The Hidden Truth About Children’s Art

It's tempting to believe that kids are just scribbling. They aren't.

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Had I seen the painting in the Museum of Modern Art I could have easily been convinced it was a lost masterpiece of abstract expressionism. The simple, confident brush strokes evoked late Willem de Kooning or mid-career Joan Miro, tracing a figure akin to a Chinese character topped by a bold, nearly perfect circle surrounding by three violently precise splashes of red. It was an arresting image. Startling even. But it wasn’t a masterpiece and I didn’t see it from across a whitewashed gallery. I saw the piece, executed ambitiously on butcher paper, mounted on the wall of the Bainbridge Christian Preschool during the annual preschool art show. The artist of the work? My four-year-old son (genius status TBD). The name of the work? “Momma.”

The painting hung in the preschool for a while, but it eventually came home — as all school paintings do — and was stored away in a portfolio. But I kept thinking about it. I’m slightly prone to obsession and I obsessed because it felt like there must be something be something captured there beyond a flippant, ill-coordinated gesture. I’m not under the mistaken impression my son is an artistic savant, but there was so much intention in the painted figure — the three red dots in the center of a blue circle, the outstretched blue-green arm — that it felt dismissive to file it away with the rest of the early work. So, naturally, I pulled it back out.

I looked again. I wondered if this image might be a window into the mind of my son, a very strange place I wonder about a lot. The painting seemed to capture my wife in a fantastic way, with all of her simplicity and mild energy. Was this intentional? Was this insight? I had to know. So, being a reporter type, I started talking to people.

“A child at the age of four can’t verbalize what they might be feeling or experiencing,” play therapist and psychologist Dr. Giamarie Daino patiently explained to me. “At first, they explore the world through symbolism and expressing themselves artistically.” Daino added that art wasn’t so different than playing with dolls or dressing up in that creation is a form of symbolic play. It does, in fact, mean something.

For instance when a kid put on a white shirt and listens to another child’s heart. Those are symbols. They represent being a doctor even though they aren’t precisely a doctors smoke and stethoscope. The same thing is true for a kid who puts a circle on a piece of paper. It’s a symbol of something they’ve seen or experienced or learned in their life. And those symbols could be interpreted. Daino was prepared to interpret my son’s symbols.

It’s important to note before we dive into what that interpretation was, that while many might look at the interpretation of childrens’ drawings as akin to psychic cold-reading or palmistry, there is a huge body of research into the meaning of kid’s art. There is consistency in children’s symbology and technique, as well as consistency in how that changes developmentally as they grow.

One of the pioneers of the therapeutic interpretation of kid drawings, Dr. Joseph Di Leo, puts a fine point on the consistency of kids’ drawings in his opus Children’s Drawings As Diagnostic Aids, noting that no matter where a kid is on earth, or what culture they come from, a drawing of a person always begins with a circle (or some semblance of a circle) representing the face. That’s because the face is the center of emotion, attention, and communication for a child. There are, in other words, patterns. Deviation from those patterns is notable and interpretable. My son — and every other kid — is a bit of an artistic deviant.

As they get older, around 4 years old, kids give the faces limbs so that they can get around. This figure is called a “tadpole.” That’s where my boy is at. And his loose style is also unsurprising. Di Leo notes that kids are, at their core, expressionists. What a kid draws is largely their “inner reality” colored by their feelings and emotions.

With that context, I felt certain Daino would send back a note explaining that my son was a normal, well-adjusted kid. But that’s not what happened.

The first thing she noted was the colors of the figure. The blue yellow and green, she said, represented a “calming emotional state.” So, far so good. After all, it was “momma” and I knew for a fact that my 4-year old found her calming. Daino also noted the open arms of the figure, showing that the artist as open and sociable, which he is in spades. The bold lines also had him pegged as a “high energy” and “bold.”

But it wasn’t all positive affirmation that my kid was amazing. Some missing details suggested anxiety and a lack of autonomy. The red dots of the face, Daino noted, could be indicative of anger.

“In taking into account, the entire analysis,” Diano said. “I believe it is more representative of an insecure child that has anxious tendencies, and therefore, is not secure about their abilities and typically is distracted by the anxiety and is challenged by fulfilling assignments.”

Ouch. But also spooky true.

The fact is that our four year old has been worrying us lately with his overt clinginess, anxiousness, and inability to focus. We’ve noted that he often seems to be insecure about what he can and cannot do. But what was lingering for me was the red face — those three angry dots. So I gave Daino more context. I told her it was a picture of his mother and that he was four years old.

“The lack of facial differentiation can be seen as the child having an enmeshed identity with his mother and has not developed an individual identity development yet,” she responded, which, well, true enough. Then she concluded, on a happier note, that she “did not see any negative or disturbing symbolism attached to his relationship with his mother.” Thank goodness for the little things.

Here’s what I had not told Daino: My wife and I are yellers. We don’t mean to be. We don’t want to be. And we work hard trying to get better. It made complete sense that the face would be red. I decided to fess up and told her about the yelling and wondered if a kid could see a parent as comforting while noting with the anger with his artistic aplomb.

“Absolutely,” she said. “It could symbolize that he understands his mom is comforting and patient and he still accepts her for who she is, but this is something he notes about her.”

She explained that signs of trauma include Xs in and around the face or mouth and fields of black. That, at least was a relief, but I wanted to immediately dive into the rest of his drawing to discover more. Daino suggested it may not be the best idea. After all, that painting was a slice of the moment in time when he painted it. He might have simply had a rough day. Also, a drawing is not in and of itself an adequate diagnostic tool. A drawing might offer insight, but without a behavioral assessment it is simply one piece of the puzzle. It would be time to worry if we saw sudden changes in behavior, or he began to regress or lash out. Then it might be time to seek professional help.

I told all of this to my wife of course. She’d forgotten the painting by now. But as I started to tell her about Daino’s interpretation she cut me off. “The red is anger, right?” she asked. “It’s because I yell.”

“We both yell,” I tried to reassure her.

The thing about that little preschool art show is it had always seemed so very cute and benign. We’d walk slowly past wall after wall filled with colorful works, one blending into another, bound for a fridge to add a bit of texture to the kitchen. And when we found our own kid’s work, we’d tell them how fine it was in the standard kind of parental attaboy way.

But I think I’ll see it differently this year because I now know the works on the walls hold secrets. There’s more on that butcher paper than crude portrayals of dogs and trees and wild streak of tempera. Does it all mean something? Not in and of itself, but it is all a mirror. Without knowing it, children draw the world with astonishing accuracy. It’s not always the world as we see it, but it is the world in some elemental and undeniable way. And sometimes it’s us too.

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