Let Them Be Messy

Too often, I try to control Roo’s creativity. I give her a paint brush and paint and tell her to have fun. Then I start with the “Nos.”
“No, don’t mix the colors, you’ll make a muddy color.”
“No, spread the paint all over, don’t soak one spot.”
“No, paint goes on paper, not your legs!”
“No, you’re getting paint all over the floor/walls/cabinets.”
“No, keep painting! Why aren’t you having fun?”
I know I’m not the only one. Many parents cite the mess as a big reason why they don’t do art projects with their kids more often. When possible, we take our art outside. We made makeshift easels with old cardboard boxes and tape. Roo was in old clothes this time, but sometimes we do no clothes or an art smock. Still, I find ways to lead Roo’s art.
Pablo Picasso said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
This doesn’t mean we hand our children paint supplies, walk away, and come back to find a masterpiece that rivals the Mona Lisa. But artistry, at its core, is finding beauty and meaning in something simple and messy. Children are always simplistic and messy. Messy is how they create and learn. The adults, their mentors, and teachers complicate and clean and place restrictions. Instead, we should build on their curiosity. Give them safe boundaries and expectations but let them be wild within them. Most of all, we should learn from them.
As I painted alongside Roo, I grew frustrated that my flower was not a perfect Bob Ross flower. I blamed the paint, I blamed the paper, I blamed my talent (or lack thereof) then I looked over at Roo. I noticed her face before the picture she painted. Her eyes were studious, with a crease in her forehead. She bit her tongue in concentration. Her legs were still, not bouncing and fidgeting like she usually is. And she was humming a little song, with no particular tune.
She was happy.
She was content.
Through the simple act of putting colors on paper, she was happy. She was mostly making a mess, yes. But she wasn’t bouncing from activity to activity and jumping on the furniture or spinning in circles or throwing a tantrum on the floor.
I gave up my attempt at perfection, and instead, I made a mess. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was fun. It was simple. I was content with it. It represented the beauty in the mess, the peace in the simplicity.
Art isn’t a cure-all. After twenty minutes, Roo was back to bouncing and tantrums. She was proud of her work but had no expectations for it to be displayed or preserved for all time. It was the fun of the action that drove her. As adults, we should learn that from our children. How many crafts or art projects do we fuss over because they aren’t perfect? Can we get back to loving the art, whatever it may be, just for the act of creating something?
What was the last thing you made, that was ugly or useless, but you had fun making it?


  1. […] left to her own devices, Roo will ALWAYS mix her paint into a muddy mess. Which is fine sometimes. Other times, I know we’ll both be happier with the end product if it’s less muddy. So […]

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