How Parents Can Nurture a Lifelong Love of the Arts

In Playing From the Heart, author and illustrator Peter Reynolds (The Dot, Ish, Sky Color) captures the delight children take in exploring music, art, theater, and other forms of artistic expression. The picture book tells the story of young Raj, who enjoys plunking out tunes on his family’s piano. As he experiments, he feels like he is “mix[ing] the notes the way he mix[es] his watercolors.” Hearing his son’s heartfelt songs, his father signs Raj up for piano lessons to develop his talent. Yet, instead of continuing to fuel his love of the piano, regimented practice has the opposite effect. Raj’s interest in the instrument wanes, and he gives it up altogether, not returning to the piano until much later in life.

Sadly, Raj’s story is all too familiar to many readers. In fact, Reynolds himself had a crushing experience as a cello player in a school concert when the teacher told him to “keep his bow an inch above the strings at all times”—in other words, just pretend to play. It was only as an adult that he returned to “playing from the heart,” now on the piano.

dreamstime_61636040.jpgMotivation in the Arts

As parents, how can we more clearly understand what’s behind shifts in motivation so that we may preserve our gifted child’s joy and kindle a lifelong love of the arts?

A shift takes place when intrinsic motivation gives way to extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is desire kindled within. One who is intrinsically motivated is deeply engaged and enjoys the process—hence, Reynolds’s phrase “playing from the heart.” Extrinsic motivation is behavior controlled by outside factors, such as a promise of rewards or a fear of punishment.

Harvard Business School professor Theresa Amabile has led several decades of research that demonstrates that creativity flourishes under the influence of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivators include “interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself.” There is, of course, interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and Amabile has documented this as well. The bottom line for parents is that the task at hand—and the work more generally—must be meaningful to the child in order to sustain intrinsic motivation over time. Purposeful work leads to higher levels of creativity and more joy in one’s activities, which results in the ability to persevere.

Intrinsic motivation is, therefore, one of the most important factors to consider when encouraging children to love the arts. So, how can we avoid having to tell yet another story, like Raj’s or Peter’s, of a child who loses interest in the arts after an experience with formal teaching?

Keeping Curiosity Alive

Curiosity supports deep creative thinking and expression. Continuous curiosity cultivates a lifelong love of learning. Curiosity also stokes intrinsic motivation.

The arts have the potential to create opportunities for self-reflection and self-expression, but gifted kids often lose interest in the arts the same way they lose interest in school: when teachers do not draw out students’ own original, exploratory thinking. Many people believe that the mere act of coloring in the lines or following directions to a Pinterest project are creative, but creativity involves problem solving, which is a combination of divergent (generating ideas, imagining, visioning) and convergent thinking (evaluating and choosing the ideas). If your piano lesson only requires playing songs and memorizing notes, you are not using the full range of creative thinking.

Many teachers operate under the false belief that you must learn skills first in order to be creative. Skills development is certainly part of growth in any art, but this can be done simultaneously with actual creative expression. Just think of Raj. As a toddler banging on the piano keys, he was getting to know the sounds. Over time, he learned to put them together. This process included the full range of creative thinking and opportunities for self-expression. He may not have been technically advanced, but he was motivated by the joy in the process of playing. Once he began formal teaching, he was no longer able to put himself into the music, and it became about completing an assigned task. Had his teacher used techniques that allowed for improvisation or other approaches, Raj would likely not have lost his love of music.

Whether a child goes on to be a professional artist or to simply have a lifelong love of the arts, intrinsic motivation is the key to perseverance and to finding a unique voice. So, as a parent, how can you fan this inner flame from an early age to support a lifelong interest in the arts at any level?  Here are four tips that will help.

1. Share what you love.

Your children will respond to your own enthusiasm when you share your love of the arts. To start, create a mind map (a graphical way to represent ideas and concepts) or list of all of the artists and works that inspire you. Keep this list of art forms in mind:

literature: poetry, stories, novels

performance: music, dance, theater

culinary: baking, cooking

media: photography, cinematography

visual: drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpting

Choose one or two art forms to start. Think about fun ways that you can share these works with your kids. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Take your kids to see an art/performance/show.
  • Virtually enjoy art via the Google Art Project or museum and cultural institution websites.
  • Read a children’s book together about the art work or artist. To start, Mike Venezia has written many books about artists and composers in the “Getting to Know” series.
  • Find an online video or article to share.

Continue to share works—both newfound and old favorites—that inspire you.

2. Provide opportunities for your kids to explore within the context of the arts.

  • Provide materials such as paint, crayons, and clay. Introduce more advanced tools and ideas as they get older.
  • Provide instruments to truly play, for fun. Consider plastic instruments for younger ages, along with real keyboards, guitars, drums, and other instruments. iPads and electronic apps can provide a partial experience. GarageBand, which comes with all Macs, allows kids to experiment with mixing music and composing their own pieces.
  • Play music in your home. Have family dance or listening parties. You can give your kids paper and crayons or pencil to draw or write what they imagine as they hear the notes.
  • Cook with your children. Experiment with new tastes and new combinations. Give them an “Iron Chef challenge,” and have them help you think up meals using limited or surprising ingredients.
  • When your parents are cleaning out their basement, take them up on that old typewriter or film camera! These tools are novel and can inspire kids’ creativity. You can also give kids old mobile phones to take photos or record videos.
  • Provide costumes for dress-up. Play improvisational games as a family. Encourage your children to stage homespun plays and short productions at family gatherings.

3. Look for classes that value process over product.

When we talk about sparking curiosity, it is important to have teachers who value the learning process over a perfect, finished product. As children grow in their skills and become focused in certain areas, they will likely want to learn the craft more formally. But to nurture a lifelong love of the arts, exploration is key. Some classes can be too much pressure for a kid who just wants to try something out. Look for classes with a variety of opportunities for self-expression. Observe a class and see if the kids are smiling and enjoying the process. Overall, observe your child’s particular interests and ways of learning so that you can match her up with the right teachers and topics.

If your child resists classes or his intrinsic motivation wanes, ask him why. Investigate the teaching approach. See if you can get the teacher to incorporate improv, exploration, and idea generation. This does not sacrifice, but enhances, skill building. Be clear about your expectations for the class, explaining that you value process and a love for the topic over rote teaching. If the teacher doesn’t understand what you’re talking about, find another teacher.

4. To quote Kenny Rogers, “Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”

Often, interests evolve and change over time, and that’s ok. Allow kids to switch instruments or pursue new types of activities. You don’t want to raise a quitter, so set out clear expectations about commitments, but don’t lock a kid into one activity unless there is a clear goal or clear interest and dedication on her part.

As adults, we see a talent and pounce on it with our own adult expectations and ways of teaching. As Peter Reynolds said, we get serious—often at the high cost of crushing a child’s original curiosity and joy. To avoid this outcome and raise a child with a lifelong interest in the arts, remember the importance of intrinsic motivation stoked by curiosity and the full range of creative thinking, including self-expression. As you find ways to support this, your child will learn and persevere in the arts with joy.

Kathryn P. Haydon is the founder of Sparkitivity. She facilitates innovative professional development workshops for teachers; consults with families to support their children’s learning; and has written and spoken widely on the topics of creativity, creative learning, and supporting creative and gifted students. She co-authored Discovering and Developing Talents in Spanish Speaking Students, and her current research focuses on developing innovative and creative learning infrastructures. Kathryn is a graduate of Northwestern University, and a Master of Science candidate in Creativity and Change Leadership at SUNY-Buffalo in New York.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared in Parenting for High Potential (June 2017).