The art of parenting: A parable

A painter sits down at his canvas, ready to paint his masterpiece. What will the painting be? He decides to just let the brush move, and see what ends up being created. Which brushes will he use? The ones he was given by his own father, a mediocre painter who taught him everything he knew as he struggled to get his work recognized. Which colors will he use? Whatever he has lying around. Inspiration cannot be tamed by pesky details like themes, subjects, or equipment. Which techniques will he employ? The ones he watched his father used. He reasons, if they were good enough for his father, they are good enough for him. Which painters of the past serve as inspirations for his work? How much preparation has he done – learning, studying, reading? He watched his father. No one else has anything to teach him. Those crusty, old school masters are dead in their graves. Their work cannot speak to this time – they are remnants of a distant past. Those academics writing about techniques, strategies, and history, sit in their ivory towers and dare to tell him how to paint? He believes, “I have everything I need to know right now to create something great.”

What are your predictions about this painting when it is complete? Doesn’t sound like it has much of a chance, does it? I would surmise that the best result this painter can hope to attain is the same level as his own father. Our painter projects a sense of false confidence, based only on a faith that it will work itself out. He approaches art as if it is all inspiration and no preparation. He thinks of his creativity as a reflection of some abstract source – God, the muses, some inborn talent, sitting deep within him like a coiled spring, ready to be released on a world which is about to be amazed.

A recipe for greatness

In fact, the best painters have spent an incredible number of hours studying, admiring, and practicing. In addition, the painters whose work make an observer whisper, “Wow,” invest in the very best tools. I remember an old friend of mine, an artist with incredible skills, named Javier. My most vivid memory of him engaged in his creative process was this phase he was in where he spent 6-8 hours a day drawing peppers. He bought several expensive sets of pencils, several high quality sketch pads, and bag after bag of peppers of all shapes, sizes and colors. He would take the peppers, place them randomly in a bowl, and then just sit and draw them. I remember watching him one time, fully absorbed in the effort to recreate every wrinkle and shadow, every overlap of skin and stem, transforming a 3-D reality into a 2-D image.

His floor would be littered with pages that he had torn out and discarded. His sketchpad would be filled with numerous drawings, which to me looked exactly the same, but to him were separate excursions into some magical world that I think only artists understand how to enter. He tried to draw the peppers the way different artists might approach them (impressionistic peppers, cubist peppers, Renaissance style peppers). He tried to draw them as if an imaginary light was shining on them from different angles, the shadows playing against their shine in hypothetical ways that I could not conjure.

The connection to parenting

Your child is the canvas, and you are the painter. This is true especially when she is young, and her social world is under your exclusive control. Who she sees, what she does, and how she perceives life is based on the choices you make. Later in life, she will branch out on her own, and develop her own ideas, and make her own choices. Even then, her adulthood will be a reflection of your influence.

Read, study, ask questions, practice, try new things. Spend money and time creating experiences. Do everything you can to watch and learn. You can’t just replicate what your own parents did. Every parent, including you, has room for improvement. When you’re not sure how to handle a situation, seek out information from parents you respect, or from professionals who have an expertise on the subject.

Life passes by, whether we are intentional about it or not. Your child is going to grow up, whether you make time for it or not. Your opportunity to parent will shift and change, and take on different angles, whether you do anything or not. This is your chance – right now – to shine on through your children, whose adult lives will reflect back on your values and priorities. Putting your time and energy into learning about the most effective techniques, strategies, and resources will pay dividends for years.

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