The Art of War or is it The War of Art?

Children are by their nature sinners.  They inherited it from Adam, their first father.  It is his fault.  Since they too have been compromised completely from the Fall, they like their father Adam, will try from time to time to rebel against authority.  Over the years however, it seems that the human mind has become more crafty at its rebellion.  Rather then a full out frontal assault like D-Day, children are more apt to mount guerrilla type fighting techniques against their parents.  They don’t plan to do this.  It is just in their genes.  Even parents carry with us this gene.  It is the same gene that will cause a seemingly educated person to pick up a known gallon of sour milk and smell it “just to be sure”.  So it is perfunctory in children to try to drive their parents crazy.

Now if you have only one or two children stopping these guerrilla tactics can be easy, or should I say, easier.  If you have several children in different age ranges, their tactics maybe different given their age, resourcefulness, and abilities.  However, if you have several children within the same age range, their tactics can be more obvious, but harder to squelch.

Seeing as how we have 3 children all within a year of one another, I am able to easily identify their techniques and approaches.  It does make it more difficult to stop, but with a little determination and cunning any parent can hold the high ground of their parental sanity.  My gift to you is to alert you to these their tactics and disseminate any useful counter attacks.

One tactic that children will often try to employ is the Art of War, or more accurately the War of Art.

I love my children’s imagination.  I love that they are creative.  I want to shepherd that which is a part of the imago dei that God has given them.  Yet I am on to them.   God gave us art.  God gave us an imagination with the ability to create.  We humans in our sinful nature only try to distort was is good.

So do my children in their quest to make me crazy.  They use their art to try to drive me mad.  Actually that is not true to the full extent.  Children are brilliant.  They aren’t trying to drive us crazy.  They don’t want us to become loons.  They know that if they drive us crazy then they will just have to live somewhere else and start all over there.  No, their real objective is not insanity. It is passivity.  They are trying to wear us down and turn us into “Yes men.”

We must first identify their true objective: Passivity!

How do they weld such a seemingly benign use of their creative, God given abilities? Let me explain.

Crayons abound at our house.  So does scrap paper, construction paper, tape, and markers.  So it is only natural that my three children, aged 5-6, make drawings for us daily.  There is not a waking minute that goes by that I am not handed a drawing made for me or my wife by one of our children.  This is a very delicate battle ground.  This act is at the same time precious and dangerous.  The children know that.  They know that we are less likely to shun them, to send them away, or to critique their creativeness when they enter the room with marker stained clothes and crayola masterpieces.  That is why this is such a powerful weapon.

Children are great at the art of conflict.  They know like many CEO’s and therapists that when you are about to enter a debate or a conflict the best way to neutralize your adversary is to get him to agree with you on small things and lead up to the big ones. For example:

“Hi, Jim is this a good time to talk?” Yes

“Is that seat comfortable?” “Yes”

“Did you enjoy your Thanksgiving break (already knowing you did)?” “Yes”

See, if we were in a board room about to discuss MY plans for the restructuring of XYZ company,  I would already have started you down the road of agreeing with me.  Warming you up, so to speak.

Children know how to do this better then Jack Welch or Dr. Phil and they use their art as the weapon.

The Butter You Up Method:

(Child enters the kitchen while you are frantically trying to put food on the table with piece of paper in hand.)

Daddy, look what I made you! Do you like it?

Of course.

Look at the hearts I put on it?


Do you like the butterfly?

Yes I do.

Do you like the sparkles? (By this time you are no longer looking at the picture.)

Wow, great sparkles.

Can we get a cat for Christmas? And did you like the big rose in the middle?

Well, yes of course.

Okay Bye…..thanks for the kitty.

Did you catch it?  They got you.  You have now promised a kitty without even knowing it.  Now they are hoping that guilt and confusion take over and that pretty kitty is on her way.

Or the Art Cover Up method:

Hey Dad look what I made in school today?

Oh yeah, What is it?

Our family. (Note to the Readers: Children always use things which they think are safe from any critique in their drawings.  Who’s to say 8 stick-figures, a circle, and a green blob on the paper isn’t the picture of a happy family? This is all part of the plan. By using such themes in their art they get you to unknowingly tone down your defense.)

See I drew our house, and a tree, and the sun.

I love it.

I also drew our dogs, and the swing outside, and the ocean, and your golf clubs that I broke, and a fence.

That is so good, son.  You’ve got a talent there.

Wait? What happened? You replay that conversation in your mind like your an NSA agent, picking out encoded text of a confession that took place moments ago.  Only now your child is out of the room and back to his drawing table working on the next “piece of art” before the last one has even hit the refrigerator door.  Confused by this you go find your golf clubs.  Sure enough. They are broken.  You go to confront said child about this, when the counter-offensive moves in.  Your other child brings you a picture.  This time with no motive except to run interference for the first son. (They are a team and know that it is better to stick together in this war.)

These children are not stupid.  This doesn’t happen every time and with every picture.  They use these methods only about 1 in every 1000 pictures.  That is the beauty of it.  They get you so used to agreeing with, liking, and displaying their art that these methods prove to be effective.  They know however that they have to keep the art volume high to be able to pull one over on you.

Never fear though.  In my research I have come up with 3 strategies to help parents recognize, neutralize, and yet build up their children in their creative art endeavors.

1. Throw it Away

This of course is the first and most important step.  No one can do this for you.  You must persevere and do it yourself.   You must be able to separate your children from their art.  Throwing away their art work does not equate to throwing your children away.  This is not ancient Indian myth that somehow their soul is wrapped up in a 2 year old macaroni collage.  If you want to feel more cathartic about the experience, you can recycle it. Therefore believing that your Mocha Latte from Starbucks is being served in something your children helped create.

Throwing your children’s art away from time to time reminds your inner-parental lobe (found somewhere in the brain) who is in charge.  YOU ARE, NOT THEM.  Now I don’t suggest throwing it away while your children look on. That is just wrong and may do more damage then good.  The goal here is to win back control all the while neutralizing your children’s inner desire to drive you crazy.  Of course keep the really good stuff, which is only about 5% of the things in my house, but that still amounts to about 50 drawings per child, roughly.

2. The Art File

The second strategy is to make for your children an “Art File”.  If you are a “Getting Things Done”er you can think of it as your children’s “inbox”.  This is a designated space for all of their art to go in, it can be a basket, manila folder, or my favorite, a small trash can (more about this one in a second).  It should be close to the drawing table and should be easy for them to get to.  You should take your children to this “art file” and let them know that any art they produce should go in there.  You should also let them know that “Mom and Dad will regularly look through the art file and display different pieces that we like.”

This does double duty.  You have now completely neutralized the “Hey I am going to show mom and dad my art whenever I feel like it and overwhelm them with it as much as I can to get as much attention from them as I can even if they are making dinner, changing a diaper, trying to rest, brushing their teeth, or engaging in the only adult conversation they have had that day” maneuver.

The beauty of it is that ,although you have neutralized the negative, you have given them free reign to be creative, as long as your scrap paper and crayons hold out.  You have also assured them that you would look at it and even given them some incentive to try harder knowing that some of it with get displayed.  This will fracture their united front and they will begin to work harder then their sibling to get their work displayed.

Like I said earlier, it is good to have an “art file” and my favorite is to use a small trash can that you might find under a desk in an office.  This is simply a great mind game.  You will now have your children second guessing every time they put their art into it.  They will say, “Is that the art file or did I just throw away my own art?”  This might come in handy if they ever catch you working on Step 1.

3. The Bait and Switch

There will come a time that your child believes that his or her art is too good to sit in the “art file” waiting for your late night approval.  They might feel so assured that it will eventually make it on to the wall or fridge and they might believe that you will be so amazed at their ability that they just might be able to use this fine work of art to pull a surprise attack.  That is where this method comes in surprisingly handy.

As your child is walking into the room with their newest creation and as they state “Hey Dad look what I made.”  You immediately go on the offensive.

Let’s say that their picture is clearly that of a sun, a dog, and a tree.  Turn and look at your child and say,

“Wow son.  I love the way your drew that bird, a perfect picture of my truck, and look there…a birthday cake.  Nice stuff.”

Your child will now be completely confused.  Excited that you so approve, bewildered that you think it was a bird, truck and cake.  They may walk out of the room to try a little bit harder.  Or they may say something like:

“No, no Dad.  It is a sun right here, and see this is a dog right next to this tree.”

Take a second.  Look at the picture thoughtfully and utter something like:

“Oh yeah, I can value your interpretation too.  Nice truck though.”

This will completely baffle your children.  In one sense they are glad you took them time to appreciate their art, they might feel the need to work hard (thus cutting down on their overall production), but what they won’t do is remember that they really came in there to ask you about the field trip next week for the 100th time, or the ten things they want for Christmas, or try to get you to agree to let them stay up and watch a movie.

Victory is yours and sanity rules the day.  Obviously if your children are older and don’t make art anymore you will have to wait a couple years before I can give you any advice.  All bets are off for teenagers.  No one knows what they are thinking by that time.


About Todd Van Dyke

Father, Husband, Son, and most of all lover of Christ.
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