Sunday, August 22, 2010

Weekly Column: When Messes Become Masterpieces

My poor toddler often gets left out of the most entertaining activities.

She’s too little to swing on the big swing, too sneaky to color with markers, and too sleepy to stay up past bedtime. And until recently, she’s also been too dangerously messy to paint. At least, in this sleep-deprived, always-cleaning mama’s eyes. She’s painted a few times, but the resulting disasters have made me wary of too many repeats.

While shopping for school supplies, we came across a row of paints among the treasures at the store. She was so excited at the idea of having her own box of paints that I’m sure she could have propelled us down the aisle with her enthusiastically waving arms.

“Paint, mama!” she yelled. “I can paint!”

Thinking it was time to give painting another try, I handed her a paint box. She cradled it lovingly for the rest of the shopping trip. At home, she clambered up to the kitchen table and pried the box open, immediately claiming ownership of the yellow paint brush. I filled a cup with water, placed a mat under her paper, laid a napkin nearby, and stepped back to watch the fun unfold.

Or, I tried to step back.

Each time I started to leave her alone with the paint, I’d remember one more thing she needed to know.

“You have to dip the brush in the water first,” I began, “then tap-tap it on the napkin before dipping it in the paint.” I held her paintbrush-laden hand for her, guiding her through the motions. “Then you can put it on your paper. See?”

She jabbed the brush at the paper with reckless abandon before aiming it at a new color of paint.

“Oh, wait!” I ordered. “Rinse it off first, so the colors don’t get all mixed!”

She dipped the brush in water, then put it straight back to the paper, leaving a watery trace of blue. Frustrated, she looked at the brush like she was a queen and the brush had failed to serve her royal purposes. Before she could behead it – or toss it across the room – I told her not to forget to dip the brush in paint first.

We went through the motions a few more times while I chanted a helpful reminder: Water, tap, paint, paper. Water, tap, paint, paper. When it seemed like she finally had the process down, I backed away again, intent upon letting her do it herself. Only…she started to get the chanted instructions mixed up, and before I knew it, nothing was going right.

Her paper was sodden and messy, her paints were mixed into awful shades of brown, and she’d leaned her arm across the tray of muddy paints. I sighed. This just wasn’t working.

Except – it was. She was so involved with creating her masterpiece that she didn’t care about the (washable!) paint smeared across her forearm. She didn’t care about the soggy paper or the terrible mess of muddy colors in her paint tray. She certainly didn’t care about my helpful chant. She was painting! She was imagining! She was having FUN in her mess, and I was learning from her joy.

I finally let her do as she wished. The finished artwork wasn’t the point here: the fun process was. As a mom who is uncomfortable with messes (which is strange since our place is always messy…) it felt good to let my two-year-old revel in her art. It felt good to let her run away with her imagination, and it REALLY felt good to smile while she enjoyed her paints.

[Online version here.]


  1. I love this story! What a happy ending! We always want to create order and tidiness and rules. But coloring outside the lines is how people learn to develop something really authentic (eventually). I'm so glad you let her try - with maybe a few extra sheets of newspaper around the creation zone to protect your own peace of mind!

  2. my 1.5 y.o. LOVES to paint and unlike his older brother, he does not get the concept of staying in the paper, thank goodness for washable paints.

    I love to see their excited faces as I hang their paintings on the front door to dry... it's a good thing we don't use that front door because you can barely find it under all their artwork...

  3. I abandoned water because of the watery-paint-soaked-kid problem. I just got a bottle each of blue red and yellow (at our dollar store) and squirt a little bit of each onto a coolwhip lid for them to dip into with their brushes.(and yes, they mix all their colors together) I've also found that my old T-shirts make perfect paint frocks to cover up their clothes, and a fitted twin-size bed sheet tied in a knot on one end covers the table nicely. After they are done painting I can put the t-shirts and sheet right into the wash machine.

  4. I'm so glad you guys had fun! I think it's really good for kids to get messy and explore and I'm thrilled Lauren enjoyed herself so thoroughly! (And hopefully that little chant will linger somewhere in the back of her mind, ready for her to bring out next time...or the time after that...or...)

  5. Young Mom - Those are fantastic tips! I've never thought of the bed-sheet before, but I'll definitely be trying it soon :) Thanks!


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?