This past Sunday I helped in the toddler room at church. When coloring-time rolled around, I was impressed with the enthusiasm with which the toddlers took to their task, even if—to be perfectly frank—the end products weren’t that great by any objective measure. What I’m saying is that it was a lot of scribble-scrabble, but it was scribble-scrabble done with joy and confidence. When you put crayons and paper in front of a toddler, she knows what to do. She doesn’t get all up in her head or feel like an impostor or wonder if she really has the right to call herself an artist.

The toddlers made me think of a lengthy passage in The Soul of Desire in which Curt Thompson writes about what we can learn from small children’s approach to art-making. He writes,

For children, play often involves the act of making things, of creating as they have been made to create. We do not have to teach our children to want to make things. They were born for this. The impulse to put things together—to paint, draw, scribble, or form things out of play dough—is as common and natural for children as breathing.

As Thompson points out, a child’s art-making is deeply relational. “The things children make are usually made with the understanding that others will enjoy them.” The instinct toward beauty is an instinct toward delight—not just the delight of the maker, but the delight of the recipient of the artifact. Art-making is an act of generosity. And that generosity is a means of deepening relationship. 

Children make things because there is someone with whom to share them. It is the very presence of others that draws out their creative impulses to their fullest…Children create because they anticipate someone being there to receive it. Even if the three-year-old is the one with the crayons, it’s the anticipation of her mother’s and father’s delight that fuels the movement of her little hands on the paper. Creating beauty, then, is a collaborative act.

The irony is that as we get older and (hopefully) a little better at creating the beauty that we long to make and share and delight in and become, we learn to get self-critical and self-absorbed and self-serving in our art-making. Self-criticism, by the way, is a necessary part of the process. The utter confidence with which a two-year-old produces and presents a crayon scribble-scrabble is charming and altogether appropriate. But we expect more from people whose fine motor skills are more fully developed.

So here’s a question: how do you maintain a child-like commitment to delight and generosity and beauty and relationship in your creative work while also committing to do better work? Send me an email. I’d love to put together a future episode of The Habit Weekly in which I share some of your responses.

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