Davidson Institute for Talent Development
This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Lisa Rivero. Ms. Rivero summarizes the key points in which parents can encourage and facilitate creativity in their children.
I am passionate about creativity, and here is why: Having greater skills of and practice in creativity and creative thinking can help us to live more fulfilling and even happier lives, even if we never paint a picture or patent an invention.
Thanks to the work of trailblazers such as Ken Robinson (look for his TED Talk videos), parents are very much aware that schools do not prioritize creativity. After all, creative thinking is nearly impossible to quantify. However, when trying to nurture creativity at home, we often don’t know what to do beyond buying more crayons or building blocks.
The good news is that creative thinking is not about things at all (although things can be a part of the creative process). It is all about the ability to look at the world "sideways," to see alternatives to what is obvious, and to keep from getting stuck in one way of acting or thinking. Yes, it is a valued “soft skill” in today’s business world, but the reasons for prioritizing creativity in our homes go far beyond school and work to the heart of what it means to be human.
Here are just a few ways to bring out the creativity in our children and ourselves that have more to do with attitude and habits of thought than consumption of more things.
Embrace complexity and refuse to typecast.
In his research of dozens of successfully creative people, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found one resounding theme: They have complex personalities, meaning that they can switch back and forth between what we normally think of as opposite habits and traits, such as rest and energy, or introversion and extroversion.
For parents and teachers, this complexity in children can be confusing and frustrating, and we are often quick to typecast them as neat or messy or silly or serious. The problem comes when children begin to define themselves according to how others describe them; they might then be less likely to branch out and explore other aspects of their personalities.
While most children will probably lean strongly toward certain poles of personality, we can consciously keep from describing them as such, especially within their hearing, and we can encourage a broad range of expression of personality, even and perhaps especially when it seems to go against their nature.
We can go even further and have short time periods when we encourage our children to "try the opposite" of whatever their usual tendencies are. Better yet, parents can show the way by doing the unexpected once in awhile, to show it's okay to go against people's expectations. If we are always disciplined and orderly, we can, just once, let something slide to the last minute. If we are never, ever on time, we can, just once, arrive ten minutes early.
This complexity broadens our experience of the world and gives us a richer internal repertoire from which to draw creative ideas.
Protect play and unstructured time.
What is play? Peter Gray offers an excellent extended definition in his Psychology Today article “The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights”:
- Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit.
- Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.
- Play is guided by mental rules.
- Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality.
- Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.
Note that unstructured time can be different from play time. It can also, depending on how you choose to define it, include activities that are themselves structured, just not by anyone other than the child.
In her online article “Protect Your Child’s Playtime: It’s More Important than Homework, Lessons, and Organized Sports,” Dona Mathews reminds us, “Although it may look like they’re wasting time, kids involved in imaginative play are discovering what they like doing, what they want to learn more about, and how to interact successfully with others.”
Don’t remove all constraints. Constraints and boundaries are often the catalyst for creative breakthroughs. Even the traditional creative technique of brainstorming has some very firm rules (no squelching of ideas, for example, or the "two pizza rule" of never do a traditional brainstorming session with more people than can be fed with two pizzas).
In the home, you can offer fun challenges with embedded constraints or rules such as to draw a self-portrait using only five lines, which is one of Dan Pink's exercises from his book A Whole New Mind. Something else that's fun is to write six-word stories. Here is a famous example by William Shatner: “Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.”
Encourage children to make art with found objects, or to create prototypes of their ideas with whatever is handy, rather than rushing to the nearest hardware or toy store to buy the perfect tools and parts. Challenge them to design a meal from what is in the refrigerator at the end of the week or to think of ways to work within limits rather than waste time fighting against them.
Don't try to force creativity.
Brain maturation and the process of greater executive functioning is all about learning to step back and think before acting, being able to censor when we need to. For this reason, it’s probably natural that older children will sometimes seem less creative in terms of divergent thinking than very young children. We really don't want to have the fluency of a five year old when we are fifteen or fifty! We want, instead, to be able to tap into that playful attitude when we need or want to, but then also to use our adult executive functioning to tell good ideas from bad and to make smart choices.
Trust the process rather than focusing on daily products. During times when you are most frustrated with your children’s creativity or lack thereof, turn your focus back to yourself and indulge (with joy) in your own creative pursuits. Your children will notice.
Embrace and even celebrate failure.
Carol Dweck's Mindset theory offers a crucial insight for creativity. Many children for whom learning comes easily grow up thinking that if they are seen to try hard, especially to work hard and to make mistakes while learning, that they are somehow not as smart as everyone says they are.
The problem for creativity is that it requires a certain amount of failure, which is often hard for gifted children to accept. Parents can be attentive to activities and skills their children want to try that are hard for them or don't come easily to them, and encourage those especially, celebrating all the missteps along the way. Even better, make those missteps with your child! Take up a new hobby and allow your children to watch you fail miserably at the beginning. You won't regret it.
Give the gift of the courage to create.
Finally, anyone who lives a creative life has to learn to become immune to criticism and ridicule. Having just one person who will never laugh at an attempt at creativity or shun creative effort can make a world of difference in giving children courage to continue to hear their inner creative voices, a gift that they will carry with them for their entire lives.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.