When I was younger I loved to color in coloring books. It was one of the few things I actually did carefully. I selected the colors I would use before I started. I traced the black outlines thickly, to ensure that I would stay within the lines. I shaded my pictures evenly, almost expertly, at least for a child working in Crayola. I was so particular that I would finish off each masterpiece by rubbing the crayon wax with a tissue until the colors were smooth and shiny. It was ART, and I took it seriously.
So when my older daughter was about 2 years old and she excitedly encountered her first coloring book in the dollar aisle of our local big box store, I was thrilled. I bought it with a new box of beautiful, unbroken crayons – one of my favorite things ever — and hurried home.
But things didn’t go the way I expected them to. My daughter’s initial excitement had been stoked by the full color pictures of Elmo featured on the front. The black and white interior was a letdown. Her interest was revived by the stickers she found inside, but it only took her about 30 seconds to plaster them on her arms and face before she was ready to move on.
At the time, I chalked it up to her age. Two is pretty young for artistic endeavors, after all. But three years have gone by and her interest in coloring books has remained pretty much the same, something that, for a long time, I found confusing.
Because this kid loves to draw. She loves to draw so much that a bucket of markers and a stack of computer paper have a permanent home on our kitchen table. Inspiration for a new picture can strike her at any time; one must be prepared. She draws at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She often deserts her toys mid-game, struck with the idea for another picture. She draws pictures of the stories she makes up throughout the day, and everything she draws, from people to raindrops, has a purpose or an explanation.
The fact that she is so artistic but yet is so little engaged by an artistic activity I always enjoyed mystified me. Until a few weeks ago, when she made the obvious answer clear to me.
She was sitting at the table, drawing as usual, when she stopped and said —
“Mommy, I’m drawing my world. Everyone has a world. This is mine.”
It hit me like a shove in the chest. Of course the kid doesn’t want to color someone else’s pictures in someone else’s book. She wants to make her own pictures, for her own book – for her own world.
It’s funny how much we parents want to see ourselves in our children. We yearn for that because when we see ourselves in them it signifies that we are as much a part of them as they are a part of us. And they are a part of us. They enter our hearts and our hearts can never part with them again.
But they don’t belong to us. And they aren’t us. When we think we see our quirks reflected in our child – we’re wrong. What we see is wholly, uniquely our child, a person who has never existed before and will never exist in another context ever again.
Looking for ourselves in our children is a mistake parents will probably always make. When you create something as miraculous as a human, and when your love for that creation is as deep as a parent’s love is for her child, it’s inescapable. It will cause conflict between ourselves and our children, just like it did between us and our own parents.
But it will be OK, just like it always has been, as long as we are listening when our children tell us that they are coloring their own pictures, for their own world.
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said: Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. ~ Khalil Gibran, On Children