Ask a child what makes him happy and you may get a lot of different answers: sports, video games, television, candy, family.
Hand that child crayons, however, and you can get a picture of who that child is and what he or she values.Therapists know that art, however simple, is a powerful tool when working with children who may have been abused.
Some children are too young to articulate the events that make up their lives. Even if they can, they may be uncomfortable explaining either the events or how they feel about themselves. Sometimes therapists can draw out the answers to many questions by getting children to tell their stories through art.
This week, crayon drawings are being used to communicate what is going right in the world.
Valley Mental Health, the state's largest mental health network, just finished judging its annual art contest. Staffers asked third-grade children to complete, through an illustration, the phrase, "When I feel good about myself I can . . ."
The resulting drawings are a joyous celebration of childhood at its best, the moments when a child's world is filled with happiness.
Many of the drawings feature traditional pictures of children playing with friends and pets or scenes of families.
About as many have a sporting theme: children playing basketball, a little girl performing on the beam at a gymnastics meet, while the audience cheers.
They're all sweet. But some of them are very unexpected, as well.
A little girl with long black hair stands between two metal bars, hanging on for support. The legend underneath reads, "When I feel good about myself, I can learn to walk."
In another, two children are standing in front of easels, drawing pictures. One says to the other, "I like your drawing." Its explanation says that when the child feels good about herself, "I can compliment other people."
In the atrium "gallery" there's a drawing of a report card - with perfect grades. A big, cheerful-looking white rabbit. A bird hovering over flowers.
One of my favorites is dominated by the face of a little boy, whose huge and toothy grin takes up a quarter of the page. "When I feel good about myself, I am happy."
Valley Mental Health's Connie Hines believes they are also, in large part, self portraits - both outside and in.
She likes to watch the children when they arrive for the awards ceremony, after the judging is completed.
She says she can match the young faces before her with the drawings. If the picture shows a little girl with curly blond hair and glasses, its creator is apt to have curly blond hair and glasses.
It doesn't matter whether the physical details match or not. Without question, the entries - and there were hundreds drawn - clearly show what children want and need in their lives.
According to the Valley Mental Health drawings, they want approval and love from their families, their pets, their friends.
They want to excel at school, at sports, with their peers.
They want sunshine and flowers and laughter.
When the media reports on children are dominated by stories of abuse or gangs or crime or drug use, it's easy to forget that most children are leading pretty normal lives, filled with play and family and most of all hope for the future.
The kids who made the drawings still seem to be tapped into the brighter side of life. Now we, as a society, need to tap into their message of innocence, laughter and hope.
Then figure out how to keep it alive.