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Parenting for Creativity

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Jonah Lehrer writes in his recent blog post “Classroom Creativity" that “Everybody wants a creative child – in theory." He explains:

"The reality of creativity, however, is a little more complicated, as creative thoughts tend to emerge when we're distracted, daydreaming, disinhibited and not following the rules. In other words, the most imaginative kids are often the trouble-makers.”

Boy DaydreamingRobert Alan Black, author of Broken Crayons, Break Your Crayons and Draw Outside the Lines, calls these trouble-makers "crayon breakers," and he lists these as some of the “traits of highly creative people":

They are sensitive, not motivated by money, intuitive, and observant. They ask questions, have a strong sense of humor,  are curious, tolerate ambiguity, and they can be very critical. They are self-disciplined and energetic.

What is interesting is that these are traits often highly valued in the workplace. In fact, creativity experts such as Teresa Amabile of Harvard’s Business School focus on helping businesses to get their employees to be more creative, to have more of the above traits rather than fewer. It is easy to see, however, as Lehrer reminds us, that “crayon breakers” might not be as widely appreciated in elementary classrooms.

One of my challenges in teaching creative thinking to college engineering students has been to help them to rediscover the “imaginative kid” inside that might have gotten them into trouble in the past. We work to un-do many of the habits and practices they had perfected in grade school and high school.

An example of this rediscovery is finding and creating extra time for study and projects. Amabile has found that, contrary to what we might think, working under high pressure or tight deadlines does not make us more creative. In fact, she suggests that “very high levels of time pressure should be avoided if you want to foster creativity on a consistent basis.” She acknowledges that some tight deadlines are unavoidable, but she also advises “people not to kid themselves into thinking that they'll stimulate their creativity by avoiding working on a complex problem until the last minute. It's probably best to get started as soon as possible, laying out the problem in all its complexity and mapping out some strategies for tackling it.”

National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones also supports the idea that working over a longer period of time can lead to more creativity when he urges us to look for “the next right answer.” The first right answer may be adequate, but unless we push to find more right answers, we may never discover our most creative ideas.

But when do children get to practice these skills? Long stretches of time are a luxury for young learners whose day to day learning usually consists of short segments dedicated to several different and disconnected subjects, often followed by a hectic after school and weekend schedule of extracurricular activities, practices, or test prep. By the time students enter the college classroom, they have been trained to work in short bursts, to stop at the first right answer, and to ask their creative urges and skills to take a back seat to more convergent thinking skills. Examples of convergent thinking skills are being able to answer multiple-choice questions, memorizing, and giving the expected rather than the unusual answers. While convergent thinking can be a part of creative thinking and is important in academic achievement, by itself it leaves little room for creative thought or production.

We can’t assume that children who are doing well in school are getting the creative education they might need or want. Karen Arnold, in her important study Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, quotes one of her subjects fourteen years after graduation:

“Since high school, I had a general direction that I lived by, certain rules that all I had to do was do them: go to school, classes, do what they tell you to do. I did that well, I functioned well within that environment. But it didn’t create much of an individuality or creativity within myself. I never really explored what I really wanted—what did I really want in life?”

Unless they homeschool, parents may have little control over whether or how creativity is nurtured during the school day, but all parents can think about how to make their homes more creativity-friendly, whether their children are highly creative or if parents want to encourage linear-thinkers to tap into their creative potential. Here are three easy ways to start:

1. Learn more about creativity and creative thinking. Many people think that creative thinking just means letting it all hang out or, as a friend of mine puts it, “loosey goosey” thinking. They might assume that it means always coloring neatly because the picture looks pretty, or always coloring outside the lines because this implies a resistance to convention.

The reality is that creativity involves both flexibility of thought and a certain amount of self-discipline. A good way to see creativity in action is to watch TED Talks by people who have learned to embrace and use their creative thinking and skills (type “creative” or “creativity” in the search bar). Many of these talks are appropriate viewing for the entire family.

2. Encourage and value complexity, even when it is messy. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow and Creativity, explains:

“Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it's complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated.”

We can apply Csikszentmihalyi’s findings in the home be being less quick to peg children as this or that–smart or funny, lazy or industrious, down to earth or a daydreamer. When a child behaves in a way that is different from usual—for example, if boy who usually displays typically masculine interests wants to take dance lessons, or a girl who normally shuns anything “nerd” related wants to join an Anime club—we can refrain from showing surprise and, instead, encourage a broadening of experience and skills.

3. Build creative thinking skills into family life. Even if children aren’t getting a lot of creativity time and training in school, parents can find ways to practice creative thinking skills at home, such as heeding Jones’ call to look for the next right answer. We can also urge children to hold in their mind several, perhaps competing, ideas before evaluating and deciding. Keep in mind, however, that such changes may not be easy, especially for parents who are themselves stuck in non-creative mindsets. For example, do you want your teens to have time for valuable daydreaming, as Jonah Lehrer suggests? Or do you want them to take another AP class to look good on a college application? When planning a family vacation, do you want to build in the extra time and conversation to brainstorm everyone’s ideas, even those ideas that are zany or impractical? Or do you want to take the reins and make the decisions and reservations for the sake of efficiency?

The idea isn’t for creativity to become yet another area where parents can be perfectionistic or beat themselves up for not doing it all. In fact, learning more about creativity might help you to let go a bit, enjoy your family more, and maybe even understand yourself better. Isn’t that what we all want in the long run?

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About Lisa Rivero

  • Spot on Lisa!!
    Your article makes many important valid points.

    ‘Valuable daydreaming’ …hmmm, actually, as far back as I could recall, the most creative ideas I had came to me while I was daydreaming!

  • Dax Cheng

    I am one of these trouble-makers. And I’m proud of it. 🙂

    One thing I do not quite agree with is “What is interesting is that these are traits often highly valued in the workplace.” In most companies I worked for, especially large multinationals, you either tow the line or get blacklisted.

    What I think most trouble makers end up is running their own business like myself. Since we generally do not follow the rules, we make our own.

  • AndyB

    I believe that we are all creative to start with, just that society/conditioning is geared to discourage creativity.

  • Andy is so right. Society (especially modern society) is expert at dumbing down any creative thought a child might entertain. Parents are too tired to take the “trouble makers” (I find that concept hilarious) and channel their energy into creative pursuits. It takes hard work to raise a creative child.

  • Thank you very much for the comments. This is an issue that is very important to me and one I want to explore and discuss more in future articles. I’m glad to see that it resonates with others.

    I really like the comment about creative people eventually owning their businesses… or perhaps becoming writers!