ve done is lousy or unimportant is usually a learning and growing experience.  But if we hang dearly onto all the chaff we’re making, we can never distinguish the good from the bad.  We never discover our true gifts and callings.  We never figure out how to really make a great difference in the world.

Not every art project is meant to be hung on the fridge.  They don’t all have to be masterpieces.  Sometimes, it’s better to toss it in the trash and move on.

Do you have someone you trust to tell you that you’re embarrassing yourself?

[photo: lawrence_thefourth, Creative Commons]

  • Claire

    I have a feeling that the use of the illustration here might not resonate well with people who have difficult relationships to one or both parent figures…

    • http://twitter.com/owljones Owl Jones

      And so what? If someone has relationship problems with another human being, that’s their problem. It’s a great article – and it should be noted as well that the “fridge” isn’t exactly the thing to shoot for when making art. If that kid is an artist at heart, she’ll find a way – with or without her mother’s approval. We’ve got to stop worrying about hurting people’s feelings. That’s EXACTLY what this was about…..that and having honest people to tell you when you’re embarassing yourself…….Claire. That’s a hint.

      • Clairikine

        Apart from the fact that “worrying about hurting other people’s feelings” can often be symptomatic of being a decent human being, that wasn’t actually what I meant.

        I realize that ideally everyone grows up affirmed in every part of their
        identity by their parents, and that constructive criticism is a part of
        this process. I’m just saying that for instance, if someone’s
        relationship to their mother is undermined by mockery and shame, the
        fact that she would laugh about her daughter’s work in front of a
        classroom would not serve as an adequate illustration to get the point
        of the rest of the article across.

    • http://charityjilldenmark.wordpress.com/ Charity Jill Denmark

      I agree. My mom was embarrassed of a certain piece of writing I did when I was in grade school and desperately wanted to be a writer when I grew up…basically, I was being silly (as a 7 year old would) and she made me feel like I was perverted, because other people might have read what I wrote as being perverted (if they were completely obtuse and refused to recognize it was a child’s writing). This was indicative of a pattern with her, though. “You’re going to embarrass yourself” is a killing thought when it comes to creative work.

      • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt @ The Church of No People

        You all are right, except that, of course, I assume that this is not an extreme parental relationship based in shame. Even loving parents tell their kids once in a while that what they have done was not their best. (In fact, I would say that any loving parent should do this – when necessary.) As a teacher, I have learned the delicate line to walk between critiquing a child and crushing their spirits. It can be done, and it should be done.

    • Abby Normal

      I agree with Claire too. Folks complain a lot about kids these days getting praise just for participating, but the other end of that—where a kid NEVER hears their parent say “I’m proud of you”—can be even more damaging. My mom had that kind of relationship with her dad and it made things difficult for both of them, even years later.

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    There’s one piece of art (it’s a cat made of cardboard boxes and covered with blue tissue paper) that somewhere along the way my mom told me was ugly. It quite possibly was after it was displayed in our home for a number of years. It’s been a long-standing joke that Mom wants to dispose of the cat but I think it’s rude she’s trashing my hard work. After all, I’m not making her art to display anymore. She used to threaten that when I have a place of my own, the blue cat was (rightfully) becoming mine. Well, I’ve been living on my own for almost a year now. The cat is still proudly displayed in their finished basement. (When we designed the basement, we intentionally put in lighted shelves to display 3D works art projects like the cat, clay pots, glassblown vases, et al.)

    • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt @ The Church of No People

      And did that running joke scar you for life? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like you have a very loving, nurturing family who are able to still laugh at yourselves and keep trying hard at what you do. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Everyone being all sensitive and sanctimonious about everything they do only keeps us embarrassing ourselves without ever knowing it.

  • http://larryhehn.com Larry Hehn

    I have a couple of friends who will make the hard call and tell me what’s what. The three of us do that for each other. It’s not fun to receive (or give) that kind of feedback, but we appreciate having someone who cares enough to do that.

  • http://charityjilldenmark.wordpress.com/ Charity Jill Denmark

    That girl’s mom? She was protecting herself from judgment, not her daughter. Honest critique is one thing; shaming children into being afraid of taking risks and revealing what they care about is another. I’m terrified of sharing my work with people BECAUSE of receiving shaming critiques at a young age.

    • http://twitter.com/navychristian Dan Smith

      I agree completely with you! While Matt is undoubtedly telling good information in this article, the Mother is protecting herself instead of her daughter. We can be grateful that God does not do this to us.

      • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt @ The Church of No People

        I did not sense it that way, though there may be a speck of truth to what you say. Creating things is always risky. But there is a big difference between getting a big critique, and being told to give up. Charity, I’m sorry you experienced the latter. Big critiques can be redeeming as well.

  • Pingback: Embarrassed by Your Kids’ Art | The Church of No People

  • car2ner

    I tend to agree with Matt. Not every piece of “creativity” is all that clever. We will all have those moments we would rather forget. At that point we either decide that not everyone has the same tastes as us or we figure our effort was not all that good and try again next time. To quit our creative efforts for fear of judgement is sad. We will always be judged one way or another. I would rather hear the truth told with love, or at least kind honesty, than be deluded by sugar coating.

    • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt @ The Church of No People

      Yes – and the best cure for getting over those moments is being able to laugh easily at ourselves. I got the sense that this is a family who all laugh at themselves.

  • http://twitter.com/citrus_sunshine Andrea Ward

    Wow. This is amazing. This makes me see my parents in a whole new light. Thanks so much!

  • Abby Normal

    The nearest example from my own life that I can think of is when I was a teenage and going through my “bad poetry” phase. After reading some of my stuff (which I thought was brilliant at the time, by the way), my mom’s only response was “This is really…depressing.” (What can I say–it was the 90′s and I was one of the only 3 alternateens at my school. I spent a lot of time feigning depression back then.)
    10+ years later, I’m pretty embarassed by the stuff I wrote and I’m glad not that many people ever saw it. My mom did a good job of keeping me from taking myself too seriously about it (that, and reading enough *good* poetry to learn that making up words and not using commas does not turn you into e.e. cummings overnight certainly helped.)
    I do think the mom in your story was a little excessive, though—when my mom criticized my work, she did directly to me instead of mocking me in front of my English teacher and everybody. It also sounds like she was getting bent out shape about kind of a stupid thing—the girl in the story will most likely grow out of the boy-band-worshipping thing in a year or two all on her own.

    • car2ner

      I didn’t read it as the mom mocking the work in front of everyone but quietly confiding with the art teacher in a private conversation.

      • Abby Normal

        Ah, you’re probably right–I see that now on a second read.
        All the same, I’ll bet you twenty bucks that in a couple years the little girl will be more embarassed by that picture than her mother is right now.
        It seems kind of pointless to me to try to stop teenagers from doing things to embarass themselves (within reason, of course)–that’s kind of how they learn how to not make fools of themselves later.

        • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt @ The Church of No People

          Perhaps. I’m not a parenting expert. It would be interesting if there were some kind of study on that kind of thing. :) But I do know some kids who never learned when they were embarrassing themselves too! They just went right into adulthood, acting oblivious.

      • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt @ The Church of No People

        Yeah – it wasn’t like she was announcing to the world that her daughter is an idiot. Ironically, she wasn’t pleased with this piece of work because she knows her daughter can do better!

    • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt @ The Church of No People

      Maybe it came off as excessive, but I felt that her response was lighthearted and in good humor. She wasn’t going home to berate her child. It was playful and redeeming in tone. We have to have people who we are able to make dumb mistakes with, and still know that we are safe. Good parents demonstrate to their kids – they can make mistakes and the parents will sometimes point that out, but the parents still have their back.

  • Leslie

    I think a lot depends on HOW someone tells you that you’re embarrassing yourself. You can say, “this one isn’t your best, but I know you tried hard. How about (positive suggestion on how to improve project)?” We need to offer constructive criticism without squelching the enthusiasm and spirit.

    At age 3, our daughter announced she was going to be an artist when she grew up. Was her work better than the rest of the kids? No way. But she was so determined, we let her pursue her dream. Today shes a VP at a large graphic design firm, and her work is amazing.

    And yes, both my husband and my best friend are quite willing to point out my periodic stupidity… nicely, of course. How else will I know what to work on?

    • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt @ The Church of No People

      Yes! Case it point – thank you Leslie! Let kids pursue dreams – push them to pursue dreams, even. But when kids are doing things that are undermining themselves, sometimes they need to be told.

  • http://twitter.com/JonathanMontan Jonathan Montan

    My wife is my toughest and most ruthless editor,