All week we’ve been talking about how to stimulate imagination and creativity in our kids. Today, let’s turn our attention to the things can stunt creative genius and stifle innovation.
Don’t get us wrong, we do watch TV and go to the movies. Our kids play some video games and use social media, but we don’t need to spend much time convincing you that our society has a pervasive addiction to screens. And most people don’t need much persuading that this isn’t a good thing, especially when it comes to creativity and imagination.
My daughter recently spent a couple of weeks with extended family up north. It was the first time she’d ever been completely removed from our family culture for any length of time, and it opened her eyes to the pervasiveness of screens in our society.
Although she loves to FaceTime her friends and spend time on Tumblr, Vine, Instagram and Facebook, and she likes a TV show here and there (especially if it involves a 1200-year-old time lord or a high functioning sociopathic consulting detective), she’s not used to television as constant background noise. And she’s not used to a culture where reading doesn’t take up a portion of everyday or where people don’t knit or crochet or draw or make crafts or build things or garden on a daily basis.
The contrast wasn’t lost on her extended family members either. One uncle, noticing how much Skyler reads compared to her cousin who is the same age, jokingly asked, “So Sky, I see you don’t read like Steven does — lying on the couch, with the TV on and no book.”
Sky couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous lack of books in many of the homes she visited those couple of weeks. She’s used to living in a house where the walls in most rooms are lined with bookcases, full of every kind of book you can imagine.
After two weeks of being steeped in a world of constantly glowing screens, she was relieved to return to a less plugged-in environment. But what she experienced up north was actually the norm. We’re kind of the oddballs on this one, and the culture is worse off for it.
Screens offer a passive experience. Even video games are largely passive, especially compared to options like spinning yarn, making candles, writing stories, hydroponic gardening, canning fruits and veggies, making duct tape purses, singing opera, playing guitar, writing music, wood carving, doing kitchen experiments (all things that happen regularly in the Stahlmann and Hagaman homes — and we are FAR from being as creative and innovative as most of the homeschool families we know).
All that is not to say we’re so great, but only to show that there are so many screen alternatives, and they’re all very doable. We are so, so busy. If we can do these things, anyone can!
We can brainstorm with our kids and we can introduce them to the works of great artists and musicians and scientists. We can offer some ideas and creative suggestions (when the ask for them), such as, “You could try adding some color if you want. Or you could maybe give it some extra texture with sand or fabric.”
But we don’t want to say, “What is it? It looks like a mess.” We don’t want to tell kids they have to color in the lines, unless the exercise is to practice being precise. We don’t need to tell them that people aren’t purple or that there are no pink dogs with blue zig zags.
Unless their ideas are dangerous or could be very costly, we also don’t need to tell them that their ideas won’t work. Let them try it and figure out what works and what doesn’t on their own. You may have the next Edison in your house, whose failures will be just as important to his development as his successes.
Along the same lines, be very careful about laughing when your kids perform or say something “cute.” I know of many children who refused to ever take the stage again because the adults laughed when they sang or danced. I understand that they are so stinkin’ cute that you almost can’t help yourself, but for their sake, do not laugh. Smile. Tell them you were amazed by their performance or that you could see they had a great time, but don’t laugh.
Rewards are the flip side of criticism and can be just as damaging. The excessive use of prizes and praise deprives a child of the intrinsic pleasure of creativity. Also, when we overly praise a kid, we can make them afraid of disappointing us or damaging the image we’ve created for them. As a result, fear of failure may prevent them from taking the kind of risks that innovation demands.
This one is super challenging for parents who struggle with perfectionism. If we’re going to inspire creativity in our kids, we have to be okay with imperfect products. Let them go out in mismatched outfits. Let them wear crazy, messy hair creations. Let them make birthday invitations and Christmas cards with things glued on backwards or colored imperfectly.
Moreover, be willing to genuinely value their creations. Have some of their artwork matted and framed and hung on the wall. That’s what you do with art. You wouldn’t put a $3000 Steve Barton painting on your fridge, right? “Real” art doesn’t go on the fridge.
When we fill every free moment of our kids’ lives with homework and chores and extra curricular activities and social events, there is no time for creativity. Innovation and imagination take practice, effort and lots of TIME!
Don’t be afraid of boredom. We kicked off this week with an important look at the true value of boredom. Click on the link and read about it if you missed Monday’s post.
We’ve got to be willing to embrace some level of mess. We know that this is terrifying to some parents. So on Wednesday, we offered practical tips to manage this and still inspire imagination. If that’s you or someone you know, click here and read that post.
We’ve also got to be willing to let our kids make mistakes and experience failure and disappointment. We’ve got to be willing to let them climb and run and jump. They might get some scratches and bumps and bruises, but they’ll also gain important experiences that build imagination.
A few days ago, my two year old was in his high chair eating dry Cheerios. He figured out that if he kicked his tray, the Cheerios would bounce and that the harder and more rapidly he kicked, the more lively the Cheerios would be. As I watched him I realized that a younger and less wise version of me would have tried to stop him for fear of a broken tray (he was kicking mighty hard) and bruised legs. But I figured if he thought the dancing Cheerios was worth the soreness on his legs, then who am I to say otherwise, and at the end of the day, the risk to the high chair was worth my son’s amazement. He didn’t break the tray after all, but it was still a risk I was willing to take.
There’s a balance that every parent has to find between between being permissive and being rigid. We want our kids to respect our authority (and all authority for that matter), but we also want them to have enough curiosity and daring to possibly change the world. It’s along that fine line that parenting becomes an art form in itself.
Bike riding is great exercise, and we certainly want to challenge this generation to spend more time outdoors. But when bike riding becomes the default activity during free time, we might have to up the ante a bit.
If you’ve got kids who LOVE the outdoors, challenge them to learn how to skate or mountain bike. Maybe they could find scraps and build a go cart and have a race with the neighborhood kids. Maybe they could learn a bunch of old school yard games and teach them to their friends. Then, once they get good at them, challenge them to make their own variations of the old standards.
Don’t let kids fall into passive routines that don’t require much thought or innovation. Pay attention to how they spend their free time, and nudge them out of their comfort zone, forcing them to discover new things.
Friends are important, especially in the middle school years when kids are first beginning to figure out where they fit in a social structure. But time with friends can be addictive, and no other generation has had the opportunities to stay connected to friends like this one.
Limit time with friends, and when they do get together, give them projects and challenges to work on.
On Tuesday, we dedicated 1,056 words to practical tips for setting up a creative environment. When our kids don’t have supplies and resources and tools and even skills at their disposal, it limits their creativity.
We need to give our kids free time, freedom to get messy and make mistakes and the tools to create and experiment. After all, our future scientists and lawmakers and teachers and artists and journalists and entertainers and business owners are living in our houses right now. To the best of our ability, we must make sure we don’t squelch the very things that will one day change the world.