Coloring Inside the Lines

It turns out, despite all our creative objections, there’s good reason to color inside the lines. At least at first.

To all creatives out there this is blasphemy, I know. I didn’t want to believe it either, but it’s true.

I’m a parent now, which is equal parts terrifying and hilarious. Prior to having my own tiny dependents, I had no experience with children and therefore no understanding about their developmental expectations. Like most parents, I read the books and the handouts from the doctors and figure it out as I go.

We had our first major developmental issues when our son hit preschool. At the time of his first conference he knew all his letters, their sounds, and could read basic words. He could count endlessly, far beyond the 1-10 he was supposed to know and he could do basic addition and subtraction. I expected to be applauded for his obvious genius (and all my impressive early prep work, thank you, thank you), but that didn’t happen.

In fact, these things were barely mentioned. “Yeah, great. He’s great, but…”


There was great concern about his FINE MOTOR SKILLS. GREAT concern about the apparently (unbeknownst to me at the time) indispensable, invaluable, can’t live without, one an only, required above all else for success in life FINE MOTOR SKILLS. For those not yet to this part of the parenting books, this involves things like pencil grip, handwriting, cutting, stringing beads, and yes, coloring inside the lines.

His teacher showed me a number of scribbly coloring pages, intense concern flooding her expression. “He doesn’t stay within the lines at all”. The creative in me railed. So! These are beautiful. He sees beyond the lines. He doesn’t need lines to create art.

“He needs to work on his pencil grip and cutting. He’s very far behind.” She showed me pages of wobbly, wiggly, half-formed letters, trying to will my concern to match hers. “He gets frustrated, then shows no interests in craft time.” There’s a folder of unfinished paper crafts, half cut shape monsters, bag puppets, and fire engines.


But, it turns out, I was so wrong.

He struggled through the rest of preschool and the start of kindergarten. When he didn’t want to do an activity, or couldn’t do it, he stopped following instructions and distracted other students. When the teacher tried to get him back on task, he’d get defensive and more frustrated, so then we had behavioral issues sprouting up as well.

I thought, okay, he’s a lefty and he just needs a little more focused attention. And that helped, but not a lot. He did get frustrated because writing and cutting weren’t easy for him like memorization. When it wasn’t easy, he didn’t want to do it. He’d not learned (or maybe I should say he’d not been taught (by me, for shame!)) to struggle and stick to it, and because he quit when it got hard, his weakness snowballed.

I realized he didn’t color outside the lines because he was artistic genius guided by his vision. He colored outside the lines because he didn’t have the basic strength in his hands to stay inside them, and on top of that, he didn’t have the wherewithal to keep at it when his efforts fell short and he got frustrated.

It wasn’t creative strength. It was fundamental weakness.

We had two big parenting problems to face. A kid who didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t easy and a kid who’s lack of fundamental skills was snowballing into bigger issues. The teachers and therapist warned us this was common. In the second to fourth grade range there were several bright students performing below their abilities because their handwriting was poor and they couldn’t (wouldn’t) keep up with assignments that involved writing upwards of four pages at a time.

We had to admit we were idiots, that we made a mistake discounting the teacher’s concerns and the importance of cutting and coloring. We had to focus our energy on fixing the problems and teach our boy 1) how to work at something that wasn’t easy for him, and 2) the importance of doing what he’s ask in order to learn the basics. Then he could make the most of his strengths.

(And then, perhaps go on to become the artistic genius he’s so obviously meant to be. *clears throat, looks away, dodgy-eyed* )

We researched, saw the doctor, took a lot of tips from the school therapist, and started with the most of basic of basics. Hand strength, arm strength, coloring basic shapes, gradually we increased the length of the work sessions. It was painful at times. Frustrating and hard. It was boring at times, for us and for him, but fundamentals seem to always feel that way at times, don’t they?

We stuck to it. We built his skills and now, thankfully, he’s doing much better. There’s less frustration, better work quality, no behavior issues, and a lot of coloring pages where he never goes outside the lines once.

As is so often the case with raising these little ones, their lessons are my lessons.

As a mother, I’m (humbled and) proud. As a writer working on my first novel (and a person hardwired to bristle at ‘rules’), I swallowed this lesson whole.

For most people and most skills, it’s imperative to learn the fundamentals, practice the fundamentals, master the fundamentals, because this effort provides the necessary experience and foundation on which we can showcase our strengths. It’s how we work up to breaking the rules, and maybe someday even rewriting them.

Image Credit: Crayon Rainbow https://flic.kr/p/rF8iQ by  Robert Parviainen license link https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

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