My son and I are on one of our pretty-much weekly shopping trips to buy clothes that he doesn’t need. I love watching him get giddy at a shirt rack. He tries on clothes for hours, and I wonder: is it okay for him to buy women’s clothes? Is it okay to let him buy outfits as a hobby? Are hats okay inside?
I tell him, “Please put away all those clothes you’re not buying so people don’t have to clean up after you.” And I hope that’s enough to keep him on the edge of creative genius and entitled hoarder.
Then I came across a series of posts from creativity consultant Jeffrey Paul Baumgartner about how to raise creative kids. He blogs at AntiConventional Thinking, and he’s an expert on encouraging creativity in both adults and children.
There’s a lot of guidance in this world about encouraging creativity, but Baumgartner’s really speaks to me because most of his advice can happen only outside the context of school. Here’s the advice from him that I liked best.
1. Find answers together.
As your children grow older, they will increasingly often ask questions that you cannot answer. Rather than hazard a guess at the answer, a better response is, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure. I believe the answer is….” and then add, “Let’s find out the correct answer.” Then do some research with your child in order to find that answer.
2. Reward failure.
We all talk about the importance of accepting and rewarding failure in business. Yet all too many parents punish failure directly or indirectly.
Your son enters a swimming competition and comes in last. How do you respond? A great response is, “I’m so proud of you for entering the swimming competition and trying so hard.”
If your son feels bad, do not immediately tell him it doesn’t matter. Instead ask him, “Why do you think you came in last?” This gives him and you a chance to analyze the problem so he can do better next time. Maybe he became too nervous and wasn’t breathing correctly. That’s great! Now you can talk about how he can deal with nervousness and breathing next time.
3. Teach them to cook.
Once your kids learn the basics, let them experiment. If they want to put twice as much chocolate in the cake, let them. If they want to see what happens if they use a brown sugar instead of white sugar, let them. Chances are, they will not ruin the cake. But even if they do, they learn by experimenting, seeing what happens, and tasting their failures.
4. Fix things yourself.
According to management consultant Clay Christensen, most creative children had parents who fixed things themselves, like attempting to fix the pipe before they call a plumber. Christensen believes that this action empowers children to believe they can solve problems themselves, which helps grow a creative mind-set.
He also points out, rightly, that when you try to fix something yourself, especially as a non-expert, the repair often does not work the first time. So, you have to try again. He likened this to business innovation where creative ideas also often fail the first time around. Rather than giving up, you need to learn from your mistakes and try again.
5. Provide open-use toys.
Instead of buying toys like LEGO sets that reward your child for carefully following directions, encourage playing with toys that are more open-ended: a large cardboard box, crayons, or LEGO bricks with no instructions at all.
6. Solving relationship problems.
When you and your spouse have an argument near the children, your natural reaction is either to move away from the children or to send the children away. You rightfully worry that your arguments will upset the children.
However, when you do this, you present children with a conflict or a problem and then hide from your children your solving of the problem. Creativity, of course, is about solving problems.
So once you have resolved that problem, you don’t need to go into detail. But communicate that when you and your spouse have problems, you collaborate to solve those problems.
7. Reward effort more than results.
When you marvel over your child, instead of saying, “You are so smart!” Say, “You worked so hard!” By motivating children to make the effort to learn, to study and to solve problems, you teach them that persistent effort by itself is worthy of their energy and attention. In the long run, effort will always outpace talent.
The common thread among these strategies is that kids who feel their own power to make a difference—in themselves and the world around them—are kids who act creatively over and over again until they generate results.