Colouring Outside the Lines: A Life Lesson by a 4-Year-Old Boy

Photo of hand colouring with crayons
Courtesy of Pixabay

By Neha Vashist

It took a 4-year-old boy and a box of crayons to make me realize an important truth.

I was volunteering with a children’s camp the summer when I met him. Black hair framed his chubby cheeks and brought out the hazel tinges along the rims of his eyes.  Alex.

He forgot his bathing suit at home so we both sat by the pool colouring blank pictures of Minnie Mouse instead. Colouring was always rewarding. As long as you focused and stayed inside the lines you could bring the dullest of pictures to life. I was determined to make sure the colours danced within the boundaries of the thick outlines—it had to be perfect. I was the role model, after all.

Looking over at my little buddy’s picture, I smiled to myself: messy, mismatched scribbles just like I expected. How adorable, I thought to myself. It’s alright, as soon as he starts kindergarten, they’ll teach him the proper way. Then, maybe one day, he’ll finally be able to colour inside the lines and create masterpieces!

Suddenly it hit me. I realized the great irony in our flawed human logic. We live in a world where everyone tells us to think outside the box but forces us to colour inside the lines. We are conditioned to believe that, unless we colour inside the lines, our picture is merely a collection of useless scribbles.

Is art really a means of free expression if we must follow criteria in order to be like everyone else? Is rationality subjective?  His picture was a masterpiece–-regardless of whether or not I thought so. In his mind, each scribble was a vessel sprouting from his imagination. To me, his picture wasn’t a grand masterpiece because I was taught to idolize specific standards to which he would soon be subjected to—along with every other kid splashing around in the pool.

Who set these standards for us?  Why?

In that moment, something shifted indefinitely. I knew I would never be the same. I decided there and then that I wanted to taste freedom from these subtle shackles I had been taught to worship—shackles I didn’t even know existed.

So, I grabbed crayons at random and shamelessly drew all over my perfectly coloured picture. Fuchsia flowers held hands with spirals of Electric Lime while Periwinkle scribbles melted into puddles of Cerise.

I didn’t need the Minnie Mouse outlines. I was creating my own lines.

I have never felt more liberated than I did that afternoon by the pool. I felt like I was flying. The experience ripped off the blindfold I had been wearing. Sometimes we lean back on ideologies or lines of thinking because it is what we’ve been raised to believe as the ultimate truth that will hold us up—but sometimes it pulls us down.

I’m not an expert in colouring and I’m not an expert in life, and maybe we don’t need to know anything about everything. Maybe this whole “life” thing is about trying to know ourselves and by doing so the whole universe gets to know itself a little better.

And maybe somewhere behind these fences of infinite restrictions lay our inner selves. These are the parts of you and me that are not dead, my friends! These are the parts of you and me that are simply waiting to be found. One by one, I encourage you to take a good look around you and question everything. What do you consider normal? Why is it normal?

Draw a masterpiece. Why is it a masterpiece? What makes it a masterpiece in your eyes?

Thanks to a little boy and a box of crayons, I started asking myself those questions, and discovered that I like colouring the way I like thinking and living—outside the lines.