How to homeschool to promote creativity

Families that are cohesive and intradependent generate high academic achievers. Families that are child-focused create high academic achievers.

Families that are broken, non-child focused, and full of conflict generate creative thinkers.

I get this information from a paper by Rena Subotnik, titled, Beyond Bloom: Environmental Factors that Enhance or Impede Talent Development.

This makes intuitive sense. Creativity is a response to a drive, and you have to get that drive from somewhere. You have to have a big problem you want to solve. Distress breeds creativity.

There are tons of examples of this. A common factor in the lives of high-achieving men in business is that they are first-born sons of single mothers. And a common thread among kids who go to Harvard is that their parents are not divorced.

So it seems that maybe homeschooling does not really promote highly creative kids because homeschooling families are relatively stable and child-focused.

But wait. There’s more. It seems that what really promotes creativity is leaving your kid alone:

Studies suggest that an important factor in the lives of eminent individuals is the degree to which children fully develop a unique identity and express their own thoughts. Individuals who do so are more likely to produce ground-breaking work within their talent domain as opposed to high levels of achievement. The circumstances in homes or families that create environments conducive to the development of independent identities and thoughts. . .include a reduction in parent-child identification, and emotional distance between parent and child, lower levels of parental monitoring of children, and less conventional socialization of children by parents. 

What I love about this research is that it makes me feel more secure with my unschooling plan. So many people tell me they don’t know how I do it. They ask me how do I work full time and homeschool my kids, too The answer is that I get out of their way. I’m really good at supplying them with what they need to do what they want. But I’m very hands off.

Sometimes I think I’m hands off because I believe that’s what good schooling is. And sometimes I think I’m hands off because I’d really rather be in working in quiet solitude.  After reading this research I think it doesn’t matter. Even if I’m hands-off because I like to work more than I like to talk to kids about their video games, the truth is that kids grow up fine with hands-off parenting. And hands-off schooling.


23 replies
  1. Bob
    Bob says:

    Have you read the book simplicity parenting by Kim John Payne? Check it out. There is a section on the importance of long periods (3-4 hours) of unstructured alone time and how it helps promote creativity. That and the concept that it is ok for a child to be bored. When they get bored (and a parent does not step into “solve” their boredom) a child is left to themselves to get creative finding something to do. Now of course this should be in a structured environment so that their creativity does not involve things like fire or drugs.

    I really enjoy your blogs. I do not plan on homeschooling (at this point) but a lot of your ideas and messages are relevant whether you home school or not.

  2. redrock
    redrock says:

    I don’t really understand why there is a distinction between ground breaking work and high achievement.
    “…ground-breaking work within their talent domain as opposed to high levels of achievement…”
    Ground breaking work is by itself a high achievement…maybe the idea is that achievement is solely defined by the A+ grade? Working with many students over the years it is certainly true that A+ grades are not a guarantee of creative science, however, it is also not a counter-indication. In my experience grades are indeed only a rough guide, however, if they fall below a certain level they are an indication that the knowledge bases is insufficient or that a student is unable to work continuously on a problem (which is essential for ground breaking work). All those correlations are not hard facts – and they are from my own experience in the natural sciences which is a different ballgame – no comparison to high school grades and testing procedures.

    In each exam I include certain questions, which require more of a synthetic approach to thinking – these clearly are the dividers in terms of student abilities (and incidentally also grades). And they are not questions which can be answered by rote learning – it is very interesting to see students responses to those.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Interesting tidbit: Only a high achiever would question the difference between high achievement and ground-breaking work. To someone doing ground-breaking work the difference is so clear they don’t even bother talking about it.


    • Mark Kenski
      Mark Kenski says:

      Redrock, I just wanted to say that I appreciate your perseverance. I often read every comment on posts, sometimes I don’t. But I can tell you one thing, I never skip one you’ve written. And many times, I go back and read Penelope’s post again after reading your comments because you caught something I missed.

      For the very reason that you have a viewpoint quite different than Penelope, your viewpoint is valuable to me in broadening my consideration of whatever it is she’s brought up.

      In writing that I guess I would characterize as “scholarly”, as in books, the writer has an over-arcing plan in mind and develops that plan and vision in a series of incremental steps, taking care not to contradict or undermine the overall message. Penelope’s blog is not like this. It’s intent is different. It’s intent is to spark thought. Whether that thought is in agreement or disagreement is immaterial to the intent. Because both agreement and disagreement fuel conversation and that is her ultimate goal: to start and maintain interesting conversations.

      In fact, I would go so far as to say that is her artform. She is very intelligent, I agree (with her) on that, but the exercise is one where she is conducting a collaborative creative process which is somewhat incidental to the content of the post–as opposed to constructing a cohesive scholarly work.

      Her process, to me, seems to be to put up a sort of rorschach ink blot and let the commenters come along and make it into a painting. I return again and again to her blog as much to take part in that collaboration, as to see the finished work emerge.

      Oddly enough, starting conversations seems to be something you do with your personality as much as your accuracy, and especially in her case, with your honesty rather than consistency.

      I often get the impression that Penelope could write her own counterpoint to many of her own blog posts. And the funny thing is she often will if you follow the blog over time. Instead of arguing against her “nature has won the battle” posts, I just wait till she comes back around to arguing for more nurture–and it seldom takes long. Then I can make my point in a way she’s more receptive to. :)

      Thanks for coming by to add your reds to the idea-paintings she starts her blue blots, and your blues to those she starts with red.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        That’s a really nice comment, Mark. To be honest, redrock really annoys me. And I often think redrock should stop reading the blog if everything I write sounds wrong But redrock’s comment are always thoughtful, and redrock is also persistent. And those are attributes that make a great comments section. So I appreciate it. And Mark, I really like that you encouraged redrock!


        • redrock
          redrock says:

          where is the fun if everybody agrees? I am pretty sure you don’t want to have only claqueurs on your blog.

          • Ebriel
            Ebriel says:

            It’s a sign of a well-written blog that Penelope’s posts provoke so many comments worth reading. I come back for Penelope’s writing and strong views, but I stay to read the comments.

      • Ebriel
        Ebriel says:

        In my mind:

        “High-achieving” equals stellar performance within the status quo. An acceptance of the way things are, and a desire to succeed within those parameters.

        “Ground-breaking” is done by those who disregard those limits – out of ignorance or arrogance or sheer force of will. Starting from a point of disadvantage (working within a foreign language/culture or with learning disabilities) can contribute to that disregard.

        One of my favorite columnists is dyslexic. He dictates instead of writing. This creates an insane musical prose with visual imagery and scattered thoughts that all wind together at the end. Sometimes. It is very much his own language.

        redrock, I always enjoy reading your comments. Not that you particularly needed to hear that. You’ve got a grounding voice.

      • JRW
        JRW says:

        This is so true! I read the comments from Penelope’s posts as hungrily as the post itself, with an extra emphasis on my “friends” (that I’ve never spoken to or even left comments for until now) like you, Red Rock, Jana, CJ, Bec Oakley, Daniel Baskin, and more. And now, Mark Kenski, I might actually someday link to Penelope’s posts on my blog or FB. I’ve been hesitant before because I feel like most of my friends and family wouldn’t understand how to read her posts without getting offended. But now I’m going to preface it with your comment and hope for the best! Oh and Penelope, this post made me think of you. This woman’s writing leaves me thinking and changed, much like yours.

  3. Bird
    Bird says:

    Totally off topic, but will you say where you got that purple top? Love it.

    Also yes: frequently shut myself away so I won’t be tempted to tell them how to do something or solve problems for them.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Haha! I love it, too. It’s from H&M. I have it in three colors. Also, the bra really makes the shirt – at least in this photo – don’t you think? The bra is Spanx. Hooray for Spanx!


  4. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    I think living on the farm is key in providing a hands-off education for your kids. My family lived in the woods in Arkansas for a couple years, in a tiny house, with acres and acres for us to explore. (And we were homeschooled, so we had plenty of time to play outside.) My brothers and I would disappear into the woods for hours and get lost and build forts and explore and create games with other kids. That was one of the best periods of my life.

    My husband also grew up being homeschooled and playing for hours in the woods in Rhode Island with his siblings.

    I, my husband, my brothers, and my siblings-in-law are all highly creative people. This makes me determined to live in the woods someday so my kids can get the same experience. There’s something about those hours alone or with a few other people in the outdoors that dramatically affects the brain.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, it is really nice that the kids can go outside for hours at a time and explore. But the kids are also snowed in four months out of the year. (We can’t leave our house today, for example.) So I just want people to know that homeschooling works great when the kids are in the woods. But it works when they are stuck inside, too. (They are just, maybe, a little more annoying to me inside.)


  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I made my kids sit and write for half an hour — either on their story (started in November) or to write about something pleasurable or painful.

    My son did none of the above.

    He came up with a video idea that we shot that day. I did not scold him for going “off assignment.” I was excited about his idea.

    As for controlling the video, all I did was hold the camera and once indicated they should run the same direction in two different shots for consistency.

    It’s no genius work, but it’s creative — all it an effort to avoid doing what I asked for “school.”

  6. CJ
    CJ says:

    There is also a great deal of evidence on how much stronger sibling effect has on our actual outcomes as adults, than our parental relationships. Part of the idea is that siblings, for those that have them, have life path choices often influenced in either a dramtically imitative or defiant opposition to their other siblings.

    The things my kids create when I leave them alone together is indescribable. And when outside, the chickens, the dog, the trees, it all becomes part of their magic worlds.

    They stop hearing or seeing me, they get so immersed. Love it.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This discussion of high academic achievement and ground-breaking work makes me think of what is often termed as “thinking outside the box”. The person who is inclined to do ground-breaking work will do and be aware of the work performed in their domain (academic and otherwise). However they will also know and be exploring the boundaries rather than be defined and confined within them for whatever reason. Marie Curie is the first well-known person that came to my mind. She had high academic achievement but was also able to perform ground-breaking work. She was able to blend both conventional and self-directed learning to her benefit. She definitely had distress and hurdles to overcome in her personal and professional life. Also I think it’s important to always be cognizant and clearly make distinctions between high achievement and creative work and high achievement and creative individuals. And one type of individual does not necessarily or always define the type of work they’ve done.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I think the definition of “achievement” is clearly an issue here: ground breaking work is by itself an achievement. It is something unique a person has achieved in their life by doing a creative, ground breaking, changing the-boundaries-of-a-field kind of work.

      Merriam-Webster offers several definitions:
      1: the act of achieving : accomplishment
      2a : a result gained by effort
      b : a great or heroic deed
      3: the quality and quantity of a student’s work.

      Achievement can be reaching a certain preset goal like running a marathon, but it can also be something else. Ground-breaking work can be “result gained by effort” (e.g. the effort of thinking creatively and finding new paths), and a great heroic deed, which brings me back to the Marie Curie examples. I certainly do not think that rote learning and overtesting is good for creativity. Having multiple choice tests all the time is equally uncreative and does not support the development of the mind, and it does not give any information about a students or childs ability to think outside the box or solve problems. In that way I would not even count getting all A’s in such tests as an achievement.

  8. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I love this post, but I love the picture even more, it’s captivating. The dog is so sharp, it almost looks fake, like one of those silly apps like Cat Effects. I keep coming back to look at it. Brilliant.

  9. karelys
    karelys says:

    This post brings many thoughts. You can be a hands on parent but emotionally distant, I think. And you can be emotionally very supportive and in sync with the kids but don’t have to hover over them.

    I am trying to figure out how to translate this to an environment that is not the farm.

    Also, I know you are a huge fan of saying that the school system should be done away with anyway and that Senor Godin is just wasting time by trying to redefine the school system. I’ve given lots of hours of thought to this. I will homeschool my kids. But I am realistic and realize that if the school system was done away with many kids would be uneducated because school, as crappy as it can be, provides at least some sort of education and that is all the education kids will get.

    So maybe there is a place for revolutionizing school. Maybe like some sort of unschooling school (I believe they call it free school? there are a few scattered through the country). And it’d be cheaper on everyone to probably do some sort of co-op and pay for someone to watch the kids/be there to answer questions and provide materials when they need it.

    Anyway, I’m probably too small to have any sort of impact in my lifetime but I obsess thinking about this.

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