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I am building and painting miniatures, and have been doing so for many years. My son is showing more and more interest in building and painting them with me, which is great. I let him build a miniature mostly by himself (with me just handling the more dangerous aspects like handling the very sharp hobby knife), and tried to interfere as little as possible. However, after he finished painting his first miniature on his own, he expressed sadness that his result isn't as good as mine.

I tried to explain to him that he did a great job and that my first miniature didn't look that good, but he didn't believe me. I would like to encourage him to keep building and painting, because I believe that "if you put in effort, you can become good at anything" is a very valuable lesson to learn, but I am afraid if I constantly go like "You should use this brush instead", "Thin your paint more", etc., he'd eventually lose interest or think that he's just not "talented".

How can I encourage him to keep on trying and focus on his own improvement instead of being disappointed he's not perfect after trying for a comparatively short time.


I found this similar question, which seems to focus in a very similar topic. The answer, however, is a bit too "abstract" for me. I am already trying to focus on what he does; I want to know how I can make sure I don't accidentally discourage him.

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    I hope you get a good answer to this very good question. The take-home message from the other question's answers is still applicable: "(Always) Praise the process, not the product." That's what "the effort one puts in" is, after all. – anongoodnurse Oct 21 at 14:54
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    Even skilled painters can have problems painting things they've never painted before: Flowers: 10/10, Cat: ..... These things take time, something children don't always understand: The Tale of the Rooster – Blerg Oct 21 at 22:32
  • @Blerg The story of the Rooster is fantastic. I'll be sure to tell him that soon enough. – Lucas F. Oct 22 at 9:13
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    do you have any of your early minis tucked away in a box somewhere maybe getting a few of them out to show him how you progressed, and that you weren't instantly amazing at it – MarkD Oct 22 at 10:02
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    @stackzebra "Forcing" doesn't sound to me as if it increases interest in something. – Lucas F. Oct 23 at 10:57

12 Answers 12

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The root cause of your child's frustration is expecting to make complex things perfectly without a long process of trial and error. I suggest that the best long-term solution is to offer the child a more realistic version of what to expect on the path to mastery of most skills. All of the attempts to logically persuade the child are best done in the "cold" state - not when the child is frustrated by the imperfection of his results.

  • Give real-life examples of how much time, effort, incomplete prototypes and failures it took you, other relatives and friends, in order to master their skill.

  • Ditto for real-life examples of early work and/or the long and difficult path to success it took for well-known artists, inventors, scientists, etc. See some examples below, and there are plenty of others.

  • Praise the effort, not the the fact the the child is "good" at something (for example, skillful, smart, etc). See the works by Carol Dweck and colleagues on "growth mindset" below, as well as the NOTE.

In your specific case (working on miniatures):

  • Take a few steps back and restart with the most simple miniatures that your child can complete on his own.

  • Do a joint project where the child can successfully complete a few small parts on his own (and you do the rest).

The last suggestions are inspired by some of the learning methods used by artists, scientists and engineers.

REFERENCES:

[Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone ] was submitted to twelve publishing houses, all of which rejected the manuscript.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._K._Rowling

The first successful test of the carbonized cotton filament was on October 22, 1879, which lasted 13.5 hours. Edison continued to improve this design, [and eventually] he and his team discovered a carbonized bamboo filament that could last as much as 1,200 hours.

Early Light Bulbs - Engineering and Technology History Wiki https://ethw.org/Early_Light_Bulbs

Some childhood painting of famous artists are amazing, but some, IMO, are not obviously remarkable for their age (in my layman's' view). The Childhood Artworks of Famous Artists from Picasso to Dalí - Artsy https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-childhood-works-famous-artists-like

Growth mindset:

Carol S. Dweck (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345472322

Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve | TED Talk https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve?

NOTE: Carol Dweck's research has been criticized w.r.t. replicability: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Dweck#Criticism

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    Growth Mindset is something a lot of schools are teaching right now (both of our area districts teach this for example), so it's possible you might find some help from the teacher in this as well. – Joe Oct 21 at 21:30
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    As a support for the first paragraph: Store that first model somewhere, and (if possible) try to procure a duplicate. Once you've worked through the advice here (e.g. starting with simpler models, small sections of more detail, et cetera) for a while, let the child build the duplicate - then, have them compare the two, so that they can see their improvement. – Chronocidal Oct 22 at 12:58
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I can try to make it less abstract by addressing the specific example that you've mentioned to try to help you move from "abstract" to "applied" in this instance. It could give you a good basis for applying the abstract to other situations in the future.

My kids are the same as yours (as are everyone else's): none of them can make a miniature carving and paint it like a master would on their first try. I would say things like:

  • Hey, I really like the colours you've chosen!
  • It looks like you put a lot of thought into filling in all the unpainted bits.
  • What do you suppose this figure's name would be?

That last one is just a distraction if the result is a total disaster, of course. My usual rule is that kids like to be given imaginative control over stuff, and names are a simple start.

If I wanted to encourage change and improvement in specific ways, maybe the next one I'd lay out three different brushes and suggest: "You chose this one last time, would you like to stick with that, or mix it up?" Maybe also remind them that they could use multiple different brushes during the same project. Let them figure out why to use each on their own through experimentation.

Regarding the thickness of the paint, you could try the same thing. Put the same colour of paint in three different thicknesses out and suggest trying them all to see which works best.

One of my favourite kids' books has this quote in it, which applies to all situations and not just inventing:

Your brilliant first flop was a raging success! Come on, let's get busy and on to the next!
— Andrea Beaty, Rosie Revere, Engineer

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    When I first started, and now as well, I always thought "What did I learn from this miniature? What would I do different if I could just paint it all again?". And I think that might be a valuable thing too. I just hope he sees a less-than-perfect miniature as an opportunity to do better next time, and not as a sign he should quit. – Lucas F. Oct 22 at 10:53
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Perhaps you could set up a play-date with a friend or friends of a similar age and they could all paint miniatures? (In addition to snacks, TV or whatever is fun at that age group) Even if his friends never enjoy painting enough to repeat the experience, he would have had an age-and-experience peer to compare himself against.

You are his dad and his role model. Of course you are going to do things better. As long as you keep assuring him that he will, in time, be able to do things as well or better than you, you aren't going to discourage him. Focus on his efforts. Find ways to point out where he has improved. Give him a standard to shoot for and celebrate him each time he gets closer.

But don't take it personally if he decides he doesn't want to paint miniatures any more. When you love to do something, you want to share it with those who you love. But chances are it's not something they will be all that interested in, at least not to the extent that you are. I know it's a big disappointment if it happens, but give him the freedom to walk away without guilt.

I see it all too often that parents will guilt trip their kids because the kids don't want to be like them, or don't want to share the "family activities" that parents enjoy. My husband's parents both did it and it made my husband feel like they were disappointed in him. My father often expressed disappointment in the fact that none of his kids followed in his footsteps. He painted houses to pay for college and had his own construction company later in life, and my family is mostly computer programmers and engineers. Just recently, my brother quit his job as a programmer to do manual labor, and I can't help but wonder if guilt, and the fact that our father passed recently, might be a factor.

If you can focus on the fun of doing things together, with you or with friends, and not specifically on who is the best at it, you will be giving your son not only the freedom to explore himself, but also strengthening his ability to have good relationships. And that is the best kind of encouragement that I can think of.

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    Thank you very much for your suggestions. I'll try a few miniatures together with him to gauge his interest and enjoyment in it, then we'll see if he'll want to invite his friends. – Lucas F. Oct 22 at 10:55
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I paint miniatures myself and my 6 year old son has shown an interest in wanting to paint some as well. I explained to him that it takes a lot of practice to get good at anything. I picked up some simpler models to start with. One example being a very simple UFO about the same size as the palm of my hand. I got him his own paints (like the ones kids would have in school) and his own brushes. I let him paint the model however he likes and compliment him on his achievements when he is done.

As time goes on, I'll be introducing more complicated and detailed models for him to paint. I think the key is to give him achievable success aimed at his level. I wouldn't expect a 6 year old to be able to find paint, wash and dry brush a small Warhammer 40000 Terminator straight away. Can I suggest starting with something fun and simple like a 3D Turtle?

3D Turtle models

The model is simple enough to make painting easy but there is enough detail to try and paint in if he feels brave enough. Encourage your son to try things out and find what works for him. Point out that if he feels he has made a mistake, it can be painted over and nobody will know.

How about watching some YouTube videos of people painting models together? There seems to be a lot of them out there and knowing that other people need to start somewhere too can encourage him to learn. This seems a nice one to show him some techniques: How to Paint Miniatures - The Basics

Another idea is to parallel paint. You both have the same model and you paint together. He can watch you and you can watch him and make suggestions to each other.

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    I like the idea of simple models, but I don't know if I can convince him that a turtle is as interesting of a model to paint as a big Tyrannid :D But I get the idea and I'll help him along with simpler models, which are easier to paint. – Lucas F. Oct 22 at 10:49
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    The turtle was just a suggestion but I'm sure there are more appropriate models that you could find or print. – The Betpet Oct 22 at 12:11
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    As far as models go, how about Airfix models instead? As a kid, I used to build their 1:72 planes. My dad did the detailed painting of the pilot's face, and I did the rest. It's a good way to start. – Graham Oct 22 at 12:32
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    Oh, and one other thought. My first WH40K army was Eldar Harlequins, because a friend was selling a bunch of them which he'd bought and never painted. The great thing for Harlequins is that they are supposed to have all sorts of clashing colours, patches, stripes and whatever. For a newbie painter to experiment with colour schemes and techniques, it gives you a freedom you wouldn't have with dozens of Imperial Guardsmen all looking identical. – Graham Oct 22 at 12:45
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    @Graham I bought some smaller models for him to try, ranging from Tyranids, Imperial Guard, Ork Boys, Space Marines and T'au. We'll have a go at them this weekend and see which ones he thinks are the coolest. Harlequins are a good idea too, but I am not too worried about color choice. He should paint them in any colors he wants, and if he paints Orks with yellow skin and blue axes and red helmets that's fine too, as long as he paints. Color Theory really doesn't matter, his enjoyment matters to me. – Lucas F. Oct 23 at 11:01
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My kid is younger than yours, but also enjoys art, and is sometimes frustrated when things don't turn out the way she wants them. I tell her that every project is an experiment, she's learning what works, and what doesn't. Your son in experimenting with brushes, brushstrokes, color choices, paint consistency, let him experiment. Experiments always involve some failure. I'd also tell your kid that not only did your first mini not look good, your first 10 didn't look so hot, but after the first 5, they started to look better. But you've got to just get through those first 10. Or rather, you have to be resigned to let him paint 10 bad figures.

If he's unhappy at how his figures look, make it part of a jokey story. "These goofballs decided to paint their own armor. Painting is not their strong suit, but they had a good time!" Then they can be goofball squad together. Give 'em a +1 perk for morale, because of their shared team-building exercise of painting their armor together.

What's important at this stage is not that he be any good at painting! What matters is that he enjoys himself. If he enjoys himself, he'll keep doing it, and get better that way, and when he's ready, he can ask you for tips. If he doesn't enjoy it, he'll never get that far.

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    The armor goofiness helps them to be underestimated! – William - Rem Oct 23 at 15:51
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A bit of a short answer, but too much for a comment:

Switch roles. He doesn't believe you as you are very skilled, but there isn't realisation that skill (often) takes time. I was thinking he could teach you something. Obviously, you're not gonna be as good at it as he is, but that is the point: To show that if you start something new, the skill doesn't exist yet.

After the first time you could reflect and the experience and project that onto the painting of miniatures.

  • Doesn't have to be taught, just try learn anything (like piano, or woodsculpting) and let the child see how bad you are at the start! – Tom Oct 22 at 10:17
  • @Tom Yes, and through time and effort we improve. That's a valuable lesson even some adults have not yet learned. – Lucas F. Oct 22 at 10:56
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    The reason I suggested that the son teaches the father is because the roles are reversed. The son sees he's better, but because of the time put into it :) – Martijn Oct 22 at 11:13
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Look at what he did, and show him which things went right. Even things that surprised you, or things you wouldn't do. Tell him what you like about what he did. Tell him which complicated parts he managed to get right. The colours he chose, the mixing he did, the parts where the paint has nice straight lines following the contours of the model, even the mere fact that he actually went through all the trouble to do something and managed to keep the focus needed to paint the miniature in the first place (but be warned that that's something he might take the wrong way, so I wouldn't recommend that unless you trust him to trust you), taking the time to do things right rather than rushing ahead... Take a good hard look at the miniature for five minutes (you have the time now), and find five good things about the painting.

There's no real point to talk about things that didn't work out well; he can probably see those too. But what's very hard for humans to see is that they did something right. Don't lie, don't over-praise things; but praise the things that are praise-worthy, even if they're what you'd expect from someone who is not painting his first model. Kids usually don't need much motivation, but it's very easy to steal their motivation.

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Great question Lucas F.

A quick read, suggests two areas that you may choose to work on with your son:

First, the reason that he doesn't believe you, is because you're not being honest with him. By trying to tell him that his first effort is great you're losing credibility. He can see that it's not. In fact he probably sees that it isn't great better than you can, because of your inherent parental bias. Instead, try focussing on the fact that he's started on the track. "I'm very proud that you stuck with this and finished it when you were finding it hard." Acknowledge your bias - "I think it's great, and part of that is because I'm your father and I love you." That may start a conversation with him about unconditional parental love.

Second, try and accept that he might not end up liking your hobby. After all, miniatures are your thing, not necessarily his. Ask him what he enjoyed about it, what he found hard, and whether he'd like to do it again. If he does want to do it again, then ask him what he might do differently next time, and which bits if any, he might like help with. If he doesn't then this may be an opportunity to find out what other hobbies you both might like to take up and learn together.

I hope this is helpful to you. I'm not a parent myself, but I do have years of experience of coaching people of all ages through my job as a family doctor.

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Does he spend any time watching you while you're painting? Talk out loud while you paint, to explain your thought process. It doesn't have to be a continuous stream of painting tips, in fact it's probably better if you're having an interesting conversation with him and just dropping some nuggets of painting wisdom in as appropriate... Like, "So sports team blah blah blah.. Oh, hey, now I'm finished painting this large area and I want to work on the details over here, I better switch to a smaller brush and a different thickness of paint, see how it makes it easier to get details that way? Anyway, so sports team blah blah..." This is basically how my family taught me all of their skills, by just casually narrating everything they were doing.

  • Good advice, I'll try that! – Lucas F. Oct 23 at 14:49
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I would work on teaching him to fail by modeling it yourself. This is one big area schools aren't good at. Although they do their best to level the challenge appropriately, they pretty much always expect you to succeed the first time you turn in an assignment or test.

A personal example of modeling dealing with failure to my kids is cooking. I'm a fairly good cook, and usually my daughter helps. I'm always trying to improve my cooking skills and push the boundaries of what I'm capable of. Sometimes I screw up and make something too salty or spicy or soggy or whatever.

I tell my daughter, "I think this is too salty, what do you think?" That's modeling self-critique and asking for feedback. "I wonder what happened? Can you check the ingredients on the seasoning mix to see if it contains salt?" That's modeling problem solving. Then I try making it again within a few days, correcting my mistake. That's modeling continuous improvement. I ask her to compare this result with the previous result. That's modeling reflection.

I also coach my daughter to deal with her cooking failures while she is helping. I would ask her to prepare the garlic, but she didn't like it because she kept failing at smashing a clove with the flat of a knife. I kept insisting she do the garlic anyway. She came up with the idea to smash with a mason jar instead of a knife. It feels safer to her and is easier. Now the garlic is her favorite thing. Solving that one problem helped her move to the next level.

In other words, failure gets easier with practice just like everything else. Give your son opportunities to recover from his failures and he will get better at it.

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Marshmallows

How does your son do on the Marshmallow Test? If he has poor deferred gratification skill, then he may lack the patience to acquire talent. Even so, never fear! This skill, like all others, can be practiced and improved! The "greedy marshmallow" strategy is actually quite rational. It doesn't make sense to wait unless the future reward is bigger than the currently offered reward. What does that have to do with painting miniatures? Well, it means that your son shouldn't keep trying his hand at it unless he believes that he will get better. So, show him that he can improve.

Siskel & Ebert

In order to improve, your son first needs to know what "good" looks like. He needs to become a critic. Apparently, he has some sense of what "good" is already: "what dad did." That's a start, but you want him to get precise. When he looks at your model and says he wants to paint something like that, ask him what he likes about it: is it the color? The detail? The texture/finish? Then ask him to critique his own work. If you agree with his analysis, then say so! He needs the feedback to tune his inner critic. If you disagree, you can pose your disagreement as a question: "I screwed up because my guy has a red face and yours has a green face." "Well, your guy does have a red face, but mine has red eyes. So is red really the problem?" "No, I guess not. I tried to paint red eyes on my guy, but I couldn't, so I just made the whole face red." "Ok, so we just need to practice painting eyes!"

You not only want to teach your son how to improve, you want to teach him how to figure out on his own what needs improvement. This enables self-directed learning once he reaches a certain level of proficiency. And by using a Socratic method, you get him to say the critical point himself, which reinforces the authority of it. That is, we remember facts better when we believe we have arrived at them ourselves rather than having them spoon-fed to us by someone else. Socratic questioning is an art, but done well, it teaches the student not only the answer, but also the path to the answer.

Practice Makes Perfect

Let's suppose that one of the problems is fine motor control: "I tried to paint a blue wrist band, but I couldn't." If you want him to wait 20m for a marshmallow, you have to offer 5 marshmallows. In this case, you need to show him that some practice will actually make him better in the future. You can do a simple demonstration yourself. Pick some simple task that you know you are not good at, like, drawing some figure. If you're a good artist, try drawing with your non-dominant hand. "Look, dad drew a box with his left hand. Tell me what you think." "Well, the left side is crooked, and the top is wiggly." "Yup, I agree. Let me try again." "Now how does it look?" "Well, it's better, but the left side still looks wrong." "What looks wrong about it?" "I think it's shorter than the right side." "Yeah, let's rotate it and see if we still think so. Yup. Now the right side looks shorter. I think you were spot-on!" 3-4 tries later..."Wow, that looks really good! I can't believe you drew that with your left hand!"

"Do you think I have magical powers?" "Haha!! No!" "You're right. The only 'magic' I used was practice! Now, let's draw some eyes for you to paint." Start out with big, easy eyes, let him make an attempt, self-critique, and then evaluate. Then make them smaller and more difficult. Then smaller again. Show him through easy increments that he can improve with even a modest number of attempts. He can now see that plate of marshmallows in his future!

The Horizon

Cognitive psychologists have discovered that we learn best when we are challenged right at the horizon of our ability. If a challenge is too tough, we fail without learning much. If it is too easy, we succeed without learning much. That balance between failure and success is where we learn the most in each attempt. You are doing well if you present your son with challenges that have about a 50% chance of "failure", as defined by him.

Initially, his inner critic will be crude, and only notice the biggest features. That's ok. Encourage all insight he displays, and gently correct evaluations that will lead him astray. As he gains more confidence, demand more detailed evaluation. Play devil's advocate, and argue that something looks better even if you don't personally agree, and make him explain why you are wrong. So you need to train both his skill and the evaluation of his skill in parallel, as they will tend to reinforce each other.

Role Model

In the end, you want to demonstrate by your actions that being bad at a new skill is not something to be embarrassed, ashamed, or frustrated over. Everyone starts that way at every new skill. Ask your son to try something new with you that you have never done before, so he can see you be awkward and "fail" at it (bowling, paper airplanes, model rockets, juggling, frisbee golf, etc.). Showing that learning is fun is your goal. Eventually, he will learn to relish the challenge of learning something new, even if he starts out as an utter failure.

Maybe you could pick some miniatures in a style/game you have never played before. Your first attempts will likely be better than his, but demonstrate your own inner critic in action, and narrate how you will try to improve, so he also sees the introspective portion of learning in action. When you make a mistake, call it out, explain that you didn't mean to do that, or shouldn't have done that looking back, shrug it off, and try again.

Expertise

Your ultimate goal should be to help your son acquire expert-level proficiency at something. Almost anything. That single achievement unlocks a world of possibility in his mind that will help him achieve almost any other goal he sets. But getting there involves crossing a daunting mountain of frustration. Even though learning can be quick at first, it soon becomes a slog. At some point, only grit and determination will get you through the boring repetition of acquiring high-level skill. And that is where he will need the most encouragement. I have high hopes for him, though. It looks like his dad has already acquired expert-level skill, so he has a good role model. ;)

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Failure is a part of learning.

To remove the ability to fail is to stymie the learning process itself.

Failure is good psychologically; it teaches that success is not easy, that effort is required and thinking and care required and that results are earned.

Allow your child to fail. You will help your child in the long-run by doing this.

  • I don't think failing is the important part of learning. Failing and deciding to try again is what really allows you to grow. My problem is not that I am afraid he'd fail (he most certainly will fail in his goal to paint just like me), I'm afraid he would not want to try again. – Lucas F. Oct 22 at 10:57
  • Always succeeding is the WORST thing you can do to a child, since it teaches them they're ALWAYS right and that leads to lifelong psychological problems and anti-social problems down the line. Discouragement is easy to solve via incentives, as in real life. – David H Parry Nov 24 at 14:17

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