Friday, November 09, 2012

What to do if your kid wants to be an artist

Those of you who follow my other blogs know that I've been writing a lot, lately, about what sort of career advice parents should give children. Specifically, what should you do if your child wants to pursue a creative career? (see my post at CBS MoneyWatch, and over at

I've been writing about this question after reading a guest post at the Motherlode NY Times blog from Dan Fleshler. His nearly grown-up daughter wants to make documentary movies. He debates what to tell her, with the shadow of his own career hanging over the discussion. He wanted to write novels; he wound up doing public relations. This question gets at one of the fundamental tensions at the heart of parenting. You want to prepare your child for the world. The world of creative careers is not known for being easy (and to a degree, these days, the academic careers that young mathematicians and historians and the like might pursue are not that straightforward either). On the other hand, you also want to encourage your child. The world is full of people who will stomp on his or her dreams. Why should you do that too?

Parents of gifted children face particular challenges in this regard in that sometimes children show prodigious talent in certain fields, or have very ambitious goals. Should one spend 18 years encouraging a child to be creative, and then zoom in with the practicalities? Should one encourage practicalities all along -- but hopefully delivered in a "this is possible" tone of voice?

My vote is for the latter. Musicianship, artistry, or research on the cutting edge of a field often involves years of practice and a discipline aimed at getting better. Hopefully as a child is working on the discipline of a creative calling, he or she is also meeting people who are pursuing this field, or have pursued this field, professionally. These people can show and tell what is involved, and explain the role of luck, timing, and being entrepreneurial. If you want to be a choreographer, it's important to know that there are very few organizations hiring people as full-time choreographers out of college just because they have a degree in dance. You'll need to be producing a portfolio, and being entrepreneurial about getting people to perform your works in visible places.

What advice would you give a child who wanted to pursue an artistic career?

In other news: I just read Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi. The book consists of 42 strategies for "getting better at getting better" and has a lot of interesting ideas on how to practice one's craft. While the authors primarily train teachers, you can apply the strategies to just about anything.

I'm also going to two of my three kids' parent-teacher conferences this week and am mulling the concept of silly mistakes on assessments. Lots to unpack there, so look for that next week.


Anonymous said...

My kid is only 10 but we've had lots of discussions on creative careers. The key in my mind is to focus on what you want your future life to look like. If you look at the whole package then you know whether you think it would be cool to live with 8 other creators in an efficiency apartment, or if you are more the nuclear family creator, or the living high on the hog creator, etc.

A career is just one part of how a person lives a life and if we are going to be choosing young, we should be thinking about the whole life, not just a career.

Anonymous said...

Previous comment is right on. Picture the kind of life you'd like to have and then work backwards to see if the goals you have now match that.

If you think you'd like to live in the country on a farm with lots of animals, that will involve a different set of options for paying the bills than if you want to live in New York City. If you love the outdoors that's different than if you enjoy being on a computer. If you want a large family, that's a different set of choices than if you don't want kids.

Obviously children don't always know what they want and what you want changes over time, but the ability to do this reverse calculation is the important part.

It's especially important for gifted children who many have a range of options they could be very successful at... increased options makes decision making more difficult.

Also, it's perfectly feasible to allow children to work through the ramifications on their own in their own time by simply supporting their process while providing real world perspective (here are some real artists, let's talk about what their lives are like). Because no one can see all ends.

Regret is a pointless emotion, but one we sometimes feel nonetheless. Still, I think we are more likely to regret the decisions that are made for us or that we are pushed into making rather than the ones we make for ourselves.

Nancy Tillman said...

I have been very blessed in my life that I am able to pursue my creativity as a career. Without the love and support of my family I wouldn’t be where I am today. It has been a great deal of hard work, thick skin and perseverance. Don’t give up on your dreams; they would never give up on you!

I write and illustrate children's books. All of my books feature one important message. "You are loved." Some of my titles: On The Night You Were Born, The Spirit of Christmas, Wherever You are My Love Will Find You, Tumford the Terrible, and The Crown on Your Head. Please also take a look at my latest creation with Tumford the cat in Tumford’s Rude Noises.
Kind Regards,
Nancy Tillman

nicoleandmaggie said...

My sister is not shaped like a ballerina, as defined by Balanchine. My parents' advice was to have a back-up plan. So she danced in high school and college and takes dance lessons as an adult in her spare time, but makes a lot of money as an engineer in her day job.

Anonymous said...

There are options that include both a salary and creativity. If a kid mentions art, maybe bring up advertising, teaching, graphic design, web design(a seriously viable career choice). If they prefer 3-d sculpture, maybe nudge towards architecture or some sort of product engineering. Interior design can be a viable career. Teaching music either in a school or in private lessons works (or encourage a budding musician to look for non-paying avenues like church or community choirs).

My youngest sister is a phenomenal dancer (she already danced pre-professionally) as well as a straight-A student. My mom is (thankfully) encouraging her to find a college with both dance and something else--physical therapy, business (open a dance studio), etc. Combine the creativity with something else.

Or, just make sure they know they can have two "careers". It's not easy, but I suspect a lot of truly gifted people aren't looking for easy. I'm both a software engineer and a published romance definitely pays more bills than the other, but I'm not ready to give up either one.

Also, career choices aren't carved in stone. One of my sisters gave up being a CPA for interior architecture. Another one switched from retail management to biomedical engineering. A friend recently switched from software to nursing. A coworker switched from nursing to software. Plenty of people go back to school later in life for something new. That doesn't always mean the first career failed!

Laura Vanderkam said...

I like these answers -- that there are ways to combine passions with your life in a non-professional capacity, or look for ways to do something related to your passion within a day job. Of course, sometimes you have to just go for broke and do it. There are people making livings as musicians, artists, actors, writers, etc.

Nother Barb said...

At my son's university, where he's in the dept of theater and dance, many dance majors minor in business, as they expect to ultimately run a school.

I think a child who wants to be in the arts is no different from any other child. They will follow their passion, whatever it is. It helps all children to learn about careers. I loved writing as a child, but was embarrassed to reveal myself, so that left out creative writing; my shyness eliminated journalism; I loved writing reports etc., and finally discovered technical grad school! I once chatted with a fellow on a plane who worked in inventory control. He'd had collections as a kid, meticulously sorted and, yes, inventoried. My younger son loves math. We mentioned the other day about majoring in math. He said "but you can't MAJOR in math." Yes, dear, you can. "Really? In MATH?" and his eyes gleamed with the possibilities. Now we have to let him chat with all the math majors we know, who have gone into teaching, finance, engineering, to give him some suggestions, but we'll see where he goes.

Anonymous said...

My daughter isn't interested in a creative field. She's only 10, but her passions right now are:

a) to be a veterinarian
b) to play soccer professionally

Now, my practical side knows that the first is more likely than the second, but my message to her is: you can work toward both. Both paths start at the same place -- college. So by working toward college while playing soccer, she can move both goals forward at the same time. If she has opportunities to play, she can, and in the mean time she'll be taking the classes she needs to get into vet school too.

I also tell her that she can do more than one thing in serial. The truth is that most children today will have more than one career in their lifetimes. If she has a chance to play professionally she can and then she can move on to something else later in life.

And it's important to remember that many creative people do make a living being creative. The biggest mistake that non-artists make is thinking that the only way to be an artist is to be a starving one (or the rare famous one). That's just not the case. I know perfectly normal middle-class families of painters, writers, comic books authors. In some cases, both parents are in creative fields and they still do just fine.

I'd suggest reaching out to these kinds of people. Not 12 to an attic and not super star either. Find the people making art work in the real world. They are out there. I wish I'd known these people when I was younger and my dad was telling me that wanting to pursue art was a one-way ticket to starvation and misery.