01 July, 2014

Ask Al: So; your child is an artist.

Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte
Dear Al,

My daughter is thirteen, and has dreams of becoming a professional performer.  I have been impressed by her work ethic, talent, and the confidence the arts have given her; but I also have my concerns about her going to college for, or trying to make a living and a life as an artist.

I am in support of my daughter's happiness, and of course want all of her dreams to come true, but I also want her to be okay! I truly want what is best for her, but I am finding myself desperately uninformed and full of so many fears. 

How can I truly be the best and most productive sense of support?

Thank you,



Dear J,

This is a very brave letter to send. I want to begin there because I think the nature of your letter deserves a nod of great honor. 

I consider your daughter to be very fortunate indeed to have a parent willing to say "I am scared" and "I don't know" and lead them by example as they say "I am willing to ask for help because I don't have all the information." Perhaps most remarkable of all to simply have your actions (as well as your words) say "I SUPPORT YOU." So many young artists never receive that from their families, it is heartbreaking and tragic to witness. So your letter is (more-than-twice-over) a little miracle.

And that is your daughter's first huge advantage--you already are supportive in the very best way: you are open to the idea of your child becoming who they feel they need to become, whether or not it makes you entirely comfortable. That is a huge, epic, beautiful, and rare thing.

Let me also state that I am not a parent myself, which is a factor in my answers.
I do not begin to claim to understand the wrenching desire to protect a child from all harm or misfortune.

But I have been both an artistic child and adolescent,
     as well as a dedicated teacher to students just about your daughter's age for a few years now,
and therefore have some knowledge of this pivotal time-of-life,
as well as extraordinary compassion for your concerns.

Here are a few Dos and Don’ts . . .


1. DON'T Compare.
Think about it: you would never say
“Well, Suzy is roughly your height and she is skinnier than you are, and far more naturally beautiful, so you have to eat less and work out harder and maybe wear more makeup and get a haircut to be as pretty as Suzy...” 
… Um, that would be child abuse. Certainly pretty abysmal parenting, and at the very least, mean.

I am here to tell you that art is just as, if not, in many ways, more personal than a physical appearance, so why would any loving person subject art to the same irrelevant scrutiny?
Do not compare, scrutinize, or judge their talent/skill or ability to anyone else. 

Growing up comparing yourself to others is hard enough, we don’t need our parents egging us on as well. “Well, why do you think Suzy got the lead in the play and not you?” just leads to expensive adult therapy bills (and probably a lifetime of horrible holiday dinners...

Basically, unless you are a seasoned artist yourself, assume that you aren’t one to judge! One cannot possibly begin to criticize color/design/composition, or tone/pitch/legato, or truth/style/interpretation; or any advanced principle of art without the experience to back it up.

Artistic appreciation, of course, is different, and can be enjoyed at every level of artistic skill. That is one of the great joys of the arts! But the energy behind artistic appreciation and competitive scrutiny is palpable--you and everyone else will know the difference.

Statistically, most adults:
  • quit dancing by 15
  • stop singing in undergrad, and 
  • drawing by the age of 9. 
Following that logic, that adult’s level ability to judge another drawing resides at a fourth grade level.  All children are in a rapid state of mental growth, so although an adult may see/hear a restless, emotional child singing in the shower off-pitch, that child could be in the presence of a major breakthrough in their musical intelligence.  To use a visual art metaphor: the rough scribble is not important; the color choice and spirit of experiment before the scribble…major artistic breakthrough.

Which brings me to

2. DON'T try to get “ahead” of others.

Being better than other kids in their grade/age group is meaningless. Sign your children up for a “race” they didn’t know they were running, then watch them shrink into a hole to hide from the failure surrounding the thing they once loved.  If they are prodigious early on, they might freeze as others catch up and surpass them over time.

The flip side of this is if by chance they excel in these advanced classes, they develop an inability to accept correction, or even see error in their own work. 

3. DON’T Destroy the “LIKE.”

Ask a child why they draw, sing, play in the mud, or eat all the cookies.
They will give you a very simple answer: “Because I like it.” 

So whatever you do, DON’T DESTROY THE “LIKE!”

A child’s mind is so full of wonder—whole imaginative universes exist in there! And that sense of real play gives them a form of creating an actual representation of the wonderful expansions of their mind, soul and body. When they “discover” a new thing, they draw/sing/physicalize it, it becomes a manifestation of the spark within.

So many potential brilliant children lose their initial focus on the “like,” and replacing it with focus on achievement—the things can be seen and measured. But when the “like” is killed or replaced too soon, it does not matter how finely skilled the artist later becomes, they may eventually give it up because the “like” is so far gone, that when all the artistic struggles rear their heads, (which they absolutely will) there won’t be enough passion to sustain them.

Succinctly: encourage a fueled passion. When skills or careers falter, the love will be deeply felt, and see them through.

4. DON'T look for the Magic Pill. There is NO Magic Pill. 
Yeah. There just …isn’t. Whaddya know? Just like everything else in life.
No quick fixes.
No secret formula.
No one to bribe.
No competition to defenestrate.
No incantations you can do for your daughter’s career naked in the moonlight in the woods behind your house.

So to avoid singing “Rose’s Turn” after your kid graduates from high school, keep these thoughts in mind:
'No Magic Pill' means allowing yourself to nurture an unconventional view of both success and of excellence; then, passing those values on to your child. It's kind of like on the airplane when they tell you to secure your own in-case-of-emergency oxygen mask before assisting others—you are no help to your kid if you are passed out drooling on a life-raft yourself. Secure your mask then help keep them grounded by giving them the tools to keep themselves grounded.



1. DO Facilitate, Facilitate, Facilitate.
  • Do your homework
  • Ask for help (like you are right now by writing/reading this!)
  • Keep your cool
and of course,
  • Do everything you can to encourage them to keep writing/drawing/singing/dancing/doing what they love to write/draw/sing/dance/do.
2. DO tell them.
Tell them how happy you are to see them writing/drawing/singing/dancing/practicing.
Tell them how proud you are of all their hard-work.
Tell them how much you love to bear witness to their artistic process,
Tell them how all of it makes you feel. (Even if they get all "Ugh Mooooom" on you, you can have confidence that you are the artsy version of the Moms in every Olympics commercial, and someday they will know without a shadow of a doubt that you supported them.)

3. DO teach them to LOVE it. 

The only true constant motivation in life is the feelings we get when we work to bring to life something that only existed in our minds or souls or bodies before we somehow manifested it in the physical world.
Show them how to love to write/draw/sing/dance/do by living your own passionate life.
Get better and better all the time at gardening, tennis, or making German chocolate cake, because passion drives excellence.

Lead by example.

4. DO respect the differences between Knowledge vs. Intelligence.
Detailed (aaaaaall soap-boxy, and at length) here.


5. DO be prepared for when they fall down. 
Because they will.

Honesty corner: I went to over 60 auditions last year and got 4 of those jobs. (The rest came to me through professional connections, or knowledge of previous work, but that's another essay).
I was crushed when I didn’t get into X school.
Cried when I wasn’t considered for A.
I raged when I lost out on B.
I doubted myself when C didn’t work out as I’d hoped.

My own (awesome) mother knows that she can’t “fix it.” There is no Principal to call, or Drama teacher to plead with. All she can do is hold me while I hurt, and reiterate how proud she is of me as an artist and as a human being. Her continuous parenting of her adult artist daughter includes support… and nothing more. I can’t speak for my amazing mother, but I’d wager she would say that true support is as much of a skill as singing—just as tricky and just as rewarding when you get it right. It is about knowing when you simply hold your child’s hand to help them endure the tough parts with dignity and grace, mine them for the lessons, and walk onwards with courage and integrity so that the glories are even more triumphant and full of joy.

Concisely, this is my ultimate message:
That is your job: you can’t drive your child’s car, but you can be a solid, calm, true companion on the inevitably bumpy drive.

6. DO emphasize the pursuit of EXCELLENCE, versus the pursuit of SUCCESS/FAME.
That lesson will stick with them forever, and applies to all circumstances, levels and walks of life.

Society fills our heads with enough unrealistic dreams of grandeur, fame and glory for its own sake—be the antidote for your child. Show them that you value their passion, their hard work, their consistent pursuit of excellence. And remember: success is not about what you do, it is how you feel about what you do.

If this Love of and for art is strongly rooted in them, reinforced with realistic support, encouragement of hard work and passion, and a healthy dose of ethics, then there is nothing that will stop their greatness. 
They will improve at an accelerated rate because they will still love the act of creation. 
They will stretch their growth beyond the course curriculum because every assignment will be a labor of love, and personal joy, not a grade.
Their love for the work will expand their capacity for creativity. 
Their careers will find them.

They will continue to reach for personal wonder,
for awe in their world,
          their work,
in their humanity,
     in their artistic practice;
NOT for the paycheck, the awards, or the notoriety... 
...And they will do so for the rest of their lives.




  1. AnonymousJuly 01, 2014

    thank you for this post!

  2. This one hits home since I am the father of a daughter who is an Actress. I think your recommendations are spot on. I confess at having failed at some of them at some times as an irregular, imperfect human. So, I do have regrets (particularly when I became an angst monster at the almost unsupportable cost of theatre at NYU) and was not always there for support as I should have been which was also an incredibly tough time for my daughter. Those regrets stay with me like an irremediable black stain. But I do think my message has more typically been supportive and about love and excellence for ‘the work’ which is where the real nutrition lies if one pursues a life in this precarious field of art (but truly where isn’t life precarious). My daughter is now the co-producer/co-manager of What Dreams May Co in NYC and creates intense, exciting works of art on stage—of which I am extremely proud. And I think and hope she feels my support.

  3. Such clarity....such compassion in those words, Al. This is what I'd want to tell my mom, who is just so scared, she tries to replace me at my wheel whenever she gets into panic mode. Even worse, she goes into denial mode whenever I tell her she's doing that. So I feel that it's just up to me to be what I am- and try and tell her that it's okay, that she can't fix anything, or do anything but support. Alas, that many of my contemporaries and friends deal with this too. It's pretty rampant amongst Asian families. Thank you for this- it brings peace to me and many people.

  4. brilliantly expressed Al!

  5. Thank you so much for this post. "M"'s daughter is lucky to have a mother who wants to do her best to be supportive. I think supportive parents (and/or parental figures) is one of the most important things that a developing artist can have, and your advice to "M" (to build her daughter's self esteem, to teach her to aspire to quality of work rather than fame and make sure her daughter remains joyful about what she does) is wonderful.

    I was lucky enough to have that same kind of support as a child. I always wanted to be a writer and my parents were always my biggest cheerleaders. That doesn't mean that they discouraged practical steps as well. After all, just because I'm writing doesn't mean I can count on being a best selling author and I do need to eat! My parents were very supportive of my Literature major in college and perhaps breathed a small sigh of relief that I got a job in publishing following graduation, thus proving that I was employable. When I decided I didn't like publishing they were equally supportive of me as I got my masters in Teaching. I wrote for myself and others throughout my education and every "day job" I've had. My parents were always there to bounce things off of, to read a draft and give some feedback, or comfort me when I got a rejection letter. That didn't stop when I stopped being a child.

    As a teacher I've seen all kinds of children and all kinds of parents. I always try to support my students dreams whether they're inclined toward the arts, sciences, or some other area. I encourage parents to be open minded because their kids are young and what you want as a child isn't always what you want as an adult. In terms of practicality the job market is changing rapidly. When I went to grad school there was a high need for teachers. By the time I got my masters two years later, there was a hiring freeze! "Practical" jobs don't come with any guarantees. Computer programmers today will have very different jobs as technology changes. Either they'll learn new things and moves with the times; or go into another field. So why not encourage a child's artistic inclinations? They may change their minds about what they want to do in two years. They may do it all their lives for their own creative fulfillment and make a living doing something else. They may attain financial success (or at least stability) through their artistic endeavors. Their passion for a field might lead the to work in that field in a different capacity than expected. At the very least children whose artistic ambitions are taken seriously and supported by their parents will take joy in what they do. They'll also do better in school (children who participate in the arts have a proven tendency to do better academically as well). They'll have a positive influence in their life and strong role models. They'll learn about discipline, practice and hard work. There are no down sides to that.



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