I often hear parents reminiscing with great fondness about the time they spend “colouring” with their children. It seems adults get a lot of joy out of this activity and feel as though this time is meaningful and relationship building. But what messages are we sending about self-expression, creativity and self-efficacy, during our time together? While blissfully colouring the blue in on your Anna, feeling like mother of the year because you just perfectly coloured my child’s favourite cartoon character, have you stopped to think…. what does your child think as she stares at her page and yours?

Your princess is perfect. How do you think your child feels when she looks over at your princess and it looks identical to the one from the movie? But she can’t even colour inside the lines. This well-meaning approach actually sets them up for failure from the beginning, because no child can colour within the lines at first, it takes years!! But if they were to scribble that blue blob onto a plain piece of paper, it could be a ball, a cloud, a head, a bunny, whatever! And can change as the picture evolves and they delve deeper into their own imagination.

Your child may feel they need to do something, or create something, in order for you to spend time with them. The more likely reason your child appears to be enjoying this activity, is because it is one-on-one with you. Think about all the other things you do together? Do they enjoy those too? Do those activities require them to produce something for your approval? Art is subjective. Colouring books are not subjective. Every piece of art in the world has a fan and a critic. I want my children to be inspired to create in order to fulfill an internal desire to express themselves, not to obtain external approval.

Colouring books are one of the least creative materials we can offer children. They tell children what something should look like. I can’t draw a dog that’s as cute and proportioned as the one in a colouring book, but children see these images and assume this is what an illustrated dog looks like, anything else is not “good enough.” This stifles their imagination and creativity. We want children who draw pink dogs with wings and a super hero cape because those types of divergent thinkers are the ones who cure diseases and develop technology that improves and saves lives.

Learning how to colour someone else’s drawing of a cartoon provides very little learning opportunity and actually hinders creative development. Instead of your child using their imagination to dream up what a “tree” is to them, they are told, this is what a tree looks like (when cartoon drawings of trees are usually only elms and Christmas trees). I want my child to feel free to draw a blue tree with snakes as branches and watermelon leaves. That would make me much more proud than a carbon copy of a cartoon tree.

The children who we teach to colour inside the lines will always feel stuck within that invisible societal box. The children who draw fish with wings and fairies in karate uniforms are the children who will figure out how to save our planet, how to provide energy to the world without destroying it, how to end child poverty. A colouring book tells a child that what you have to draw (and by extension what you have to say or think) is not worth even drawing, so here I’ll give you this black and white cartoon, you can attempt to fill in the presumed colours.

Another concern is access to open-ended art supplies. Keeping art supplies locked away hinders creative development. We’re telling them that creativity is only acceptable when it is done with our supervision and on our schedule. Most of the children who do not have access to art supplies cannot articulate that they want a crayon and paper. Even if they feel inspired, they have no outlet for their creativity, so they learn this aspect of their minds is useless and devalued. In fact it may even feel forbidden, or bad, depending on your child and what type of language is being used during conversations about mess and art. I find it surprising that some very enlightened parents, who truly value their children’s verbal expressions, can just completely discount and discredit this important means of communication and self-expression.

Plain paper and crayons are the most beneficial for children’s fine motor development and creativity. They are open-ended, limitless and encourage divergent thinking. I want my child to look at a blank page and see possibilities, not feel fear about having to come up with an original thought.

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Creative expression is an powerful outlet for thoughts and feelings. It’s can be a very effective responsive parenting tool. Offering a few markers and a clipboard with plain white paper, while you and your child sit in the comfy corner, can demonstrate that drawing, and ultimately writing is an effective self-regulation tool. Thoughts and feelings can be expressed in a healthy and productive way.

So now that I’ve made you feel a bunch of parenting guilt over a seemingly special activity you do with your child, I’m sure your left asking, what should I do, then? Please know that every parent who is sitting down to colour with their child is an amazing and engaged parent, who loves their child. But, just as we thought giving time-outs was helpful, this is another one of those things that we think is such a good idea, but really there are so much more effective ways of engaging in very similar activities. These tips can help refocus your creative art experiences with your child, so you both can make the most out of your time connecting and creating together.

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I would like to add that this approach is not an alternative view. It is the approach that we are taught and use in the field of early childhood education and child development. It is best practice and has been proven to be effective at fostering creative development. Many people responded to this article saying their child never felt hindered by seeing them colour better than they do. It’s funny because I have yet to meet a child who was not hindered by adult involvement in their art. One of the first things we are taught is not to make play dough balls for children. Once you make one, they never want to try and make one themselves, they just keep asking you to make them because yours are better. I have seen it over and over again. Instead we sit with them and discuss the various ways one might create a play dough ball. Yes, we may only end up with one blob of play dough after, 30 minutes, instead of a table full of perfect little play dough balls, but the benefit of that time spent together, in discussion about artistic processes and creation is far more beneficial than your child seeing you can colour inside the lines better than they can.

If you want to join me, and our community of responsive parents, on this wonderfully complex journey of parenting, please join my parenting support group on Facebook https://m.facebook.com/groups/806727139517086