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Heffner column: Loosen the lines

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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St. James Plaindealer

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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Some years ago, child-care centers around the country posted what seemed like commercial art work on classroom bulletin boards. Apparently, some centers used individual pages of coloring books as worksheets for the children to color. The quality of the work was judged by the ability of a child while coloring to stay within the outlines of the objects shown on the page.

More recently, there has been a revival of interest in coloring books, some even made for adults. The newer ones not only have outlines of pictures to be colored but also suggested use of the colors to be used in various pictures. Apparently, the art work consists of an ability to fulfill predetermined decisions about what creativity will allow.

Too often, the judgment made of children’s work has to do with how well they stay within the lines of the objects on the page when coloring. In some ways it is like the practice sheets that children are given on which to copy letters when learning the alphabet. In both instances, success comes from achieving the control necessary for the task. Children are praised for staying within the lines and their work is appraised accordingly.

Actually, there is a deeper significance to the value placed on staying within the lines when coloring. This speaks to an important task of the preschool years relating to the development of inner controls. In the early years, children express their feelings and wishes directly through their behavior, easily striking out when upset or frustrated. A major challenge for parents in these years is helping children express themselves in socially appropriate ways while at the same time providing the controls children are not yet able to provide for themselves.

During these early years, children are busy exploring many aspects of their world and the question of what the lines are within which they are expected to behave is much broader than the coloring sheet they may be given. Parents are constantly confronted with this question as they try to determine what the appropriate expectations are or should be for their children. Parents draw the lines and children comply, rebel or in various ways explore the flexibility of those lines.

These questions have taken on new meaning currently during the pandemic which has brought with it much tighter lines for parents and children alike. With many restrictions and behavior requirements related to safety in place, both the physical and social world of children has narrowed, stressing parents as well as their children. With the reopening of schools still in question, parents worry not only about safety but about children falling behind educationally.

Such concerns may increase pressure on children to comply with increased regulations and achievements in remote learning. In reality, this may be an opportunity to move in a different direction, away from an emphasis on mastering a specific body of information and achieving specifically valued skills, to exploring ways of stimulating children’s inherent creative potential, and freeing them to develop original ideas and thinking.

One may see this at work in young children when they are provided with materials to use without specific directions about how they are to be used. Children are not at all inhibited by a need to work within a specific space, such as an outline of an object, and become more engaged in exploring the potential of the medium they are using than with what adults might see as a realistic purpose.

The challenge today may be to support children’s creative freedom by loosening wherever possible the lines they are required to stay within.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.