Family Art
July 1977

“Family Art,” Ensign, July 1977, 67

Special Issue: The Arts

Family Art

What family can pass up the spiritual power, binding ties, and just plain fun of art together?

When I was seven I drew constantly. Cars, trains, sailing ships. When I was through you could sometimes even tell what these things were supposed to be.

I did it for hours, sitting at the kitchen table, riding in the back of the old ‘55 Buick, or on a hard bench while making a valiant effort to be quiet in sacrament meeting.

No, I didn’t plan to grow up to be a painter. My love for drawing had no purpose beyond the picture I was creating at the moment. It was fun.

That sense of fun children have in creating things is one of the greatest opportunities parents have: a chance to inspire, to teach, to learn, and to understand. By encouraging children in their natural creative activities, and by channeling those activities from time to time, parents can help their children learn vital principles and good personality traits—and the children will actually be teaching all this to themselves!

All the things that grown-up artists do, children do. They don’t have professional polish, but they do have a gusto that many professionals could well emulate. Children sing, making up their own lyrics and melodies. They dance, and though they don’t quite have the stamina to step en pointe, they do love to move their bodies with people watching. They draw crazy circles and dots and lines and tell you that it is a picture of Mommy and Daddy—only a grown-up could possibly fail to recognize them. They play-act with each other for hours on end. Sand becomes forts; dirt becomes highways for little cars; grass is a forest where giant insects lurk behind every blade.

Teenage artists are often better at their art than their parents are. Some of the best roadshows ever produced have been written, directed, and acted by a cast and crew composed entirely of teenagers. Adolescence is a time when children become more serious than ever about their artistic efforts—and their attempts to draw, write, dance, sing, or act are closely linked to their search for identity. The poem your high school sophomore brings home from school may not be Shakespeare, but it’s usually an honest effort to express himself. And some of those poems may be better than you expect: creative genius often manifests itself in early years.

The arts are in us, no matter what our age, and somehow we recognize that in them is one of our most effective ways of communicating with others—and of understanding ourselves. Not every child who builds with blocks is going to grow up to be an architect. But a child’s plunges into art have long-lasting results that are sometimes more important to his adult happiness than a choice of career.

We must remember that children don’t think their activities are childish, and adolescents often view themselves as adults: they attach as much importance to their arts as adults do.

Adults with the weight of the world on their shoulders find it too easy to forget that children do not know that their concerns are trivial. Imagine a man coming home from work, enthusiastic about the account he just landed with a million-dollar-a-year customer—how would he react if his wife patted his head and said, “How darling! What a cutey you are!”

To enter into children’s lives, whatever their age, we must take their art as seriously as they do. To enhance our children’s lives, we must provide them with opportunities to create and feel appreciated for what they have created. And, in the process, we can use their very seriousness to instill in them a love for righteousness and truth that will not leave them when they are adults.

People remember what they do far better than they remember what they see and hear. The story of Christmas may be loved when Daddy reads it from a book. But it becomes indelibly printed on their minds when little Roger is a shepherd and twelve-year-old Todd is Joseph and fourteen-year-old Agnes is Mary and they get to hold their own newborn brother as if he were the Christchild.

With a little channeling from parents, those marvelous small artists who decorate the walls of your home and bellow through your living room during Custer’s millionth last stand can teach themselves in ways you never thought possible. And a lot of encouragement can help teenagers find creative outlets they may not have known they had—and which they can use to enrich the lives of their family. Take their art seriously, and their creations will become bonds that keep the family strong and close during adulthood.

Some ideas:

Drama. Children are natural actors, playwrights, directors. Domestic comedies are acted out in doll-houses and play kitchens. High drama accompanies the death of every cowboy and Indian in the back yard.

And if parents are willing to let the children take an active part, theatre at home can make the gospel come to life.

There are very few scriptural stories that can’t be acted out. It can start in home evening after Daddy or Mommy tells the story of, let’s say, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.

“Who wants to be Moses?” Mommy asks, when the story is over.

“Me,” say three or four small voices.

So Mommy picks one. Not necessarily the biggest—not necessarily a boy. Perhaps the eagerest.

Moses must be equipped with a robe and a staff, so the young actor is dispatched to the bedroom to find something he can use. In the meantime, Daddy falls to the floor and starts waving his arms and legs in the air.

“I’m the Red Sea,” he says solemnly. When the children laugh, Daddy tickles the nearest small foot and says, “Better watch it; I can be dangerous.”

“Who wants to be the children of Israel? And who wants to be the Egyptians?” and in a few moments a small Egyptian army is gathered behind the lone Israelite. Mommy stands up. “I’m the pillar of fire,” she announces. Moses comes back with his father’s bathrobe and a fishing rod (a quick check follows to make sure there’s no hook dangling from it) and the story begins.

With reminders from Mom, the children of Israel see the Egyptians coming (and they do look pretty fierce), but the Lord saves them by sending a pillar of fire. Then Moses raises his staff and Daddy’s arms and legs move apart, leaving a channel across “dry land”—Daddy’s stomach. The children of Israel step gingerly across, with Daddy grunting a little from the patter of tiny feet. When Moses has crossed, his staff held high the whole time, the pillar of fire moves aside, and the Egyptians begin to cross.

But when they reach the Red Sea, Moses lowers his staff, and all of a sudden the Egyptians are lost in a tumble of Daddy’s limbs. (Chances are pretty good that at least one Egyptian gets through, and then Mommy has to explain that it didn’t really happen that way, but the story will never be forgotten.)

As the children get older, the stories and the action can be a little more sophisticated. Laman and Lemuel must be sullen and unresponsive. Joseph Smith must be on fire with indignation as he rebukes the guards in Missouri. Ruth must be loving, and Naomi is kind as she tries to turn her daughter-in-law away. Other emotions besides fun come into use.

Teenage children are usually more comfortable with a written script—so let them write one! For the week before a special home evening they may be laboring over memorizing the lines they have invented for Saul to say to David. Both the writing and the performing can be fun—as well as profound learning experiences. If memorizing is too much, let your children read the script: what matters is the fact of sharing and learning.

Scripture isn’t the only source for drama. Is there a problem with quarreling among your children? Why not assign one of your teenagers to write a small play about a family that has such a problem? And if there is a special event in your family, why not a play to commemorate it? (Special events can be anything from a trip to a national park or the onset of spring to a son leaving on a mission or a healing by the power of the priesthood.)

If no one has a writing bent, there is still a lot your teenagers can do with drama. A great modern play like A Man for All Seasons or The Diary of Anne Frank can be read aloud, with family members each taking a part—or several parts. Though none of your family may be academy award material, the great characters of theatre and their heroic struggles mean far more if you have said their words and done their deeds yourself.

And then you can try theatre without writing at all. A lot can be learned by improvised role-playing. Just select the issue or subject and let them play it out. What about having two of your teenagers play the role of parents, while you take the child roles? Chances are you’ll have a golden opportunity to see yourself as they see you—and vice versa.

And sometimes you may want to have a family play with all the trappings—sets, costumes, lights, even an audience. Perhaps your family could do a pageant of family history for the annual family reunion. Or a scriptural play for each other.

There’s no law that says you have to have an audience for drama to be meaningful to your family. One of the most satisfying and powerful experiences I’ve ever had with theatre was without an audience. My younger brother and I were rehearsing for a community theatre production. I was playing his father, and in one highly emotional scene the character I was playing did something that hurt him deeply. Tears came into his eyes, and, even though we were acting, the thought that I had caused him sorrow filled me also with grief, and for a moment I stepped outside of the play and saw Russell for what he is—one of the most important people in my life and I remembered what humdrum family life often causes me to ignore: that I love my family better than I love myself.

I didn’t need an audience, just my brother and me reading lines from a play: and yet the scene and the characters we were playing helped us transcend the ordinary and touch each other deeply. That moment was never equaled, even when we performed the play in front of audiences.

Music. In the old days, hymns used to be sung to only a few well-known melodies. Even some Latter-day Saint hymns were written to old tunes. There’s no reason why you can’t make up new lyrics to songs your children already know. Or, better, have the older children and teenagers make up the new lyrics themselves. Perhaps a particular point needs to be stressed in an upcoming family home evening—you could hand a hymnbook to one of your teenagers and tell him or her the topic you want stressed. Then the whole family can learn the new hymn the next week.

And family home evening is not the only opportunity: Why not gather around the piano (organ, autoharp, guitar, recorder) on Sunday between or after meetings and sing hymns and old favorite songs?

Many mothers make up spur-of-the-moment songs with never-before-heard melodies. Somehow anger gets sidetracked if mother sings, “If you leave your toys out in the living room, my dears, I don’t think I will serve you any supper.” It becomes funny and fun instead of a dire threat—but the point gets made. And music can just flow from the joy of the moment: “I love all my children, especially you while you’re smiling at me as I cook up your dinner,” sings a mother to a five-year-old. Will the child forget?

Little children are great spur-of-the-moment singers, too. “Can you sing a song about how you love your brother Michael?” two-year-old Tricia is asked. “I love my brother Michael,” she sings, “because he is a good baby. He cries a lot but he is still nice and I like to hug him and kiss him.” Then a kiss, and she starts singing about graham crackers and the lesson is over, but she has learned to speak her love aloud, and to let her emotions overflow in song.

Singing isn’t restricted to mothers and little children, either. Heavy yardwork feels lighter with father and sons singing the Volga Boat Song as they work. “Yo Heave Ho! Yo Heave Ho!” can make the worst drudgery fun. And what about “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel,” “Whistle While You Work,” and even “When We’re Helping We’re Happy”?

There is something powerful in songs that belong only to you. Why else do hymns like “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” and “Come, Come Ye Saints” make Mormons feel such a bond? If your family develops Christmas carols that only you know, or has special songs about going to the temple or on a mission someday that no one outside your family has ever heard, those songs become ties that bind you closer. They’ll never be forgotten.

Dance. For those of us who are not agile, dance seems well beyond reach. But most children are agile to the point of contortionism (remember when you were three and could do a backbend and touch your feet to the back of your head?) and dance is as natural to them as breathing.

Dance can follow lesson themes where younger children might not be able to follow complicated story lines. “Dance sad,” the little ones might be told, “because that’s how the Nephites felt when they disobeyed the Lord.” Sad music on the record player helps set the mood. After a short time, the music is changed. “Now they have repented,” the children are told, “so dance happy, the way the Nephites felt when they obeyed.”

Dance isn’t just restricted to the little children, however. Most homes aren’t big enough for dancing indoors but there’s always the back yard in the summer. Why not have a square dance on the lawn for the teenagers? Or plunge back into the family heritage: find someone to come and teach you a Danish (English, Scottish, Japanese, Mexican) folk dance as a family activity; it helps make our ties to the “old country” and our ancestors who were born there become real to us in our modern cities.

Dance can become a game, too. Did your great-grandfather live on a farm? Have everybody in the family, young and old, think of a farm activity and then act it out without words (sometimes it’s better not to tell self-conscious teenagers that what they’re doing is really dancing). Everybody guesses what each action is, and then when all have chosen one, you can do them at once, and then trade around a circle until everyone has “experienced” farm life. Or life on shipboard sailing to New England or Australia or from Jutland to Kent. Or crossing the plains. Or building the temple. Disguised as a game, dance can be a great teacher—and a great source of fun.

A side effect of keeping dance alive through family activities is that you may be able to avoid the tendency among modern adults to not express themselves physically. If your children grow up expressing themselves with their bodies, they will never become stiff, awkward, closed-off adults who treat their bodies like temporary equipment instead of feeling at home with their own arms and legs.

Drawing. This is one of the easiest arts to get children of any age to do—as any parent whose squirmy child has quieted down with a pencil and paper can tell you. But like the other arts, this has many uses other than just getting a respite from the wrigglers. Drawing can be a game: One family member is the artist. “We’re drawing a car,” he says. “First draw the wheels.” Everyone does, then passes the sheet of paper to the left. On the new sheet, which already has four wheels, everyone adds what the artist directs: “Now draw the body of the car.”

“Now the windows and doors.”

“Now the people.”

“Now the scenery.”

As your children get older, it will no longer be a challenge to make something that looks like a car. Then the fun comes from visual jokes and playfulness: when the artist says to draw any water that might be in the scene, someone puts in water faucets and people boating in large kitchen sinks.

A variation is “draw the monster,” dreaming up the wildest possible creatures and applauding the ones that by chance turn out the best.

Coloring and painting can be messy, but they last. If the children are young and their drawings are too “modern” for you, make a note of what they said the drawing was supposed to be and then from time to time you can point to where it’s hanging on the refrigerator door and say, “Remember when you drew that picture of the angel telling Mary about Christ’s birth? Tell me the story.”

The story you hear may not be the story you told, but you’ll probably be amazed at how much the child remembers.

And adolescents who draw recognizably—even well—can be assigned to illustrate a particular story for an upcoming home evening lesson. Then, as you tell the story, you can bet at least one pair of eyes will be riveted on those drawings. And the other children, too, will be excited that one of their brothers or sisters has done what so often is left up to the manual. The art print of Jesus in Gethsemane may be more attractive to your adult eye, but the drawing your own child makes will get a lot more attention from his.

One family even does their own “editorial” cartoons, depicting some aspect of family life they’re working on improving or some special event they’re commemorating. When the cartoons come off the wall they go straight into the family history, never to be lost or forgotten.

And art doesn’t have to be small. Butcher paper in the family room can become a mural about family history, Church history, scripture, contemporary family life—anything. And then there are the big signs on garage doors or front windows saying, “Welcome home, Jimmy,” to a returning missionary or serviceman.

The Lloyd Wilson family in Pacifica, California, goes crazy over decorations—every holiday is an excuse. The parents set a few rules (to keep the house intact) and then the eleven children are free to dangle decorations throughout the living room. Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving, winter, spring, Easter, Presidents Day, the Fourth and Twenty-fourth of July—who needs an excuse? The living room blossoms and so do the children’s smiles.

Art is for the parents, too. Last Christmas my father did his first serious painting in twenty-five years—the first I had ever seen him do. He gave it to my mother for Christmas, a scene that had what my mother always wanted in a painting: mountains, water, sky, and autumn colors. I know that I’ve never seen another gift that meant so much to my mother. And it meant a lot to us kids too—Mom wasn’t the only one who cried. I am sure that painting will stay in the family for generations, always prized more than any painting we could buy.

Building. Talking about the temple at Jerusalem in family home evening? You Can have a miniature temple ready-built out of plastic bricks or wooden blocks. In fact, you’ll find it hard to stop your children from building. How many slabs of wood do children nail together, hoping their “boat” will float? That boat can also teach, as you point out how it is like the one that almost sank until Christ stilled the waves.

That much-dug dirt pile in the backyard can become the earthen walls that Moroni built around the city of Moronihah.

Family building projects can also beautify the home. Saving money isn’t the only reason why you might want your teenagers to help you build the fence around your yard. Curtains, dish towels, rugs, plant hangers—bought in a store they might look more professional, but made at home by your growing-up children they’ll turn your house into a home your children will love in memory forever.

One engaged couple put together a “personal history” montage in a wooden box. Squares within the box displayed political campaign buttons, Bicentennial medallions, baby pictures, small toys, and a current picture with swatches of the fabric from the wedding dress. They photographed it and printed the photograph on their wedding invitations. Similar boxes can display items of interest to the whole family—and perhaps an annual collection of things to remind you of the year’s events could become part of your family history. Children of any age can take part in this kind of project and people without children at home can enjoy it, too.

Other home crafts become part of your tradition as well. Macrame, embroidery, tatting, knitting, crocheting, quilting, weaving, and sewing all create keepsakes and family heirlooms that will someday serve to tie the generations together.

Writing. Children learn to love reading because of the stories their parents tell them. Though picture books are delightful ways to trigger children’s imaginations, children often prefer the “tailor-made” stories their parents tell. Stories about a child with your little one’s name who gets into all kinds of adventures that he or she can identify with will always hold interest, and as the story-child learns honesty and faith and kindness, so will the real one who is eagerly listening.

Children also tell each other far wilder and more creative stories than parents would dare to dream up, and the teller profits as much as the listeners. Great things can happen to family unity when the older children sometimes put the younger ones to bed with a story or a song. Bonds can be made at bedtime that will never break—all through the children’s sharing the art of storytelling with each other.

Does your fourth-grader write haikus for school? Ask him to write a haiku about spring for a family home evening, and then let that lead you into a discussion of the Lord’s work of creation. And not just the fourth-grader—grandfather’s doggerel can delight the family for years.

The old “story game” is a great way to keep storytelling ability alive in your family. One person starts a story and puts the hero or heroine in some perilous position—and stops. The next person must take over, extricate the character, and go on. Ghost stories are scarier and yet much more fun with this approach, and the wilder the adventures the better. The story you end up with may not have much relation to the one you started, but who cares?

Writing can be the key to your family history. My family, with children all over twelve, is trying an experiment with writing memories. We have a list of topics that will cue our memories—like “houses we’ve lived in” and “Delpha’s childhood” and “spiritual experiences.” Every day or so we pull out notebooks, when we have (or make) the time, and write for fifteen minutes or a half hour, rip out the sheet, and put it in a file folder labeled with the category. After a few months, we’ll have enough memories to start our family history, and as more memories occur to us over the years, it is infinitely expandable.

Another idea, which can apply to families with children of all ages, is to spend a family home evening making a “family book.” First, everyone is given a sheet of paper the same size. All write down a true story—or a fictional one—on a similar topic: a time when someone was nice to me; why I try to be honest; why I love Johnny. The littlest ones draw a picture or tell a story to Mom or Dad. Then the pages are collected and bound into a book with cardboard or wooden covers that anyone can look at and remember. The book can be illustrated, too, and the binding itself can be a family activity.

Older children and teenagers can be assigned to write essays on scriptural themes, historical events, recent family happenings, or practically anything else, and then read them to the family. They might even discover that reports can be fun—when no one is grading them or correcting their grammar, and all they have to do is say what they think.

Family letters to members who are gone—at college, on missions, in the service, married and moved away—are good uses of writing skills. And we’re all encouraged to keep journals: why not devote a half hour on Sunday to making journal entries, with a chance to share items of general interest, though private, personal writing could be kept secret.

Best of all, practice at writing and storytelling within the uncritical family circle can instill a love for writing in your children. It can also sharpen their skills through practice, and help them be better able to express themselves verbally in adulthood.

Why art at home?

Why not? It comes naturally to little children, and teenagers have it at their fingertips. We only lose it through the process of growing up into set molds. By keeping many opportunities around for your family to express themselves in drama, music, dance, drawing, building, and writing, we encourage them to keep the creativity they brought with them to this world.

But even more important, the arts are also great opportunities for young people to teach themselves principles of the gospel. Through family art activities, traditions are created that bind the family together as closely as families should be tied. And even though most children are not going to pursue a career in the arts, the background in self-expression will help them be happy, well-adjusted, self-confident people who can cope with the ups and downs of living in the adult world.

And besides the art that your children create themselves, they can also learn to understand and love the art created by the masters. Trips to art shows, movies, plays, dance productions; excursions to look at beautiful buildings and homes; good books read as families and given to children to read alone—all of them mean more when the children have tried creating such things themselves. At the same time, exposure to the work of the masters helps them learn the meaning of excellence, helps them understand the difference between beauty and ugliness. A home where great classical music and wholesome contemporary music are heard at least as often as television theme songs, where fine books are on the table beside Reader’s Digest and TV Guide, will produce young people with taste and discernment, who love what is good and beautiful because they have grown up with it all their lives.

And even if you, as parents, feel lacking in talent or experience with the arts, that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Your children won’t know that you sing off key or that you’re borrowing the plots for your stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales and as they grow and develop in their abilities, so will you, enjoying it all the while.

The family is the only really uncritical, accepting audience most of us will ever have. Why not open ourselves and let the arts have a place in our homes? Married or not, young or old, with young children or teenagers, through the arts we can give those we love a part of ourselves. You can’t put a price on it, and no assembly line can turn out a good substitute. Families need each other, and through family art—especially with a gospel orientation—we can help satisfy each other’s needs.

Photography by Marilyn Erd

Remodeling or building? When your family has a hand in creating the structures that surround you, they take on an even greater personal meaning.

Moses can still part the Red Sea—whether in your living room or on a grassy hill—when instant drama brings the scriptures to life for your family.

Move the furniture and roll out the butcher paper! It won’t be Mona Lisa, but it’ll be a lot of fun.

That lawn isn’t just for croquet! The old folk dances are just as fun with each new generation that learns them.