We Americans pride ourselves on our creativity. We celebrate people like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and George Lucas. We imagine that while our school children may not be at the top of the world’s test-takers, we and our kids shine when it comes to thinking out of the box. We think we love creativity.
Except that we don’t.
One study explains this. Researchers from Cornell University found that people hate uncertainty. They tend to go with the sure thing of a practical, tried-and-true idea instead of taking a chance on a brand new thought. They not only eject creative ideas in their own heads, squelching their own best ideas, but they reject new ideas from others too. Creativity is just too risky.
Another study found that elementary school teachers are like the rest of us: their favorite students are the least creative ones. Teachers have a lot going on during the day, and the kids who sit still, do as they’re told, and don’t ask too many questions are simplest to deal with. Creative children aren’t only silenced in the classroom. They are actively disliked.
This is an obvious problem if you’ve ever looked at a preschool child. Little kids are bundles of creative energy. They ask questions, they fiddle with things, they try things out just to see what happens. Come kindergarten, none of this is valued. The very properties that make children children are discouraged in school. When we wonder why children don’t like school very much or say their favorite parts of the day are lunch and recess, here is the reason why. Kids’ own true selves are left at the schoolhouse door. Neglected and undernourished, these true selves eventually fade away.
What do you want for your child? Even in your most mercenary mood, the mood that’s looking ahead to your child getting a job and making a pile of money, you’re thinking your kid creates something. She becomes an award-winning actress or musician, she develops the next Big Thing in technology or medicine, she makes her creativity pay off. Being quiet and good doesn’t make anyone happy and it also doesn’t make anyone rich.
So what can you do? How do you keep your child’s creativity alive?
- Don’t count on the schools. School is great and it’s necessary but it can’t nurture your child’s creativity. So don’t think it is.
- At the same time, look for the best school you can. This doesn’t necessarily mean finding a private school but it does mean evaluating the schools available to you and choosing one that is least controlling and most child-centered. Forget about back to basics and zero tolerance. Look for fun along with learning.
- At home, give your child space. Thomas Edison’s mother cleared a spot in the basement for young Tom to fool around with tools. Set up a table in a corner with some boxes for equipment and materials, cardboard underneath to protect the floor, good lighting and a comfortable chair. Let it get messy. Creativity is not neat.
- Give your child time. New ideas bubble up when the mind is relaxed and open to the bubbles. This means every kid needs some downtime, time to be bored, time to just play around and see what happens. Not every moment of a child’s life should be purposeful in a way that looks purposeful to a grown up.
- Be open to ideas. They come from everywhere. Instead of taking your child to the same old places, wander through an antique store or second-hand shop. Spend some time at the hardware store, just seeing what’s there. If you are lucky enough to be close to a science surplus store or salvage shop, poke around with your kid. Just free-associate. What comes to mind?
- Embrace the risk. If we reject creativity because it makes us nervous, we have to become more comfortable with feeling anxious. Your child will think of things you never, ever could have. Your first reaction might be to make her stop. Try to stifle that reaction. Say, “yes.”
Our future as a nation comes from the having of amazing ideas. Those ideas have to come from somewhere and from somebody. Your child could be one of those somebodies but only if you keep his creativity alive.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.