The best part of my oldest son’s personality is his love of life. Everyday is an opportunity for a party in Ted’s world. He loves people, he loves laughing, and he loves living life to its fullest. On paper, that’s exactly what we want to say about our children. In reality, that personality trait in a child will run you ragged. Trust me.
Years ago, I put sweet Ted in his toddler bed for his afternoon nap. Most days, he was happy to curl up with a story and his blankie. His eyelids would become slow and heavy. Eventually he would fall asleep. That day, there was no heaviness in his eyelids, no slowness to his breathing, and no quiet anywhere in his room. He laughed loudly, begging for another round of Goodnight Moon. Finally, I left him with a kiss on the forehead and the book to read on his own. “Sshhhh, Teddy. It’s time for quiet. Stay in your bed and rest for a bit.” He nodded and smiled sweetly.
It took about an hour for him to settle down, but eventually I could hear him talking softly to himself and clearly taking “quiet time” to himself. So I peeked into his room.
When I cracked open the door, I could see Ted standing on his bed leaning against the wall. It looked very much like he was painting or swiping the wall with something. And then, the smell hit me.
I opened the door in a flurry of confusion and concern (mostly for my carpet and walls, mind you). And sure enough, Ted had slipped off his diaper and managed to use the contents as finger paints for a mural on his wall. “See! Mama, see!”
Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while”.
Clearly, Ted had tapped into his creative side that afternoon. And while I mourned the loss of my pristine walls and untainted carpet, I was immediately transfixed and suspended in a state of confusion. Ted was so happy and so proud of himself for his “work of art”. How could I, as his loving mother, condemn his masterpiece?
Cultivating creativity in children can be less disturbing and more encouraging, if we put some effort and thought into it as parents. That smelly afternoon took me down a new path with all of my children. I knew that day that I had a responsibility to do better for them. Creativity is cultivated by freedom and stifled by continuous monitoring, direction and pressure to conform. In the real world, there are few questions that have one right answer. And fewer problems that have one right solution. Cultivating creativity in children makes for a better world and is crucial to the success of our species.
What can we do as parents to cultivate creativity?
1. Tell Stories. Maybe you read books or retell stories told to you. For my kids, they love reenactments and retellings of my life history. They even love hearing the stories behind the most mundane of household chores. My daughter’s favorite is how Grandma Annie taught me a slick way to peel hardboiled eggs.
2. Get Messy. Play in the mud. Stomp in a puddle. Fingerpaint. (Dirty diapers optional.)
3. Play. Really, just play.
4. Ask Questions. Lots of questions. Open-ended questions are best. “Why is that horse swatting his tail? Why do stars shine? What do you think our puppy is thinking about when he hears your voice?” Let them think, discover, and hypothesize without your know-it-all interjections.
5. Set the Scene. A big part of our job as parents is to make sure that our children’s environment is set up for them to thrive. Think of setting up a tank for a pet snake. Something to climb on, something to hide under, and some water to drink. For kids, it could be paints and paper, music and instruments, or just free time in their busy schedule to daydream.
6. Put Away the Clown Suit. I’m often quoted by even my own children saying, “My job is to keep you healthy and safe. That’s it.” In other words, I’m not a circus clown. Kids don’t actually need us to entertain them. If given the opportunity, they can be quite entertaining on their own!
7. Let Them Decide. When kids have to make decisions, they actually sharpen cognitive skills in problem-solving. If they are young, you can give them a choice. “Would you like to read Dr. Seuss or Jack Kerouac?” As they mature, let them make decisions about what they will do, how they will do it, or when they will do it. Parents should always retain the right to veto, but at least we can give them the experience of making a decision.
8. Lose Track. Turn them loose in the house or the yard or the park and see what happens. Obviously, you are still responsible for protecting your children from harmful people, places, and things. But what would they do if they had the freedom to safely explore?
In the end, cultivating creativity in our children is an essential responsibility. This can be a difficult task given an aversion to emergency room visits or a propensity toward clean carpets. But, it’s clearly as important for the development of healthy, productive adults as any nutritional, educational, or moral aspect of parenting.
One final word to the wise, crayons and fingerpaints are always easier to clean up than a dirty diaper.