7 Strategies for raising creative kids

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.

35 replies
  1. Cate
    Cate says:

    Great list! This may be just my son, but what do you do when you ask, “Why do you think you came in last at the swim meet?” and his answer is, “Because I’m a horrible swimmer!” and he’s mad and upset, and talks badly about himself, and you can’t talk him out of it?

    Or you do say, “You worked so hard” when he did something well, and he answers scornfully, “No I didn’t, it was easy!” or gets mad and asks, “Why can’t you just say you like it?!”

    Such is my 9yo.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      If it wasnt hard for him he still is admirable for finding a system and a plan and following through.

      When you like it just say it.

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      I also have a creative kiddo. I always praise the effort AND say that I like what she worked on. I ask questions like “What was the hardest part doing this drawing?” “What was the easiest?” Everything she does breeds more conversation and she loves sharing verbally what inspired her and what the story behind something is.

      We don’t do too many competitive things right now, like team sports. But I was a competitive swimmer for awhile and if I had a bad race the last thing I wanted to do was hear about it or discuss it. I wanted to be left alone to replay it in my head and reach my own conclusions, sometimes I would share those with my parents, but mostly I kept my thoughts to myself and worked harder for the next race. I always felt sorry for the other kids whose parents wanted to draw out on paper there late start or discuss how many breaths they took when it was obvious the kid just wanted to be left alone. I’m not saying everyone in the world is like me, but I was super competitive and really good and that was how I functioned if I got second place instead of first, or got a bad time for my race instead of improving.

      Your kid sounds cute by the way… “Why can’t you just say you like it?!” Super cute.

      • Amy A
        Amy A says:

        How you described your swimming, being left alone with your thoughts: yes, exactly.

        I should have prefaced the list of questions in my comments with something like that: being bombarded with questions can suck.

        We have to be in tuned to the energy of people, to know the right time for that. I can tell if someone is seeking interaction or just wants to be alone in their thoughts. My kids and I love to be around each other, but not always interacting.

    • Amy A
      Amy A says:

      Your second to last paragraph (you worked so hard)…I can relate to your son there.

      Like with childbirth, my spouse would tell people how easy my births were. I was like, “What?! Not easy! I’m just strong and determined.” That was great I made it look easy, but his statement stepped all over what I, the birther, achieved–but mostly what I experienced. “I am in awe of how Amy made birth look easy” would have been a satisfying statement for me to hear and was likely way more accurate for him as well.

      I think that most people don’t want their actions assessed. People want to be *asked*. It helps to think of yourself as a reporter gathering info (learning about a person). “Hey, how do you feel?” “Do you think that was worth your time?’ “Are you looking forward to doing that again or was that enough?” “Was that fun? If so, what was fun about it?”

      Or if you’re not gathering info, use personal language–speaking for oneself: “Wow. I would love to be as dedicated to something as much as you seem to be.” Or “I wouldn’t want to keep doing that either if it made me frusterated.” “I wonder how I can learn to do that.”

      Asking someone why they came in last: if I was asked that, I would hear it like this: “Why do you think you suck at that?”

      • Amy A
        Amy A says:

        I can also speak to being assessed on poor effort. I don’t like cooking or washing dishes; I am really slow at cleaning. It has showed in my kitchen up keep. I really really want to make it work, flow; and I have done all sorts of inner work to figure out where the glitch is and how to move past it. (I am just starting to get there, years later.)

        My (ex) spouse would tell me I wasn’t trying, I didn’t care, I was selfish for not having things cleaned up by the time he got home.

        His looking at my efforts and deciding if I applied myself/worked hard enough really sucked. I wanted to be seen as a person finding my way, not to be judged on if I tried hard enough. Especially because I put a lot of effort to always be learning and growing. This is where being asked authentically, “How do you feel?” would have benefited greatly (I did tell him w/o being asked but that fell of deaf ears; which is why I stress *authentically* asking).

        Who was he to decide if I was putting forth effort or not? Should anyone get to decide that for another person?

        “Reward effort” advice…I don’t like it.

        • Jessica
          Jessica says:

          I bit and outsourced my laundry a couple of months ago.

          Today, I almost killed myself via death by clutter.

          Instead of dying, I chose to call a cleaner.

          Best money spent in the past several months, hands down.

          I actually can get in that zone cleaning, but I’m slow and the kids are unschooled meaning I need to be there more for them at their young ages than the dishes. And sometimes things just stack up (especially when the kids are home for most school hours!).

          A few of my friends around the world (Nicaragua, Santiago, Singapore…etc) would not bat an eye at the thought of having a cleaner, nanny, even driver. Those things are pretty standard elsewhere (but also much cheaper).

          I’m finding my way through a new insourcing/outsourcing faze right now.

          • Amy A
            Amy A says:


            I like what you had to say. It is about self-care really, huh?

            Yes, since I left the spouse, I have been getting my groceries and personal items delivered: $5 (and free for other things). That has helped me so much.

            Even though I have been washing dishes since age nine, I still am slow. Partially because I’m a perfectionist, partially because I’m highly sensitive and notice everything. I believe there’s something in there too about feeling like a prisoner in the kitchen, because I sure felt that way as a kid washing dishes for a family of six…an experience (feeling like a prisoner) I brilliantly re-created with my ex once we had kids. :-/ (the book _getting the love you want_ is fantastic)

            One trick I finally learned about five years ago by observing a dinner guest help me with the dishes: Don’t fill the sink with water. Just put soap on the sponge and wash that way. I also now use papertowels to remove grease before putting items in the sink. (Nope, not the most eco friendly, but my mental health comes first).

            My deal with the kitchen is that I really want to figure this out: methods, ease, lightness about it all. It feels like my “paint the fence” exercises (ala the movie _Karate Kid_). It is much deeper than just getting it done for me. So weird, I know.

            I also want my kids to know how to master this by my experience so they won’t ever have to
            hopelessnessly cry over a sink full of dishes because their partner is coming home (hopefully, I will have helped them enough not to choose that kind of partner too).

            I am fine with getting help with shopping because I do know how to grocery shop, and my kids already do even better than me, but I hate it when I am doing the driving and leading.

            I wouldn’t hesitate hiring driver if I had the cash. My older is getting her license the second it’s legal. Driver for me, practice and building driving confidence for her. Win-win.

            So yes, when there are areas in which we aren’t seeking personal lessons and ah-ha enlightment/healing, hiring out is such a gift.

          • mh
            mh says:

            Amy A,

            I don’t know you and I hesitate to give unsolicited advice to strangers, but a very useful resource for me has been “Dad’s Own Housekeeping book” by David Bowers.

            Best to you.

          • Amy A
            Amy A says:

            mh, I am actually thrilled when strangers offer me suggestions (as long as it is not to leave my kids, work full time or seek mental help). Thank you! I will get it from the library.

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    I come from a background where all these things are common amd no one has to hire a consultant to advice on the strategies.

    And yet, people are not always rich for implementing all the things we talk about to become and raise high earning people.

    Im always on a search for the factors that make the difference.

    And I can’t find it yet.

    • Katarina
      Katarina says:

      The vast majority of people I know who actively pursue wealth (not a stable life/income) as a goal in and of itself end up nuts. I’m not sure you want to find that factor.

        • Elizabeth
          Elizabeth says:

          Hi Karelys,

          These are my observations of *good* people who end up high earners: People with good ideas and can get funding, being in the right place at the right time with your idea, people born into families with money, either having a high earning job or marrying someone who is a high earner or has an occupation to be a high earner, people who make good financial goals for 5, 10, and 15 years, and people who take risks. Now all of these people, that I have known, work/ed hard, like 100 hours a week and some of them started out with literally $50 in their pockets. 40 hr a week jobs that pay you a decent wage and benefits is not going to get you into the next level. Again, these are just my observations from people I actually know and are not an exhaustive list.

          Just don’t be like an ex-friend of mine who called me up and told me that she was calling all her friends to see what each person could do for her and her life and if they couldn’t help her she wasn’t going to be friends with them anymore. I don’t really like talking on the phone, but that conversation was more awkward for me than usual. Then I had the ex-boyfriend who only cared about making money and took me on a date to one of his multi-level marketing meetings… that relationship ended shortly after that.

          You know I love you and your family. :)

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:


      I didn’t need any consultation either.

      People with a sole goal of making lots of money give me the ick factor, and I know you are not one of those people. Every relationship, for them, is based on what that person can do for them. Yeah, I might ask someone for a favor in the future but that is different than only being friends with someone to have a favor done for you.

      I think what we talk about here is being authentic and finding a different path to being successful in life other than the most obvious traditional path that the majority will take.

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      Hi karelys,
      This is what I am looking for too, the magic formula for raising people who, are not necessarily high-earning, but can take care of themselves without burdening others and maybe even make enough to go out to dinner together, some extra-curricular activites for kids, and a little travel (I’m talking like to the next town).

      After years of thinking about it and living it, what I have come up with is fear. Fear will make you money poor.

      • Jessica
        Jessica says:

        And you know what cures fear? Love.

        Raise the kids to be emotionally independent, self reliant, and inspired.

        It’s not an intellectual thing that you are talking about, Karelys. If you’re still looking please keep doing so, because those questions will find you the answers within yourself and you will be able to take action.

  3. mh
    mh says:

    I was *really, really* hoping you were going to mention that a ten-year-old boy sleeping with upwards of twenty stuffed animals in bed was a marker of genius.

    And surely an aversion to clipped fingernails and band aids *must* be some sign of future stardom. Right?

    And… Adding too much dish detergent to the sink, so the bubbles roll over the counter… This indicates mega brains, yes?

    What. A. Day.

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Aw, we all have crazy days! And my kids have weird anxieties as well, they probably get them from me.

      My girls would love your son and all his stuffies! So adorable.

    • Tracy
      Tracy says:

      Haha. I definitely think the dish detergent one is pure genius! Just that us mere-mortals will never get it.

      Reminds me of my son. When he was around 3 at mealtimes he would be constantly playing about with his food, and I’d get less and less patient. One time I had started nagging him about eating while he was repeatedly sticking his hand in his glass of water. Luckily he ignored me, then asked ‘why does the water grow bigger when I put my whole fist in it?’ He’d just figured out fluid displacement. And I’d just figured out my best parenting strategy was to shut up more often.

      Now I try to do that as long as I can bear while my 3-yr old daughter mixes all her food together then dumps it in her milk. (It helps if I chant quietly to myself food scientist, food scientist, food scientist)

  4. Jenn Gold
    Jenn Gold says:

    @ karelys,
    I know what u mean when u say.. what are the stuff to do to put ur kids on a path of wealth (not diminshing moral values, etc) I’m always looking into that and I dont love money but I understand the power/freedom it gives. In fact, one of the reasons I home school is to have financial edu as a top priority like Math is. I’m always looking too,,,, I am an INFJ personality type. I dont really enjoy the money game but I like to have the influence it brings.

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:


      Kids watch their parents’ money habits (just like everything else we do and our parents did for us). I try to stay mindful of what I’m doing. Even getting the cleaner today was a ‘what does this teach the kids / myself moment’ .
      I just say, love em and take care of yourself and don’t stop growing and learning and trying and failing etc…

      My husband came from a very very poor family. His mother worked relentlessly to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. He tells me he never felt poor. He never noticed it.

  5. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I’m confused about the segue from your kid learning to be a heavy consumer of clothing and ways to stimulate creativity. I don’t see buying your kids lots of stuff on that list.

    Maybe buying him a sewing machine could help him turn his consumption into creation.

    • Amy A
      Amy A says:

      Yes, sewing machine would be awesome. My kids, especially younger, are into fashion too. It comes out in being creative with what we have, tons of design sketches, pouring through catalogs and bridal mag, and creating stylish outfits for american girl dolls.

      I don’t like shopping so we stock up on clothes a couple times a year.

      I really think it depends on the parent’s approach to spending, how much stuff they like to own and how much they invest in “appearance.”

      Perhaps this could fall under “solve personal relationship problems.” Oh, and the title of this article.

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      This comment made me think; yes, if Zehavi was a woman he would need to learn to build it from the ground up, to gain respect. But as a male, he could probably get into the fashion without having to work it from the ground up. He will get more respect for his ideas right away because he is male. As a male learning to sew may detract from his income potential, people would view him differently.

      And I have no proof or studies to back this up, that was just my immediate thought.

      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        I think you bring up a good point.

        Also, being a good stylist is different than being a good sewist. As a designer, I’ve had to learn a lot about styling in order to present my designs in the best (most marketable) way. It makes a big difference and I wish that I had started earlier.

        • Amy A
          Amy A says:

          And yours is a good point, Melissa.

          I love the idea of a capsule wardrobe, with only x number of items. But all of the items mix-and-match with each other. And all items both look good and feel good to wear. Plus, it’s easier to buy good-quality clothing when you only buy so many pieces.

          I think it takes skill to be able to 1) pick items which are flattering and feel good, 2) style those items (choosing what would mix -and-match well together).

          Of course, it doesn’t take hoarding clothes to be a stylist or designer. I’m most impressed with the people who can express their talent with a small, capsule wardrobe.

          I would love to have a stylist help me out with a capsule wardrobe.

          (Project 333 is really fun; It’s easy to find youtube videos with all sorts of ways people adapt it to their own preferences.)

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      Yes, my son is in a cardboard box stage. We stopped buying a lot of stuff a while ago. Now we try to see what he can do. We go to places for inspiration. We talk about design and improvements products should have. Etc. I understand buying things of interest though (what if he has a wardrobe that he uses and has friends come over and he styles them and posts them to a blog or he styles himself daily and posts about why he purchased it, what it means to him, can he create content out of his interest and learn from that etc)

      Today, my son wanted to make the toilet seat a recliner which brought us to another cardboard box experiment.

      I wonder if there is a patent on that?


  6. Linda
    Linda says:

    When my daughter was about 17, she entered an eventing competition with her horse. She had been participating in these competitions for the past few years, but this one was different in that she was entering at a higher level. The event was farther from home than usual and required a lot more preparation than usual– both on her part and on her parents’.

    We were all excited at first. But as the long day wore on, we became hot, tired, and increasingly grouchy. My daughter wasn’t riding well. Her coach was aggravated. Even the horse seemed unhappy. In the end, they came in last place. Never before had we put so much into a show. Never before had they scored so poorly.

    Horse moms can be nasty and competitive–they leave dance moms in the dust. But I had always considered myself to be above all of that. During those competition years, I didn’t berate my daughter or succumb to the tricks of wheedling my girl in ahead of the others. I prided myself on being kind and fair– often using supportive comments about the importance of working hard over winning.

    But this day, this day on the ride home I allowed some awful inner suppressed feelings to finally bubble to the surface. I said something akin to: I don’t appreciate putting all of this effort into helping you, if you aren’t even going to put the effort into riding well. What happened out there? Why didn’t you enter at a lower level so you could have placed, at least?

    What I couldn’t know then, was that my daughter’s horse would have a minor injury the following season, and then my daughter would head off to college, and this particular competition would be her last event.

    The day sticks with me now as one of my worst. I’ve given much thought to what I wish I had said, instead of taking her day, her thing, and making it about me: Today must have sucked for you, honey. I’m sorry. But I do love watching you ride.

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Wow, I really appreciate you sharing this story!

      Don’t feel too bad, you have no way to know if her ending riding was because of what you said. When I quit swimming it was my own decision. I was burned out and no longer found it enjoyable.

      We, as parents, all say things we regret and every day is a new day to start over.

    • Amy A
      Amy A says:

      Thanks for sharing this vulnerable experience. Have you talked to your daughter about this?

      Yes, we parents all do things we would like to take back.

      I have asked myself what would be helpful for my own mother to do now. It would be for her to do these things:

      – take responsibility for what she did
      – ask me what I have to say about it all and ask if I have any questions for her
      – validate my experience and feelings
      – share her feelings about it (guilt or whatever)
      – forgive herself and let it go

      (I recognize this will never happen. I don’t need it to either because I have done my own healing.)

      So that’s what I do with my kids as I am raising them (but keeping it light and easy, not heavy).

      It is important to point out here that we need to also trust our children are competent. Treating them with pity isn’t helpful to anyone.

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