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Reality Check: Encouraging Effort

Q. Sometimes my 4-year-old daughter does only a halfhearted job when making cards for family and friends. Should I have her do them over?

It's hard to sit by and watch your child whip off a picture or card carelessly when you know she's capable of doing better. It's more upsetting still if the card is meant for Grandma, Grandpa, or someone else you know she loves. And while it may be sheer pride on your part, it's natural to want your little artist to show the world just what she can do.

First, when she gives you a card that's less than inventive, be gracious. The "teachable moment" here is not why it's important for her to do her best work but how to receive a gift. This doesn't mean being a phony, so resist the knee-jerk impulse to compliment her art if you don't mean it. Simply thank her for the present, give her a big hug, and tell her you love her -- which is just as true as the fact that she made you a really lousy card.

As for those she makes for others, I've noticed that my normally artsy children tend to become slackers under certain conditions. One is when I ask -- or, rather, tell -- them to make a card. The other is when I nag them to hurry up so we won't be late for Grandma's birthday dinner.

And sometimes they're simply not feeling inspired. "Just like adults, children have different levels of creativity at different times," says Julie Rivera, an elementary school art teacher and a mom of two. "They can't always produce when you want them to." One way to help kick-start artistic genius, she's found: Present a child with fun materials and techniques, such as watercolor paints, tissue paper, magazine clippings, and texture rubbings. Then step back.

Once in a while, it's also okay to say to her, in a nonjudgmental tone of voice, "I'm not sure you're doing your best work, honey. Do you want to save it for tomorrow?" Grandma won't mind if a masterpiece arrives the day after her birthday.