Well, turns out I did. In fact, to my horror, after my son was born I realized I was more of a wipe-your-baby’s-chin-after-every-bite kind of a mom. Yikes! I despised the image, yet there I was, poised with the cloth every time we sat down to eat.
I have worked hard at squelching these tendencies, and, luckily for me, childhood seems custom designed to increase one’s comfort with mess. From the birth itself and that first memorable poopy diaper, down to beginning solids, eating crumbs (or worse) off the floor, and jumping in mud puddles, kids seem to be hard-wired for getting dirty.
But one area I hadn’t conquered yet was artificial mess – that is, paint. I could just imagine those bright colors smeared over everything from our curtains to my son’s sweet little face. And yet, what is a childhood without paint?
And so, at my husband’s patient prompting, my little Monkey and I recently started our painting journey together. We decided to spell out his name on his bedroom wall in large wooden letters, which my Monkey and I spent an afternoon painting.
Turns out painting is really fun! I conquered my fears about painting, and so can you! Here are my top ten tips for those that are just getting started:
1) Embrace the mess. Realize that you, your child, your dog, and some of your belongings will get messy. Try to enjoy it rather than cringing when it happens. Think of this as a “messy space” where mess can happen, and it’s fun. If there are things you are particularly concerned about getting paint on, put them away. Best of all, move outdoors (or in a designated play area, ideally with old furniture that you don’t care much about). And make sure to use appropriate supplies – non-toxic, washable paints and old clothes. Spread out old newspapers or magazines in your work space and move anything valuable well out of reach.
2) Set your priorities. Remind yourself often. If you have trouble with mess, chances are you are a bit of a perfectionist. So if you are doing a craft project with your toddler, remind yourself that you are not doing this to submit it to a magazine or win first prize at the fair. You are doing it to have fun with your child. So relax and just enjoy yourself! The end result won’t be perfect, but that was never the point, anyway.
3) Be prepared. Before you get started, make sure you have everything with you that you will need, so you won’t have to jump up to find something halfway through the project (see #4 below). This goes without saying, yet when you are running around trying to keep your toddler from climbing up your bookshelf or sticking his fingers in your DVD player while you get ready, it is easy to forget something. So take a moment when things are (relatively) quiet and make sure you are prepared with all your supplies, so that you can be fully (and literally) present once the project begins.
This will get easier the more you do painting projects together and you have a better idea of what you’ll need. I thought I was prepared when my little Monkey and I started painting our letters, but one thing I was missing was lots and lots of rinsing water. Whether you are doing a craft project or just painting pictures, if you don’t want the paint pots all blending into one odd shade of brown, you will need plenty of water to rinse off your brushes. I had a cup of water handy for this purpose, but I didn’t realize how quickly it would become dirty. My suggestion is either to work near a water source (such as an outdoor utility sink) or bring several water cups with you.
4) Know where your supplies are at all times. If you don’t want paint on your furniture or the side of your house, don’t let the paint and brushes out of your sight. This means no looking at your phone while your child is painting, but it also goes back to having everything at hand that you will need. If you have to run back inside to get more brushes or water, for example, chances are someone will take advantage of your absence to try painting your windows. If you have to go back inside for any reason, take your child with you, or at least take the paint and brushes (whichever is easier).
5) Lay out ground rules. Be prepared to repeat them frequently. Make sure – in a loving way – that your toddler knows what your expectations are. (“We are going to paint on the paper, not on Mommy.”) You are already blowing his little mind by handing him a paintbrush and inviting him to smear bright colors all over what was previously forbidden, so it’s understandable that he would think anything is fair game. Know your limits and make sure he does as well, though don’t expect that he will remember them for very long. (Think gentle reminders).
6) Stay focused. Multi-tasking is so ingrained that it can be hard to shut it off. We all do it, so it’s easy to understand, but now is not the time to check Facebook or plan what you’ll be making for dinner. Besides making it easy for things to go awry all over your furniture, you are also missing the point: You are going through all of this trouble to be messy with your child in order to create an experience together. What fun is that if your mind is elsewhere half of the time?
7) Keep it fun. If you are making a craft, don’t think that it will come out perfectly. Lines won’t be neat, and colors will be mixed. But what kids lack in motor skills they make up for in imagination. Part of the fun is allowing your child to explore and express himself, so try not to jump in and “correct” when he paints the sky green or the grass blue. He’s just having fun and probably making a visual joke. (He knows the sky should be blue, but wouldn’t it be funny if the sky were green instead?) And years from now, when he’s more interested in video games and girls than painting with Mommy, you will treasure that green sky much more than any Picasso.
If you are doing a craft project, make sure to allow plenty of room for free play. Try to do projects that don’t have to be “just so,” and if there are some basic rules for the project, try to also incorporate elements where your child can really go crazy and paint just as he wants. You can also make sure to have extra paper on hand for him to paint on if he gets tired of the project. We had plenty of paper spread out on the patio where we were painting, and my little Monkey took frequent breaks from painting our letters to just paint on the paper.
8) If you want the best of both worlds. Generally, I say that if you want a perfect product, you are in the wrong business. Do it yourself when your toddler’s napping, or wait until he’s older. But just to contradict myself a bit (why not?) if you are working on a craft project, and you really want it to look nice (rather than “crafty”), you can always do a final coat of paint yourself later, while your little one is otherwise occupied, to correct the odd brushstrokes and color mixing.
9) Cut it short if you need to. If you find your blood pressure rising as your toddler tries to paint your sofa (again) or that you are getting increasingly irritable as he paints giant blue brushstrokes over your pretty yellow letters, take a break. You have already done a good deed with beginning to paint together, so cut yourself some slack. Things will get easier the more you do these messy projects, and it’s much better to end on a positive note.
10) Be prepared with what’s next. If your toddler is anything like mine, transitions are never easy, especially if I am the one initiating them. If you’re ready to end the session, in all likelihood he won’t be, so be ready to tempt him with something else fun to do next. (“Are you ready to go play with your trains? Where’s your new tow truck??”) Also, have a clean-up plan for your supplies and yourselves. The last thing you need to cap off your experience is a paint-covered child running through the house, so have a strategy for getting the supplies put safely out of reach and your child near some soap and water before you move on to anything else.
Congratulations on taking this step and best of luck! It is well worth the mess, so enjoy the ride!
What tips do you have for painting with a toddler?