It’s Wednesday and I’m standing next to the wooden stool that holds the sign-in clipboard at my son’s preschool. The sun is toasting my back while I wait. His dirty blond head pops out the door and he runs toward me at full speed, the Lightning McQueen backpack plopping his backside as he goes. I scoop him up in my arms and lift him high off the ground with a familiar squeeze. One of the preschool founders strolls out waving a piece of paper in the air to get my attention.
I smile, remembering that I owe $12 for the parent holiday gift. Oops.
“I just wanted to tell you something about this evaluation,” she starts, handing me a folded piece of paper with Everett’s name on it.
“Oh?” I say, my curiosity piqued.
“We only have one concern with Everett starting kindergarten next year, and I wanted to explain …” she continues.
I brace myself for the worst, not even knowing what the worst could be.
“We’ve noticed that Everett is a bit of a … perfectionist. He gets very upset when his work isn’t perfect, and, well, Kindergarten is a lot harder than preschool, so we just wanted to bring that to your attention,” she winks at me, looking at him. Everett is watching his friends get picked up, blissfully unaware of the conversation happening over his head.
I crack a half-smile. This is not new information.
“Yeah, we’ve noticed that at home,” I say, “I’ve been trying to teach him that he can turn his mistakes into other things, you know? Like he accidentally drew a scribble in the sky on one of his drawings and I told him he could turn it into a bird ...”
I feel defensive, although I don’t know why.
“That’s good,” she nods, “You know, sometimes at preschool we intentionally make mistakes to show the kids that it’s okay to mess up.” I smile at her, imagining the preschool teachers purposefully hitting the wrong piano keys during circle time with a cutesy oops!
I could never be a preschool teacher.
“Is there anything else I should be doing?” I ask.
She laughs. “I don’t think there’s anything to do — part of it is just his personality.”
I look down at my son’s little hand holding mine and feel a twinge of guilt. There’s no doubt about it: I am the original carrier of those perfectionist genes.
“Well, thanks for letting me know,” I say as we turn toward the parking lot.
“He’s a good kid,” she says in a hushed tone, “Very bright. We’ve just noticed that sometimes he can be his own worst enemy.”
Later that afternoon, I watch Everett attempt to draw a dinosaur at the kitchen table, mess up, get frustrated to the point of tears, and crumple the paper up in his hands. I start in on my script for this opportune teaching moment: It’s okay to mess up, honey. Everyone messes up sometimes.
He’s not buying it. I can see the skepticism on his face, paired with determination. I know he thinks he needs to try again. I know he thinks he needs to work harder. I know he's getting discouraged and scared. And I know that eventually, he might become so afraid of failing that he won’t even bother making art anymore. He might go days and weeks and months without drawing anything at all. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore the call to create when you think disappointment is lurking on the other side.
I know this, of course, from recent personal experience, which makes me feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite.
Who am I to tell my son it’s okay to mess up, when the fear of messing up often keeps me from creating art in the first place? Who am I to reassure him that his drawing is good, when I constantly call my own work “not good enough”?
Here’s an interesting fact. My son had zero insecurity attached to his art until he was actually good at it. For the past two years I’ve watched him scribble all over a coloring page with a blue marker and hold it up proudly saying, “Look momma! I colored blue!”
But now he’s four, he knows how to hold a marker, and he has seen a glimpse of what could be. He knows how to color in the lines. There’s no going back from that level of knowledge and success. His pride lasted exactly two minutes before disappearing into thin air while he worked on a second coloring page, biting his lip all the while.
And there we sat at the kitchen table together, brows furrowed under our own insurmountable pressure. Him, coloring. Me, writing. Both of us trying to make our work perfect.
Don’t you love it when you and your preschooler happen to be learning the exact same lesson at the exact same time?
It’s only a picture, sweetheart, I said to him one day while he cried.
It’s only a book, babe, my husband said to me one night while I cried.
Someday when my son is older, I hope I can tell him about my experience with art. I want him to know that I had to fight the urge to give up, to walk away, to crumple up an entire manuscript and throw it in the trashcan because at one point I thought it wasn’t good enough. I want him to know how many stories were never written down because I was too scared to start them. I want him to know how many stories I deleted because they were not up to par. I want him to know how many times I accidentally scribbled in the sky and was too damn stubborn to turn that scribble into a bird. I want him to know how scared I am, still, after all this time, every time words float from my heart into the universe.
I want him to know that being an artist isn’t about being perfect. I want him to know that being an artist is about showing up with your imperfect work and offering it to the world anyway. Being an artist is about courage and bravery. It’s about joy and discipline and wonder and truth. Being an artist is about taking the talents your Creator has laid on your heart and allowing them to shine when fear tells you to bury them in the sand. Being an artist is about cherishing what you learned in the process of creating more than the final product itself.
Being an artist is not easy for anyone. It is messy and complicated and terrifying.
But being an artist is about choosing the risk of failure over the risk of regret.
And that’s what I want my boy to know as we sit at the kitchen table together. Him, writing his name at the top of the dinosaur drawing. Me, staring at my name on a book.