“Mama?” He looks at me with those big, earnest brown-pool eyes, lodged in his soft, baby face, just under a mess of curls. His eyebrows do that puppy-dog sideways parting thing they do, like a bridge opening to let a boat through.
“I love paintin’.” He says this without an ‘ng’, like he always does, and I find it adorable.
“That’s great,” I say. I smile, “me too.”
About half an hour later, he throws a paint brush, scrunches his face and says, “I never want to paint again. I don’t like painting.”
I die a little inside.
How did we get here? I wish I knew. I feel terrible. I need to examine this.
We started with great intentions. I had been talking with Harriet from little art about how kids need to have a chance to be creative, on their own terms. She believes it’s so important not to have an end point to work to, but for everything creative to be open-ended. It’s a chance for your children to explore, and to head off in their own directions, no matter how crazy, messy and illogical they may be. This is the only way they can learn. This is the only way they can learn to be themselves.
So, on Sunday, when Charlie asked to paint, rather than distract him with a packet of gummy bears and pull out the train set, I say, “yes, sure, let’s do this!”
We do this. I pull out his Charlie-sized table and chair into the middle of the room. I put a bin bag on the floor under his feet, and one on top of the table. I put on his blue Ikea smock that covers his arms. I roll up his sleeves inside the smock, because the last time, he got paint up the sleeves and all over his jumper inside. I’m not aiming to kill the fun by being overly clean, but quite the opposite. I want to not worry too much so he can be free to make a mess, and have fun.
I take out the new paints. The ones that are little tubs and say they’re for brushes and ‘finger painting’. Charlie doesn’t get this. He sees an open tub of beautiful oozing colour and notices it’s just the right size for his hand. I’m OK with this. I knew this was going to happen. I’m OK with this. We don’t do finger painting, we do fist smushing.
Charlie is 3.5 and has never really drawn anything. This is what a standard parent says. An enlightened one like me, knows that that’s not true. He may not have drawn ‘a man’ or ‘a car’ or even ‘a line’, but he has made smooshes and wooshes and snakes and fire and mountains. He has made squashed ice-creams and squirrels and monkeys, and coloured in Thomas the Tank Engines and Mickey Mouses.
So I know him. He’s just not into intricate things. He thinks big, and hard, and loud, and fast. He makes colour blocks, not patterns. He rips the paper with his pens. He squeezes all the paint out of the tube.
In this case, he sticks his whole hand in the tub. He looks at his hands, now sheeny green and dripping onto the paper, and you can tell he’s happy. His hands land on the paper, palms down, and he starts sliding them around. Very quickly, the whole paper is green.
It’s lovely to watch. He seems to be getting such pleasure from the feeling of paint on his hands.
He keeps going, the green is winning and the white is nearly gone. I can’t help myself, I say, “Charlie, you know, you could take one finger and just move it around and draw something.” He looks at me. He has no interest in doing this when he can have the full hand experience.
I’m OK with this.
He puts his hand back in the tub. His hand is like a hook and he scoops the paint out of the tub, and onto the paper.
I’m feeling not so OK with this.
“Charlie, you know, there’s enough paint on there now.”
He ignores me.
I’m not feeling OK, but I will let him carry on. He’s making a mess, and enjoying it. He’s free to create. This is good and will make him a better adult.
With his hands still moving on the paper, he turns to me and says, “Mama, I love paintin’.”
I’m so happy I’m able to restrain myself enough so that he doesn’t feel restricted, and can fully enjoy the feeling of the paint, the look of the colour appearing on the paper. I mentally pat myself on the back.
He goes in for another scoop of green paint. This was a nearly full tub and now there’s hardly anything left.
Goddamn this rising tide of hot blood in my body. “Charlie, that’s enough now, there’ll be none left. There’s enough on the paper now!”
I remove the paint-soaked paper, which is now more goo than receptacle, and lay it on the edge of the bath to dry. This will take days, I think, but I know I will still want to put it on the wall.
Why must parents always want to have a ‘thing’ to put on a wall?
I go back in to Charlie and he’s now opened the blue paint, and is scooping it out and sploshing it on the paper. I start to feel quite frustrated. With myself, too. Why can this not be OK? Why can he not just waste the paint? We’ll get some new ones. Why can’t he just make a mess? It should be water soluble, I’m sure it’ll come off the table it’s leaking onto, and the wooden floors it’s dripping onto because the bin bag wasn’t enough.
I let him start with the blue. He’s loving it. He hasn’t noticed I’m getting more annoyed with the situation. He keeps scooping his hand into the pot. He doesn’t listen to my requests to stop. He’s enjoying it too much. My voice rises and he notices.
“Mama, are you happy?”
“Yes Charlie, I’m happy. I just want you to not make such a mess. I mean, making a mess is OK, I want you too, but I can’t get paint everywhere.”
He sticks his blue hand into the yellow paint. I don’t see myself as very OCD, but I wince. Still, I pull myself back and explain to him that blue plus yellow makes green. He doesn’t know this. It’s an incredible privilege to be the first to tell a little person about such an amazing phenomenon.
Yellow flies out of the pot and onto the blue painted paper, and the whole page becomes green. Another page full of green. I mean, modernists did this kind of thing, this should be OK with me, but I have an annoying parent part of my brain that says, I can’t stick two big green paintings on the wall.
Charlie starts destroying the paper with his blue and yellow, skating hands. It’s now ripping down the middle. He then knocks over the water for the paint brushes that I had optimistically put out at the start of our painting session. It lands in a pool, contained by the scrunched up bin bag. I go to get some kitchen roll to mop it up. While I’m gone, Charlie has broken the little plastic dam walls and now the whole table is a green lake. Lake is exaggerating. That’s how I saw it. It wasn’t that bad. It didn’t really matter. But I guess I saw red and said, “ah, Charlie!”
He looks at me guiltily and starts to cry. I hug him and say, “it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s just water, we can clear it up.” But he’s sensed my frustration and has had enough. It’s over. He’s upset. I’ve tried to suppress the boiling blood, but I know I’m hotter than I was before we started painting. “Mama, I never want to do painting again.” My heart cracks. We didn’t get to red and white and orange.
Why does this happen to us? I just can’t work out how we can go from anticipation and joy and excitement to despair and rage in such a short time. I know Charlie is impulsive, and doesn’t respond to instructions well, and can be difficult because of this, but isn’t that normal? How do my friends manage to do it with their kids? Will it be different with Miko? I suspect so, but I want to have these experiences with Charlie, too.
Once again, I have no idea of any of the answers. We just soldier on, and I will dive optimistically into the next painting session again soon again, I know.