Last night I was watching a video about some kids on Long Island who had committed a murder and claimed it was done under a so-called “Satanic influence.” This explanation was a smoke-screen calculated to provoke and thrill the media—and it worked. It provided an exciting explanation to an otherwise meaningless crime committed more than anything out of drug-addled boredom.
These were middle class kids from homes where both parents were working outside the home, where non-involvement and neglect were everyday facts-of-life and kids were left to raise themselves, where idle brains and insipid peers had failed to come up with anything more interesting than causing the death of an undistinguished classmate.
What an unnecessary waste! Despite the mention I made the other day about creative people and white hats, I do believe this murder might have been avoided had the young people involved been encouraged by their families to be engaged in more creative—and productive—pursuits.
People say that kids are either creative or they’re not. Many people assume that creativity is an inborn talent, but I disagree. I see creativity in all kids with healthy brains. Actually, creativity is more a skill than an inborn talent, and it is a skill parents can help their kids develop.
Because it is a key to success in nearly everything we do, creativity is a key component of health and happiness and a core skill to practice with kids. Creativity is not limited to artistic and musical expression—it is also essential for science, math, and even social and emotional intelligence. Creative people are more flexible and better problem-solvers, which makes them more able to adapt to technological advances and deal with change—as well as take advantage of new opportunities.
Many researchers believe we have fundamentally changed the experience of childhood in such a way that impairs creative development. Toy and entertainment companies feed kids an endless stream of ready-made characters, images, props and plot-lines that allow children to put their imaginations to rest. We may as well chew our kids’ food for them.
Here, according to Dr. Christine Carter, are some ideas for fostering creativity in your kids:
1. Provide the resources they need for creative expression. The key resource here is time. Kids need a lot of time for unstructured, child-directed, imaginative play–unencumbered by adult direction, and that doesn’t depend on a lot of commercial stuff.
Space is also a resource your kids need. Unless you don’t mind creative messes everywhere, give them a specific place where they can make a mess, like room in your attic for dress-up, a place in the garage for painting, or a corner in your family room for Legos.
Next time someone asks for a gift suggestion for your kids, ask for things like art supplies, cheap cameras, costume components, building materials. Put these in easy-to-deal-with bins that your kids can manage.
2. Make your home a Petri dish for creativity. In addition to creative spaces, you need to foster a creative atmosphere.
Solicit a high volume of different ideas, but resist the urge to evaluate the ideas your kids come up with. At dinnertime, for example, you could brainstorm activities for the upcoming weekend, encouraging the kids to come up with things they’ve never done before. Don’t point out which ideas aren’t possible, and don’t decide which ideas are best. The focus of creative activities should be on process: generating (vs. evaluating) new ideas.
Encourage kids to make mistakes and fail. Yes, fail – kids who are afraid of failure and judgment will curb their own creative thought. Share the mistakes you’ve made recently, so they get the idea that it is okay to flub up. Laughing at yourself when you blow it is a happiness habit.
Celebrate innovation and creativity. Cover your walls with art and other evidence of creative expression. Tell your kids all about your favorite artists, musicians, and scientists. Share your passion for architecture or photography or that new band you want to listen to all the time. Embrace new technologies like Twitter so your kids grow to find change exciting, not overwhelming or intimidating.
3. Allow kids the freedom and autonomy to explore their ideas and do what they want. Don’t be so bossy. Stop living in fear that they are going to be kidnapped or not get into a great college. Statistically, the odds are very low that they’ll be kidnapped, and no one is a happier person because they went to an Ivy League school.
External constraints—making them color within the lines, so to speak—can reduce flexibility in thinking. In one study, just demonstrating how to put together a model reduced the creative ways that kids accomplished this task.
4. Encourage children to read for pleasure and participate in the arts. Limit TV and other screen time in order to make room for creative activities like rehearsing a play, learning to draw, reading every book written by a favorite author. Encourage them to give Facebook a break, and go outside to spend time with their actual friends.
5. Give kids the opportunity to express “divergent thought.” Let them disagree with you. Encourage them to find more than one route to a solution, and more than one solution to a problem. When they successfully solve a problem, ask them to solve it again but to find a new way to do it (same solution, different route). Then ask them to come up with more solutions to the same problem.
6. Don’t reward kids for exhibiting creativity. Incentives interfere with the creative process, reducing the quality of their responses and the flexibility of their thought.
Allow kids to develop mastery of creative activities that they are intrinsically motivated to do, rather than trying to motivate them with rewards and incentives. Instead of rewarding a child for practicing the piano, for example, allow her to do something she enjoys more—maybe sit at her desk and draw or take a science class.
7. Try to stop caring what your kids achieve. Emphasize process over product. One way you can do this is by asking questions about the process: Did you have fun? Are you finished? What did you like about that activity? What did you learn?
Sure, kids will occasionally do dumb things and scuff a knee or even break a bone, but how else are they going to learn? If they are not permitted to make mistakes, how else will they develop good judgment?