You may have read about the Tibetan monks who spend hours creating impossibly intricate mandalas out of tiny grains of sand, only to mess it all up as soon as they finish as a symbol of the ephemeral nature of all things. When I learned of this, I gasped in horror. All that work. Gone.
I may have a slightly unhealthy preoccupation with achievement. What is effort without something to show for it? This is the way I was raised. Growing up, the goal for us kids was always to be producing, preferably something that could be bragged about at the next family gathering. There, all the aunts and uncles would awe over our awards, recital videos and clippings in the local newspaper.
I want to teach my children different values. But then I look at my six-year-old daughter, and see that she’s already picking up some perfectionist tendencies. The kid, who once happily made things out of bottle caps, shredded Kleenex and junk mail without any concern for the final result, has become more tentative.
She gets frustrated when her mermaid drawings don’t look like the ones her friends make. She unties the bead necklaces she’s made when she doesn’t like the colours she chose. I know this shift may simply come with growing up, but I don’t love it. I don’t want her to lose the joy that comes with creating just because.
In a Scientific American piece titled “Making Things We Know Will Disappear,” Amanda Baker writes a gorgeous ode to temporary media. She celebrates building sandcastles, carving pumpkins, making snowmen, colouring eggs, decorating cakes and drawing with chalk — all pursuits in which “you know, from the moment you start, that the final product won’t last.”
Baker dives into her childhood, writing that she was “one of those kids who hesitated to use sticker books or colour in colouring books” as she was “paralysed by the risk of potential mistakes or lost hypothetical future opportunities.” Temporary media was what finally allowed her to focus on the creative process itself.
This can be a start. As parents, to help our kids hold onto the magic of making things, we can give them some temporary media to play with, and then, especially if they’re older, encourage them to destroy what they create. In his book Keep Going, Austin Kleon writes about how Kurt Vonnegut assigned a group of high school students this homework: Write a poem and don’t show it to anybody.
Tear it up into little pieces and throw them into the trash can. He told them: “You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”
Think of it as an antidote to perfectionism, an act of resistance to our do-it-for-the-gram culture. Hand your kid an Etch A Sketch (they’ll be forced to shake away their creations). Or have them paint with water (their artwork will evaporate in the sun). Or give them some blocks to build with. Or let them be like a Tibetan monk and make something out of sand only to see it all blow away.
And let’s join them in making temporary things. Beautiful or ugly, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the process. Whenever we forget that, we can grab some of our kid’s play dough, make something and smash it. Then do it all over again.