Posted by: Ticktock | March 9, 2009

Coloring Inside the Lines

There seems to be a popular idea in the progressive parenting world that moms and dads should support (even encourage) their children to color outside the lines.  The prevailing theory seems to be that correcting a child’s coloring skills will only stifle his creativity and mold him into a conformist.  I disagree.

Kids need to learn the rules before they start breaking them in the name of artistic choice.  Drawing outside the lines is not done out of any sort of intended act of subversion.  The little artist is just a ‘lazy line painter jane’ who is daydreaming and scribbling, which is completely acceptable and has it’s place, but a parent should not be expected to praise such a composition.  When my daughter requests approval for a scribble, I make it a point to tell her that the picture is messy.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about little mistakes that are completely understandable for a little kid.  I’m talking about a page in a coloring book that is decorated sloppily without rhyme or reason.

Some would say that I’m blocking her from learning a valuable lesson in creativity via rule breaking.  Hogwash.  I really don’t want her to break the rules while she lives in my house, so why would I teach such a thing?  She can stick it to the man when she’s listening to an intergalactic radio station in her flying car at her university on Mars.  Not that coloring outside the lines is a broken rule, but I don’t feel that I need to teach rule breaking as a value just yet.  Sure, all of the best artists broke free from the expectations of the artistic community in which they contributed, but those artists learned the rules before they broke them.

My daughters find creativity and expression in many ways.  I do allow them to choose their outfits for the day, and sometimes their choices are pretty silly (and I let them know they are silly, too).  So, I don’t feel like I’m stifling their creativity by not praising them for random scribbles.  When they do color nicely, I praise them.  In fact, I give more praise when they make an unusual choice with colors because I feel that the choice of color is a deliberate act of creativity.

There’s a culture of unquestioning praise that is happening among parents lately.  Anything our children produce should be encouraged and brightly received with enthusiasm, even when we don’t like it.  I think this sends the wrong message to kids, that they deserve compliments no matter how they perform.  This mind set will not only stifle their creativity, but it will also repress their possible talent.  I’m not saying that they should be condemned or reprimanded for something as simple as lazy scribbling, but I am saying that it shouldn’t be hung on the fridge.

Of all my articles, this one might provoke the most outrage.  This isn’t the most important topic in the world, so please don’t think it constantly occupies my mind.   It’s just that I’ve noticed a culture of unmitigated praise for children, and the popular notion that lazy coloring builds creative character seemed like a fair way to frame my thoughts.

What do you think?



  1. Agreed. My son is three and I’m excited that his care-takers are starting to teach him to trace shapes and color inside the lines. Just as you said, you have to properly understand the rules so that you know exactly what you are doing when you break them. Otherwise, you have no real guidance.

  2. While I agree with you in principle, I can very vividly recall being young and being told to colour inside the lines. I knew how to colour inside the lines, but I had developed a new way of colouring. Basically, I would scribble all over, and then dip a white pencil in water (which, in those days, would essentially make white-out) and then colour with that OUTSIDE the lines. It was MY way of doing it. It had nothing to do with laziness, because I was still following along lines. But one day, as I was colouring with my special technique, my teacher came before I had started with the white pencil and chastised me in front of the entire classroom.

    Not only was I hurt and embarrassed, I was incredibly frustrated that I had to do it the way everyone else had to do it, rather than being able to do it my own way. So I want to add to your post that it’s important to be aware of where your child is and not to jump to conclusions and just start chastising. For all you know, your child may have simply found a creative way to colour IN the lines!

  3. Thanks for that memory, Grimalkin. That’s certainly a valid point.

  4. Hello,

    May I suggest introducing rules during board games instead of artistic expression?

  5. Um… what?

    First off my oldest son was the one would would only draw on the paper and in the lines. He followed instructions… until he figured out that one way to follow instructions was to not do things he was explicitely told not to do. Passive aggressive behavior.

    While he never drew outside the lines, or on the walls — it also meant he never went outside his comfort zone. It took us years to get him to ride the bus, and he never did call kids who gave him his phone number.

    Then there are the other two. The one whose picture of a mountain town with flying spaceships was found when we moved some furniture to paint, and the other who invented “paint rain” that was used on our kitchen cabinets (oh, and also decided to paint the bottom of her feet blue and then walk up the cream colored carpeted stairs! oh, this is her page: ).

    Those two seem to excel in school and friends.

    Oh, wait… I forgot to tell you — the oldest kid has a language/developmental disorder. He is the kid who was so compliant, yet may never hold a paying job. His terrible twos lasted a whole two weeks… while his brother’s (who I just paid for four AP tests!) terrible twos lasted from 18 months until he was seven years old (he will graduate with a 3.6+ grade point average that includes two years of AP Calculus and over three years of Latin, plus he works as a lifeguard at the local pool).

    I’m sorry, but for me… it does not matter if they color outside the line, as long as it is in the right direction in the long term.

  6. I like having both.

    Mum allows our daughter to put her shoes on the wrong feet (she’s just turned two, so that’s not so bad). I always correct her. When she’s trying to draw, mum praises every scribble. I attempt to correct, as well as correct her colours.

    Without mum, she wouldn’t try new things. Without me, she’d still think red was pink. Or at least I pretend. I grew up in a large family. Anyone who thinks parents can take major credit (or blame) for how children turn out are deluding themselves (as long as the children are relatively safe and happy of course).

  7. When I was a kid, I made my own rules for coloring. I was always obsessed with randomness, so I would stack all my crayons into a pyramid without considering their color. Then I would start at the top and go row by row, coloring the next section of the page with whichever color was next. I did color inside the lines though.

    I agree that learning the rules is important to expressing yourself. I’ve never been interested in art, but I always got good grades in art class because I followed directions well. For example, I followed the rules to learn about shading and blending colors. When my art teacher told me to mix blue, orange, and white to get the color of skin, I believed her while other students tried to just use orange and white and it looked fake. An artist may be very creative, but they cannot express the idea that is in their mind if they don’t know the basic rules of art.

  8. I never liked coloring books as a kid. I preferred blank pieces of paper and making my own lines.

  9. I totally agree: You learn the rules and then you can break them. I always think about this in terms of poetry. Shakespeare abided by the “rules” of iambic pantameter and these did not seem to stifle his creativity. At the same time, lazy poets who don’t want to bother learning about meter or rhyme write any old thing down and call it “free verse” when it’s actually drivel. But we’re nto allowed to call drivel drivel. We are supposed to call it “expressing onesself.” Argh. Anyway — I am loving this blog site! Lenore “Free-Range Kids” Skenazy

  10. My 5 year old knows that the “rules” require him to color within the lines, but he lacks the fine motor control to do so, and it’s breaking his heart. He is a good little kid, and a bright and determined one as well. They send him up to the next grade for reading, writing, and math classes, and he scores at the top on all of the stupid standardized tests that they give him.

    But this coloring thing is killing him. Before he started kindergarten, there was nothing he liked better than making art, mixing colors, stringing beads, molding shapes and figures from play-doh.

    But he can’t keep his crayons within the lines and now his homework “Name the pictures. Color those that begin with J” is the source of turmoil and tears at our house. He can identify the pictures instantly. He can write the letters legibly, but every homework assignment comes back scored below average and marked “messy” because of his poor skill at coloring.

    I don’t want him to decide “screw the rules, I’ll color any darn way I please”, but I am furious that his school experience is being destroyed by the teacher’s insistance that he WILL color inside the lines, especially since they offer neither him nor me any strategies for mastering this skill.

    If he was unable to read, write, or do math at grade level, I would expect an intervention program, and while his ability to color is probably not a huge handicap, if they can’t teach him how to do it, or at least tell ME how to teach him, then they darn well ought not be grading him on it

  11. Sounds like you have a lot of control over your kids. My son is 4 and has only ever drawn on blank paper until he got a coloring book yesterday. He colored in the lines perfectly. But I don’t care how he colors as long as it’s the way HE wants to color. He’s not hurting anybody one way or the other. Praise as well as criticism just passes our judgements onto our children (and adults as well) and should be reserved for truly important things.

    They idea that parents “encourage” children to draw outside the lines sounds ridiculous. But, I guess it does make a good start to your justification for controlling your own children, so that they understand that their own values have to approved by some external person, not from within.

    • I’m not sure where you got the idea that I have “a lot of control” over my kids. I don’t care how my children color either. As I’ve said, I was using the article to frame the opinion that parents shouldn’t praise kids for everything they create. I don’t actively force my kids to do anything; I’m just careful not to praise them for every little thing that they produce.

      I think it’s more likely that a child who is given praise for everything (including mediocrity and failure) will seek outside approval than someone who is praised for their effort and actual progress. I wrote this article a while ago, and I would probably change one thing now… that we should also praise good effort when it’s applicable. Either way, you’ve made some assumptions about me that are inaccurate, but I can’t really blame you too much. Framing my argument based on coloring inside or outside the lines makes me seem a tad more anal than I actually am.

  12. Coloring within the lines of a predetermined template is an academic activity. It is not a creative activity. So don’t use coloring to teach art for example. It’s great for teaching lettering or geometry.

  13. As an artist/philosopher, I can definitely appreciate what you’re saying. It’s always our challenge as people to understand where someone’s coming from when they do something. If someone is trying to intentionally color outside the lines (metaphorically and literally), it’s good to understand where they’re coming from when they do so. Sometimes they feel like they need to and other times they simply are acting without having developed any real technique, understanding, or intentionality. People should be guided towards intentionality and indeed need an awareness of rules in order to break them!

  14. I don’t have an issue with children coloring inside the lines. What saddens me, as an early childhood teacher, is when young children are expected to color inside the lines when they are not deveopmentally ready for this. I believe this undermines their self confidence.

  15. What do I think? Every child is different and therefore has different needs and abilities.
    Spend time with your children and watch for clues for when he or she is ready for learning a new skill and then work with them to lower the stress that could come with “preceived” failure.
    And YES please congratulate all work effort and continue to help as they improve but don’t hinder the developement because they just might have more talent then you.

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