As most kids, my daughter loves to draw and colour pre-printed templates. She started quite early (on her own, improvising with any paper that had outlines on it), then progressed rather quickly from just scratching the entire page to making a proper effort to stay within the lines. According to this post, that's early for her age, but she's been early with a lot of things.

As can be expected, she is not very good at staying within the lines, and although we tell her that that's all right (and, ourselves, intentionally do it all messed up), she becomes frustrated to the point of throwing her pencils because she wants to be better -- but she doesn't want to train because she isn't good enough. Gah, child logic is hard. She just wants to sit next to us and direct us to do the drawing 'properly'; every now and then we agree to do that, but explain to her that she's supposed to do the colouring herself, if she wants to colour at all that is (it's not like we're forcing her).

What things can we do to encourage her to keep trying even though she's not at her desired skill level, to let her understand that it's okay to struggle with things?

Edit: We seem to have overcome some form of hurdle. I bought a giant colouring book (over half a metre on each side) where the motifs (and their components) are comfortably big, and we are doing the colouring together. I do some, she does some, and some shapes I make a big fat border within the outline and she fills it in (akin to BlueRaja's suggestion).

Still, every now and again she goes into a frustration rage, and that's okay. And we do praise the effort (as we were also doing before posting).

Ohh, so difficult to choose a single answer! Thank you all for your excellent input.

  • 20
    Is she coloring with skinny crayons? Have you tried fatter ones? Fine motor skills are still difficult at this age. Can she color in (fat) pencils that can be erased? That might help her to feel better about coloring if she can correct her mistakes. In any case, this is the time to start teaching that mistakes are not shameful but are opportunities to learn. If she can have this outlook, she will be much more successful at her schoolwork, etc. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 13:24
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    @anongoodnurse, she is using fat pencils. The ergonomics is not the problem. She also gets angry because the 'black' is not black enough, because she can't press down hard enough (but her felt-tip pen discipline is still dangerous for the rest of the living room...).
    – KlaymenDK
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 15:03
  • 4
    Find a coloring book with thick lines? Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 19:28
  • 12
    I wouldn't colour badly on purpose, I'd probably suggest colouring the way she wants to be able to, so that she can see that with practice you can improve dramatically. Also, maybe she'd notice something in your colouring technique, copying good habits. I believe that teaching these types of skills like this requires good modelling first.
    – minseong
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 19:47
  • 6
    100% agree with @theonlygusti. Colouring as she does is akin to speaking as she does, or walking as she does, to "make her feel better"; but not only will it not "make her feel better", it will also be counter-productive for everyone involved. Every moment of every day she is learning how to do things, and she's doing so by watching you! Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 13:22

17 Answers 17


At the risk of being unpopular, I would say: do nothing. She is doing everything right.

Learning itself is a difficult skill to learn. In this case, we can apply the model of "zone of proximal development". You have already correctly realized that people do not learn much when in their comfort zone, and need to spend some time out of it, where things are difficult, to learn new skills. And yes, you don't want your daughter to give up on the first sign of trouble.

However, not everything outside of the comfort zone is a zone where learning takes place. There is the "zone of proximate development", where the next level of skill is just slightly out of reach, and can be attained with a combination of persistent exercise and trying out new approaches where the earlier ones have failed. But outside of this starts a zone of mastery which is not yet attainable.

I have seen a lot of well meaning people trying to train both children or adults who were over their head. This does not work well and produces the exact symptoms you describe. The pupil tries again and again, but their current skillset is not sufficient for getting even close to the desired result, and there are no obvious "tricks" to try to get around the unsuccessful approach. Frustration is the one normal emotion in this case, and the other, if stakes are high, fear. Both emotions have something to tell us, and teaching your daughter to blindly push through them is not doing her a favor.

A good learner should be able to recognize both borders of the proximate zone of learning, the lower one and the high one. Your daughter has reached the high one. Recognize this, respect it, and help her cope with that situation. It does involve giving up the task - that's something she is intuitively doing right. She obviously needs more "levels" in her pyramid of skills (most likely more development in her nervous system before she gains more fine motor skills) until task success becomes attainable. Then she should try again. But currently, forcing her or tricking her into doing a task where she has found out that she has no chance of success will kill her long-term motivation instead of building it.

Instead, see this not as a situation where she should be improving her artistic or motor skills, but as a situation to improve her emotional coping and self-awareness skills. Name her feelings for her, and suggest a strategy to deal with them: "It seems that no longer how often you try, you never manage to stay in the lines. I bet this makes you very frustrated, and that's why you threw that pencil. Don't worry, you can leave this and come back to it someday later and see if you can do better. No need to throw the pencil though, just lay it there and we can try playing something easier together."

If you are specifically worried about the possibility of her becoming a perfectionist who is afraid to try things even once (even though that doesn't seem a problem in this specific situation), the way to forestall this is to praise her effort. "It was good that you tried several times. I know that it still didn't work out, but that happens sometimes. Someday you will become better at holding a pencil, and then it will work better". There is quite a bit of research, especially the work of C. Dweck, showing that this type of interaction is a good way (and sufficient) to get people (especially children) unafraid of trying new things and sticking to them even after initial defeat.

  • 2
    Thank you for your well-written and quite complete comment. If I couldn't 'take' the unpopular response, I wouldn't be posting online about this. So thanks!
    – KlaymenDK
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 18:56
  • 16
    I love this answer. I don't know why you think it might be unpopular. "Praise the effort, not the outcome" is an incredibly important parenting skill, and this is a thoughtful approach. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 23:51
  • 1
    I read the first line and thought that this was a bad answer, then I realize the rest of the answer mentioned a lot of things that one could do. I suggest you change or remove the incorrect "do nothing" first line...
    – user21820
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 16:25

One option may be to suggest a technique that she may find easier.

Colouring inside the lines can be difficult because stopping the pencil just inside the line requires considerable fine motor control. One method that can be much easier is to start the stroke on the line (i.e. put the pencil/crayon on, or just inside, the line), and then draw towards the middle of the shape. That way, overshooting (or undershooting) slightly doesn't put colour in the wrong place.

Another possibility is to colour along the inside of the lines, spiralling inwards until the shape is fully coloured.

  • This. Expecting a 3.5 yo to come up with that herself might be too much to ask. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 8:28
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    As a prelude, possibly you could "prepare" colouring sheets by putting a border of colour inside all/most/some of the black lines and have her "fill in the middles". Reduce the thickness of the border you draw, and then the number of areas you do the borders of, as she becomes more proficient.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 13:10

..but she doesn't want to train because she isn't good enough. Gah, child logic is hard.

That's the logic in a lot of people unfortunately. What I will say is fair play to the girl for wanting to do better, especially at such a young age.

This pattern of doing something but not quite being able to do it and wanting to give up occurs with everyone at some point in their life. Some more than others depending on how much they push themselves.

It will come with time and age. As they grow up they will find that they become better at doing the things they are struggling with. By showing her that it can be done you're actually giving her some hope that she can do it as well. It can be frustrating for her but she will get there and when she does it'll make her realise that it just takes practice.

Think of a child learning to walk. How many times do they fall down? How many times do they get upset about falling down? But do they get back up and try again? Yes they do.

What things can we do to encourage her to keep trying even though she's not at her desired skill level, to let her understand that it's okay to struggle with things?

You're right, she's not at her desired skill level. For now do it with her even though you may be reluctant to do so. By doing it together she'll enjoy it and will be less likely to knock it on the head. I have terrible art skills and can barely draw a stick man. I've never been good and I've never wanted to be good but I remember drawing with my art teacher. We would sit together and she would draw with me. That has been the only time I had any desire to try and draw. My point is that by doing something on your own, it can be hard, especially when you really want to do it and want to be good at it. By being with someone who can do it, it becomes more of a fun activity than a desire to be better. The skill will come naturally.

  • 3
    It is so difficult to explain to even adults that thinking "we can't ", really is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we think we can't -- probably we won't. if we think we can and we keep trying, it is much more likely to happen.
    – WRX
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 16:19
  • 4
    Remind her that when she learned to walk, she didn't get mad. She just got up again. Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 20:05

I won't repeat the other good ideas, but here's some that helped my students.

I used chalk and made a shape -- squares, circles, bears, puppy dog -- anything -- cows! onto the school's outdoor wall or asphalt. The children would 'paint' with water. They could work on the skill in a non-threatening way. I could observe and help, but there was no permanent reminder. (BTW -- your child is the same as most -- 3½ is in the age range where colouring inside the lines is starting -- not accomplished.) If it was snowy outside, we painted shapes on snow with pale food colouring -- pale so it did not ruin clothing.

I also recommend -- no lines. Allow the child to make shapes in sand, finger paint, with playdough and with paint, fat crayons and markers as well as fat pencils and paint brushes. It is also okay to use stencils. Stencils make it look pretty but they are still practising the skill.

Other fine motor helps include: Pouring from one container to another, using duplo or lego, wooden blocks, train tracks, building with food boxes, cutting playdough or bread with a safe plastic knife, folding socks, brushing hair, dressing themselves or dolls, lining up toys -- all fine motor activities help all the others because you strengthen the entire range by doing a variety -- sort of like cross training. There are many more things that are fine motor -- spread the jam on toast -- just try for a variety.

We also always made it noticeable when we made a mistake. It took away the threat of imperfection because the teachers also made plenty of mistakes.


One thing I do with my children is to repeatedly emphasize that many skills are mastered through practice and that you often have to work hard to get good at something. It's not an idea that can be be quickly taught, but has to be brought up multiple times for it to sink in.

Every time my kids are frustrated because they're having trouble doing something, I remind them that it takes lots of practice and making lots of mistakes to get good at it. If they see how well I'm doing something, I remind them that I used to be very bad at it and that I've lots of practice doing it and worked hard to get good at it.

I've been saying these sort of things them for years, and now that they are 6 and 7, they've seemed to have absorbed the idea. They aren't always willing to put in the hard work and practice to master a skill (it depends on the motivation), but they are at least understanding the concept.

For example, one of my children was willing to try hard to learn ride a bike. After each failure, I'd remind him that it's OK to fail (he'd get pretty angry about failures) and that he just needs to keep practicing to get good at it. He persevered with my encouragement and he's now good at riding a bike. The other one occasionally tries to ride a bike (he's slowly getting better, but has lots of trouble), but isn't motivated to practice very often. He seems to understand what's required and is OK with not being able to ride a bike very well.

I wouldn't expect a 3 year-old to get this concept right away, but I think they would eventually learn from being repeatedly told this.

  • Yes! This along with modelling that you don't always get it right the first time you yourself try something, is an ongoing life lesson. +1.
    – WRX
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 18:32

There are some excellent answers here already, but I want to add another perspective.

She's having trouble coloring, yes, but in a more global sense she's having trouble with her own expectations for herself. She wants to already be good at it without allowing for the importance of practice. Instead, you can help her to take joy in the process of learning, and to see her skills not in terms of whether or not she's good at something, but how much she's learned.

This can be summarized by the "mindset theory", studied by Prof. Carol Dweck and colleagues. It identifies two kinds of mindsets, "fixed" or "growth", which describe how people (kids and adults alike) approach opportunities and obstacles. Briefly, a fixed mindset means you will feel threatened by challenges, and want to avoid doing things that you aren't already good at. In contrast, folks with a growth mindset are excited by challenges and enjoy doing things they're not good at yet, because they see the opportunity to learn. Here's an image summarizing this:

mindset graphic

If you're curious, you can learn more about the mindset research online, including several interviews with Prof. Dweck on youtube and videos of some of the experiments that have informed her research.

In your case, you can think about coloring as an opportunity to teach a growth mindset. Praise her effort, not the outcome; instead of saying "What a beautiful picture!" try something like "Wow, that's great that you're working so hard on your coloring!"

Also, importantly, you can model a growth mindset for her. Let her see you working on something that's hard for you. Talk about what you're trying to learn and how you're practicing it. Let her know when you hit obstacles, and tell her how you're planning to overcome them. Take pride in your own progress, and celebrate trying hard, even when it doesn't result in "success". Also notice when other people are trying hard, and show her how cool you think that is (if you are listening to music, say something like "Wow that music is so beautiful! She must work so hard practicing." If you see a performer, you can say "I wonder how many times they had to practice that!" etc.)

Especially if a lot of things come easily to your daughter (which it sounds like has been the case so far, if she's consistently hitting milestones early), then she might be at risk of falling into a fixed mindset. People around her will feel the urge to praise her natural talent, to remark on how smart she is --- and potentially subconciously put pressure on her to continue to "prove" how smart she is, rather than teaching her the value of pushing herself and learning new things. If she's focused on proving herself instead of learning, she may opt out of things that are difficult and end up missing out on exciting and fulfilling experiences.


Maybe you could try getting her some of those felt coloring pages. With water soluble markers the rest of the room is moderately safe, and coloring outside the lines is impossible because the black felt absorbs the ink.

  • I've never seen or even heard of such 'felt coloring pages', so I doubt they're easy to come by where I live. Good idea though.
    – KlaymenDK
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 13:30

There were once these things called the Anti–Coloring Books. Each single or facing pair of pages was a scenario, with some pre-drawn illustrations, in which the person could then draw and color whatever the thought best to complete or fulfill the entire page.
The introduction in the first book to the series went on explaining how “traditional” coloring-books were detrimental to young, developing creativity — but, anyways.

If your daughter doesn't like starting with blank pages, but has difficulty with her fine motor skills — which is completely understandable, because the human neural net doesn't come preprogrammed like a robot, — then perhaps something similar to those Anti–Coloring Books would be an optimal intermediary for her. You could easily make up your own designs if either of you feel up to the task.
Now, back when I was using the books, I personally remember that the junctions between my drawings and the pre-drawn weren't always admirable, but I enjoyed the concept.

I would also like to spare a few words regarding the balance between striving to accomplish a goal — coloring within the lines — and being creative enough to establish goals for yourself — not coloring within the lines.
One could say that both are useful character skills, and that a well-rounded, liberal — i.e. liberal education — person should strive to develop both characteristics to the best of their capability.


Mind you, the books themselves were aimed at the “6 and up” ‘demographic’, so some compensation may be necessary.
These two examples here aren't the ones I had in mind, but they are perhaps exemplary enough.

http://www.susanstriker.com/rarebird600.gif http://www.susanstriker.com/clowndot450.gif

Source Click image to enlarge.

  • 1
    Perhaps you could include an image of the sorts of pages one would find in these "anti-coloring books"?
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 22:28
  • @Catija I was considering it, but thought that it might come across as some manner of advertisement. Thoughts? Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 22:29
  • I wouldn't worry about it.
    – Catija
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 22:58
  • 1
    Nicely done. "Create your own goals." +1 Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 23:54
  • I'll save this suggestion for later. Thanks.
    – KlaymenDK
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 6:47

At about that age of 3.5 I noticed my daughter's natural posture was to grip the crayon/pencil etc about halfway up. I instructed her to grip the implement closer to the writing tip. She had better results and less broken crayons as well.


Although my first suspicion may not actually be an answer and it is by no means intended to offend, it is only a suggestion of a possibility. Has her vision ever been checked? Young children may need glasses, but since their experience with sight is only their own, they have no way to know whether or not their sight experience is what it should be. We were very fortunate that our pediatrician noticed my daughter needed an eye exam when she was almost 2, and it immediately made a huge difference.

As for training children to manage their attitudes, we found it common for all of our children and grandchildren to be frustrated by not getting things right and not being able to do something well. It can be a challenge to instill an understanding in a young person that many things take practice before they can be done at all, let alone done well.

  • Thanks for that angle. No, we haven't checked her eyesight, but we are quite confident she doesn't miss a thing, even tiny ones. I can't imagine she would be able to notice the details she does if her vision was any sort of blurry. But we'll get her checked out in time. :)
    – KlaymenDK
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 7:09
  • 1
    @KlaymenDK: Yeah to be fair, unrelated to this Q&A, you should have had her eyes tested by now IMO :) Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 16:59

Though I largely agree with the high-rated answer - that it's okay she's frustrated and she'll learn in time - I think that there are a few options that might work for her right now.

One is to use one of a few different methods of coloring that involve no risk of 'coloring outside the lines'. This lets her practice the hand motions without the risk of failure; that helps build her hand strength and hand-eye coordination without requiring her to perform so far over her ability level.

This includes watercolor pages that have the color already on the paper, where you take a wet paintbrush and simply wet the area, revealing the color below. This also includes the new 'invisible ink' markers I've seen; only [the major US marker brand] makes them as far as I know, but they produce color in the appropriate areas and produce nothing in the inappropriate ones.

It also includes painting or coloring items instead of on paper. Then the physical boundaries of the item help significantly. Think painting a mug or a small clay animal statue.

A second option is to focus on larger scale coloring rather than smaller. She may not be able to color in the lines on an image on an 8.5x11 paper sheet, but she may be able to (roughly) color within the lines on a chalk outline on a square meter or larger sized chalkboard. Smaller is harder for kids that age (counter-intuitively to some extent); I remember my oldest, who had a similar frustration at not being able to color in the lines, really liking chalkboards at around that age for that reason.

A third, related option is to give her things to color with very simple lines. A square house with a triangle roof is far easier to color than a cat or a dog; far fewer complicated lines.

Finally, I want to echo the suggestions to let her feel frustrated, and help work on that with her. This is just as important, if not more, than the art: dealing with frustration. This is a great teachable moment related to that.


I had a similar problem when I was a child. I suggest you tell her to start with following the contour slowly and then be more "aggressive" in the center.

Her frustration demonstrates that she wants to perform better but does not know how to get there. By doing the outline she will "learn" the limits and to go slower.

Drawing, painting, sketching and probably most arts are things of patience. The more time and care is taken usually the better the outcome. Although art is subjective I think putting efforts has its rewards.

  • Pere, "i" should be capitalised. Have a look at this
    – Bugs
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 9:02
  • An exception I guess...
    – Pere Noel
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 9:25

Any child would get frustated if he or she is not able to perform skills in his or her pre-school years. It is the age where child starts preparing for fine motor challenges through play, creative and self-help activities. But from the point of view of parents, one should not worry since it is normal not to colour within the lines for a child of this age. All one can do is provide the child with toys and activities which help in developing motor skills, precisely gripping and holding objects. Some of the toys that I would suggest is:

  1. Threading Snowflake-This classic toy is an absolute favourite among children as they sit for hours decoratively threading the snowflake. When they use one hand for weaving and the other for support, they engage themselves to independently manipulate objects in a fun way. The hand movements involved leads to development in writing and gripping style.

  2. Flowers And The Bee- This toy gets children excited and imaginative as they help the funky bee 'fly' through the flowers. They are fascinated because this activity requires concentration as they thread together all the flowers using a needle. It enhances dexterity in children as their is an involvement of both hands.

Hope these would help your daughter in grasping the motor skills, and aid in colouring accordingly.


I remember trying to teach my little sister, and she was unable to grasp it verbally. You're already showing her how you make a border first; encourage her to try it that way even if the border isn’t very accurate.

One thing I have to add: it might be that the act of practicing is itself frustrating because of the results. Maybe you can give her some “practice templates” that are pure abstract shapes, like a grid. Stress that it's not a real picture, and it always goes in the trash. She can feel better about trying new techniques and practicing with less-than-desired results given this framework.

This will carry over when she explores new media: get a feel for it first in deliberate scratch work.


it sounds like your daughter may be more interested in paint by numbers ( i.e. connect the dots) I'd suggest basic building block structures: platonic, euclidean, angles & Joints, and so on, and so forth....then, natural progressions, permutations, with structural gradations, and inter-and over-lapping paint by colour pixelations.



Encourage her that she can do it. Bring two same coloring books, one for yourself and one for your daughter. Give her color pencils and sit with her and do coloring with her and ask her to do coloring as you do. She will learn by this method.


It is very important or even essential to teach a child the idea that although in general pursuit of excellence and a fair amount of effort applied to do "better" is adorable, being overly serious about this (or anything) is a thing one should preferably avoid and that one should especially avoid anxiety as it usually is a counter-productive (hardly ever making anybody happier, through the results or in the process) and often illusory feeling that can even become an illness in adults.

This may sound too complex for a kid (especially given the kind of language I myself use to express it) but I am sure it is absolutely possible to find right words to explain this to a 3½-year-old (especially a girl, given girls develop faster) properly.

Another part of the concept to explain (or to let them feel, whatever a way you invent, not necessarily verbal) is about wherever product of their creativity and/or effort actually being understood and accepted with the same sincere joy and value despite the fact any conscious effort of theirs to do better being noticed and valued too. Perhaps in the majority of cases this part itself can be enough actually.

Moreover, taking in account the question is about a girl, I feel like it is worth mentioning that some cultural traditions suggest it can be more important than in a boy case to make sure she grows up with a deep feeling of being loved unconditionally, and appreciated for just being rather than for what and how she does (a boy should feel unconditional love, appreciation and acceptance too, this is important for every child to develop a healthy personality but, though arguably, a boy should better get somewhat more "right-thing-done-better-appreciated-more" experience while he grows up).

  • 6
    I am sorry to say, I thoroughly disagree with you on your last paragraph. I'm not calling you sexist, but we are not of the opinion that love and skill should be different depending on the child's gender -- or the parent's, for that matter.
    – KlaymenDK
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 7:13
  • @KlaymenDK I don't mind being called sexist actually as far as by the common definition I am one: I recognise nothing bad in admitting there are differences between sexes/genders (I actually consider zeal to ignore these little of else but just counter-scientific "policy over matter" culturogems like those popular in marxist and islamist states, although meant for opposing such) and don't immediately consider any idea employing these differences (as well as any idea whatsoever) evil, wrong or must-ignore/condemn. This position is commonly called "sexist" and that's just a word.
    – Ivan
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 8:44
  • @KlaymenDK It also seems in need to be clarified and emphasised additionally that I 100% believe it is extremely important for all the children to be and feel loved, accepted, appreciated and protected unconditionally and completely and this is what, perhaps, every normal (not having psychological disorders nor going through an overwhelmingly hard life situation) parent does naturally.
    – Ivan
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 8:49
  • @KlaymenDK I have, however, found it worth being mentioning and, perhaps, thought-about that in some classic cultures (and isn't it obvious that other, especially not-too-modern cultures can hardly be expected to be applicable in the modern western context as-is although knowledge of their elements can some times be helpful?) it is considered that a typical boy should be given some extra GTD-flavour "energy" and a typical girl should be given some extra "pure love" kind in addition to all the love every child is to be given regardless to their gender or anything.
    – Ivan
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 9:04
  • @KlaymenDK you don't even have a reason to take this sexist idea critical: just make sure your daughter feels enough unconditional love, acceptance and appreciation and, might you also have a son, make sure efforts he can occasionally choose to make are noticed and appreciated, I don't say (neither my personal opinion to be, nor the tradition I have mentioned to suggest) you should give less of either to the other child.
    – Ivan
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 9:08

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