The youngest of my baby girls, Genevieve, turns 24 on the day that this post publishes. Her big sister, Katelin, turns 29 just fifteen days later. Both of my daughters are artists, and I’m as proud as proud could be. So this post is in part a celebration of my daughters, and their creativity, which will continue to benefit them and their world in so many ways throughout their lives. It’s also a breakdown of what – at least in my experience – goes into raising creative kids.
Not every child is going to be a Picasso – nor should they be. There are many ways of contributing to community and life on this planet, and creativity is useful to any field of endeavor. In fact, Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) believes that creative minds are those most in demand in today’s world. Creativity isn’t necessarily about crafting a novel, painting, sculpture, play, poem or song. Rather, it’s about the process of starting with just an idea, and perhaps some materials, and making something original out of that, perhaps expressing something that can’t quite be expressed any other way. It’s about seeing a problem and coming up with a unique solution.
And it’s a very necessary quality in a world where all the tired old solutions cannot seem to end poverty, create enough jobs, make peace or clean up a toxic, dangerously warming, globe. We live in a world that seems to be constantly hovering on the brink of destruction, and creation is an antidote.
In my experience, here’s what it takes to raise creative kids:
1. Provide materials and food for thought.
From the time my daughters could hold a crayon, they were drawing. And most of their toys throughout their childhoods were creative materials – paints, clay, easels, musical instruments, journals, as well as CDs and books. We had collections of old magazines, pipe cleaners, fabric, buttons, foam and other forms of stuffing, egg cartons… Being a pack rat – and we are a family of pack rats – has its advantages, and the volume of materials the girls had for creating things was pretty phenomenal.
Besides providing resources in the form of materials, it’s important to provide resources in the form of ideas. Read to your children from birth, if not before. Sing. They’ll learn to love the sounds of language, then the meanings behind the language. Read fiction, non-fiction, poetry. They’ll become interested in learning to read themselves, and it will probably be easier for them to learn the skill. Teaching my daughters to read was almost like teaching them to breathe – it came that naturally to them because they’d had so much exposure to the written word. If your children have learning disabilities, it will be more difficult for them to begin reading, but if they WANT to learn, they’ll be more determined to work at it.
If you’re going to watch TV, watch documentaries. Because we watched a lot of public TV, as a preschooler Katelin had a keen interest in both volcanoes – we spent a lot of time drawing these – and the civil rights movement. The latter provided a jumping-off point to talk about the struggles of people to be treated fairly. Gena has been fascinated by frogs for as long as I can remember – probably a product of both her Dad’s interest in slimy critters, and PBS documentaries.
2. Make your own.
We’ve always kept plenty of basic food ingredients on hand, as well as a variety of cookbooks. As a small child, Gena was fascinated by PBS cooking shows and spent countless hours copying recipes from the shows – I still have her recipes, written in big, block letters because she was just learning to write. She made her first loaf of yeast bread when she was seven – all on her own from a cookbook, because she’d woken up long before I did and had no idea that yeast bread was supposed to be difficult to make. She shaped her loaves into teddy bears, glazed them, then woke her sister to turn on the oven and put the bread in since she wasn’t allowed to use it herself. She tied ribbons around the necks of the freshly baked bears, and they were such a success that she made more to give away as Christmas gifts that year.
Both of the girls learned to pinch-hit when certain ingredients were missing (or unappetizing, or involved meat – we’re vegetarian), and became accomplished and inventive cooks. And they are now in charge of making Thanksgiving dinner
Halloween costumes in our house were ALWAYS homemade. The day after Halloween each year, Kate and Gena began planning their costumes. By the time they were in upper grade school, they were crafting their own costumes, and by high school, sewing them.
If your kids make gifts for people, they will be thrilled by the praise and appreciation they receive, encouraging their creativity. Sitting on our couch right now is a little pillow that Kate made my Uncle Jep for Christmas ten years ago, fabric-painted with an intricate Celtic knot. It rested on his bed until the day he died last fall.
Katelin, together with her Dad, created a special gift for Gena’s birth – they wrote and recorded a song together for the new baby, and performed it for Kate’s pre-school class. Remembering that still makes my eyes tear up.
3. Cultivate Curiosity
What do you talk about at the dinner table? Try asking open-ended questions that will stimulate your kids’ curiosity. If earthquakes are in the news, talk about what causes earthquakes. If you don’t know, encourage your family to make guesses, then go to the encyclopedia (or Google) and look it up.
I have a fond memory of a day when Kate was eight and interested in owls – she was going to a school the next year that had an owl as mascot. She began asking me questions that I couldn’t answer. Gena was three, and began crawling under the piano – which happened to be where we’d stored our new set of encyclopedias, because we didn’t have shelf space yet. Gena pulled out an encyclopedia and brought it to her sister – already aware that THIS was a place to go for answers.
We took the girls to earth day celebrations, and talked about environmental issues. Gena’s kindergarten graduation project was a book she wrote on “Saving Mother Earth.”
Teach your kids what you are learning. When Kate was a preschooler, I used simple language to describe the topics I was researching and writing about for college courses, so she learned about revolutionary struggles in Central America and elsewhere. Larry took a class in finite math, and taught six-year old Kate some of the simpler concepts he was learning. In sixth grade, she interviewed one of my professor-mentors for a paper she wrote on the Danish justice system, because I’d told my kids about his research.
4. Tolerate clutter and disorder.
If you’re gonna have lots of stuff around, you’re gonna have clutter. And it’s hard to keep all of that stuff organized, so expect disorder. I remember one of Kate’s teachers saying that she thought that Kate must have a very interesting home, because most creative kids, she’d read, live in cluttered environments. “Oh god,” I thought, “you have no idea.” Well – our family of pack-rats kind of went to extremes.
But I do think that the sight of these pipe cleaners and that FIMO dough, against a background of this magazine and the memory of that story can lead to inventiveness. And you don’t get those kinds of juxtapositions if everything is picked up and put away all the time. That’s my excuse, anyhow.
5. Expose them to what creative people have accomplished.
Once again, books, and music, plays and museums… And don’t forget that Thomas Edison and Madame Curie were very creative individuals – biographies and museums can provide your kids with an understanding of all the different ways there are to be creative.
6. Allow them plenty of down time.
I’ve read that a preponderance of well-known creative people were sickly and spent a lot of time in bed, or even hospitalized, as children. This doesn’t surprise me. The correlation may be partially due to the fact that suffering tends to sensitize people to the feelings of others and to the human condition, which feeds into the works they create. But I also believe that having plenty of downtime is very important to creativity. I worry as I see children scurry from piano lesson to soccer game to ballet class to supper and homework and bed, that they are not being given the time to think, dream, put together ideas and the “stuff” of creation.
The greatest gift my 5th grade teachers gave me was the opportunity to spend the whole school day writing a story when I was “in the zone,” (see my guest post on Mel’s Madness, In the Zone: One Child’s Day of Enchantment). From that day forward, I was clued in to the idea that writing was to be my path, though it took me many years to convince myself that I could make a career of this.
When I saw my daughters “in the zone,” whether painting or writing or practicing a play – I knew that was the time to just let them be. They were rarely involved in more than one “extra-curricular” activity at a time – theater OR art class OR self-defense…but not all three at once. And I’m convinced that this gave them more time to dream and invent.
One of my favorite memories of Gena is from a camping trip. She was about 6 years old, and befriended a group of girl scouts camped nearby, who were a few years older. When we called for her to come to bed, the girl scouts begged us to let her stay up a little longer – because she was telling them stories, they were enthralled, and they didn’t want the stories to end. She was creating stories and “in the zone” ….so we let her stay up for another half hour. She wound up becoming pen pals with one of those girl scouts.
7. Provide – and be – role models.
From the time Katelin was born, Larry has played in bands that have often rehearsed at our home. Some of his band mates became very close to our daughters. One of Kate’s earliest influences, Clare, was an actress as well as singer – it’s no surprise that this rubbed off on Kate! Dear friend Karen is a singer, quilter, artist and former actress, who helped Gena make a fairy purse one year, served as “back-up Mom” after Gena began college near her home in North Carolina, and gave Gena one of her beautiful quilts as a graduation gift.
One of Larry’s former band-mates from “Just Us”, Hal (who was also one of my professors and mentors), played the part of the cowardly lion in a Wizard of Oz song the band performed, and the girls loved it – so the band played for the girls’ birthday party, and Hal charmed the crowd with his cowardly lion act.
Larry’s also done various types of work in the visual arts over the years. I sewed costumes, made Christmas gifts and wrote poetry, sometimes taking the girls along when my writers’ group met. And we all read, read, read.
When Kate was 18, she directed a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream for our local civic theatre – which she envisioned as a 1980′s musical with stars of the period singing lines from Shakespeare. Larry set the lines to music and played keyboards for the play; Gena made wings for the teenage girls who will forever be known as the “little fairies,” as well as playing a little fairy herself; and when the cast met at our house to build sets, I did my part by cooking for the crowd. The play was a huge hit, drawing a record crowd that stayed throughout each of the performances. It was a great family project, and some life-long friendships grew out of it.
8. Limit TV and video games.
Our TV blew up when the girls were about 6 and 11. We couldn’t afford a new one right away. And that’s one of the best things that could have happened. There was some grumbling for a while but by the time we COULD afford a new TV, the habit of watching had been broken, so we opted to not get cable (where we live, only PBS was viewable without cable). The kids focused on reading, artwork, knitting, origami, writing, theatre, music… And believe it or not, years later they thanked us for limiting their TV exposure.
Because I’m a pacifist and most video games tend toward violence, I had a strict rule against video games in the house when the girls were young. Later, we installed Oregon Trail and a few other less violent games on the computer – but we never had Nintendo or any other “gaming system.” At one point Gena and Larry got drawn into a game and developed a brief addiction – but recognized this and quit while they were ahead.
In a previous post I described a young man who was fascinated by Disney and the muppets, and went on to become the puppeteer behind Sesame Street’s Elmo. And certainly some children who love video games will go on to become brilliant programmers. But there’s a difference between fascination with MAKING games, or using them as an occasional outlet, and an outright addiction to playing them. And addictions can eat up time and energy necessary for creativity in the same way that TV can.
9. Let them follow THEIR passions, within their own time-frame.
When my husband was a child, he would NOT succumb to his mother’s efforts to teach him piano. But one summer during his early teens, when a move from one house to another was in progress, he lived with friends. They had a piano, he loved The Doors, and spent the summer teaching himself to play Light My Fire, ad nauseum. He has a gift for learning songs by ear, and since his teenage years, has been a well-respected keyboard player for many bands.
Passion can’t be forced. If your child balks at lessons now, they might show an interest in later years (Gena wasn’t interested in violin lessons as a child, but since becoming enthralled with contra dancing five years ago, has taken up fiddle). Or they will find their passion in another creative pursuit. Let them point the way.
10. Connect them with other creative kids.
My musician friend Carrie and I exchanged child care days when our girls were young; more of my favorite memories involve watching our three girls create paper beads by rolling up segments of old magazines, clay beads from FIMO, dollhouse furniture from our pack-rat compendium of scraps. And I’m sure that Emmy will never forget watching Gena sit in her spaghetti.
Being a creative kid can be lonely. Not because other kids aren’t creative, but they often don’t know what they have inside them, so don’t pursue it. That will make your child “different.” Find clubs and classes for kids who share the same passions – or create them. If your children are toddlers, form play groups with other parents who want their children to grow up with that ability to add one and one and come up with a land of enchantment.
Some recommended reading: besides Daniel Pink’s book, you might also want to check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.
The photos above are all works of art by my daughters – first, part of Gena’s senior sculpture installation – those are ceramic “paper cranes,” folks, arranged in the shape of a dark mushroom cloud, with a white center signifying the need to find peace in the center of despair; one of Kate’s intricately woven Thanksgiving apple pies; a recent painting by Kate; one of Gena’s handmade “teeny” journals; another of Katelin’s paintings; and Genevieve jamming with Larry, Karen, and other friends.
Kate, Gena and friends, you might have memories and tips that I haven’t included - feel free to add them in the comment section here. And anyone else who has raised a creative child or been raised AS a creative child – please add your suggestions!
And happy, happy birthday month to my sweet, loving, brilliant, talented and absolutely perfect Gemini daughters!