Tell Me About It
Opening up a conversation with your little ones helps their creativity thrive and gives them an outlet to express big feelings. “Tell me about it” prompts them to talk about their thoughts rather than interjecting your own into the conversation.
When I was little, probably around age 3 or 4, I would sit on a tall stool by the kitchen counter and paint while mum would bake. Mum would put out a white porcelain plate, a watercolour set, a small glass of water and a fine paintbrush in front of me. I would swish the paintbrush in the water and choose a colour. I would then get deep into the rhythm of applying one colour of paint to the plate, swirling away that colour in the water, then choosing another colour. I would lose myself in the work.
When my painting was complete, mum would say, “You’ve been working very hard. Tell me about it.” I remember telling her stories about what I had painted — mostly daring stories about castles and knights. I’d tell her about my choice of colours, and how dipping my brush in the water and changing the colours was my favourite part of painting. I was speaking as one artisan to another. I told her I lived in Seattle, and drove up to Vancouver for work. Her question opened up worlds for me.
Mum never judged my artwork. She would just ask if I wanted her to put the newly painted plate on the picture rail in the dining room or if I wanted to rinse off the plate in the sink. Mum was an artist herself. She understood that this was my work. I could decide its fate.
My dad, also an artist, would worry when children would get close to school age. “They’ll be forced to colour within the lines. They’ll lose their freedom and creativity.” He wanted to make sure they never lost their sense of wonder and independent expression. “Tell me about it” was his way to remind us that our internal creative experience was most important.
When my own children were little, gardening became my creative outlet. One hot summer day, to keep our four kids engaged while we dug in the garden, my friend and I clamped huge sheets of white paper to the fence and placed poster paint pots and brushes at our children’s feet. We stripped them down to their diapers and let them loose. They were totally free to express themselves. When we finally called out “tell me about it”, the kids talked about their artwork then pointed to the yellow feet of one and blue nose of another. They wove stories about each other. Then we hosed them all off.
Drawing is a great communication tool for children. When they are very young they might not even know it, but they use drawing as a way to process their thoughts. As they become more verbal, what adults see as circles and lines might now be described as scary snakes or pouring rain. Stormy moods or long term challenges may be most easily expressed through art.
“Tell me about it” rather than “I like that painting” or “good work” gives the child room to talk about their feelings and experience. The child doesn’t have to be using paint or crayons. She can be drawing in sand with a stick, building Lego, lining up rock and stones by the beach, or building with cardboard boxes. You can follow up by repeating what the child says and add new words. “You’re building a big castle. It looks like you’ve built a tall tower there. Tell me more about who lives in the castle with you?”
As children grow and their experience grows beyond your home, you may need to expand the phrase to become, “tell me about it…when you’re ready.” You might want to create a family ritual that lends itself to sharing. You may find that a forest walk on a weekend might lend itself to open sharing. Whatever you choose to do, the key is to wait, then let the child talk about their experience without interruption. Your part is to be fully present and listen. Once a child starts to open up, “Can you tell me more?” might be all you need to say.
Some children can express their feelings immediately. Other children need a long time, even days, to process their thoughts after an event, before they can share their feelings. Try to be patient. Offer creative outlets. Offer active or creative one-to-one time. Suppress the urge to offer a “fix”.
And then, you sit down on the floor beside your older child with a box of Lego. You start to click the pieces together. And without you even asking, he starts to open up without you even having to say “tell me about it”.