Imagine this Parents keep hoping that if they can foster creativity, their children may someday achieve something extraordinary. Psychologists say it's not quite that simple.

July 12, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

When Emily Gibson was a toddler, she told her mother, "Mittens make my hands sad." A parent would say, "How cute," but a psychologist interested in human development might cite her observation as an example of a child's creativity: the ability to approach a problem (in this case having to wear mittens) in a new and unusual way.

When Emily grows up she may become a great American novelist, or she might work for a public relations firm. There's no telling.

Psychologists don't have irrefutable statistics on whether creativity in a child is a predictor of what he or she does later in life. Still, parents keep hoping that if they can foster creativity, their children may someday achieve something extraordinary.

But are certain children just naturally more creative than others? Even without parental encouragement, some kids seem to like to be different; some seem to like to do things the way everybody else does.

Dr. Leon Rosenberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Child and Adolescent Mental Health Center, feels that the nature vs. nurture question is a non-issue. "It's the responsibility of every parent to nurture whatever the individual's ability is. Relax on the issue of stifling creativity."

Most parents find that it's a balancing act. Infants rediscover and reinvent everything; life is a series of fascinating problems to be solved. Creativity is their natural state. The problem is that parents, who have already discovered how to put their shoes on, have a tendency to share this exciting discovery with their children. They want to shorten the learning time, to show the "right" way.

Of course, sometimes it is the right way.

"Little suggestions are good," says psychologist Michael Schulman, author of "The Passionate Mind: Bringing Up an Intelligent and Creative Child" (Macmillan, 1991), "rather than giving them step one-two-three and saying, 'Do it my way or I'm going to take it away from you.' "

Schulman is concerned that as children get older, parents sometimes define the creative act in narrow ways. They may insist on art or music lessons, while there are many paths creativity can take, including sports. "I'm old enough to remember when the jump shot was a new shot," he says.

After all, wise parents don't really expect their children to be the next Picasso or Edison. They want to encourage creativity so that the child - and later the adult - will be able to solve life's problems in imaginative ways.

One stumbling block is that creative problem-solving involves making mistakes. Trying new things usually does; many of them aren't going to work, and that can be frustrating.

"If you encourage a child to take risks and be creative, it means that you are willing to play for high stakes," says Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard and author of many books on the subject. "There is a fair chance that the child will be frustrated, fail, be discouraged. On the other hand, it is undeniably a high to create something that is original and appreciated. ...

"If you feel good about taking risks, and you do not care that much whether you end up being successful most of the time, then probably you are a good parent to encourage creativity in your child. You can help the child avoid too much frustration by calibrating challenges and by helping the child cope with situations where things did not work out as you and the child might have wished."

Creative people see mistakes as a learning experience. A wrong turn or a dead end can generate information about what - or what not - to try next. For kids, it helps if they aren't always put in a win/lose situation where there is incentive to perform well. The benefits of competition are balanced by the fact that only one person can win, which puts pressure on the child to come up with the "right" solution quickly. Kids may end up feeling that exploring alternate ways of doing things is a waste of time.

And speaking of time, children need it to explore and daydream. "Musing around can lead to very productive outcomes," says Schulman.

Unfortunately, open-ended time is something that's hard to come by these days. Along with the piano lessons and Little League games and Cub Scouts, parents who want to encourage creativity should give their children some downtime without any programmed activity. That may mean urging kids not to sit in a corner and read books all day, as well as turning off the TV or computer.

Along with open time, parents can help develop their children's imaginations and ability to be flexible by providing plenty of raw materials for them to fool around with - "fool around" being the operative phrase here. This means blank paper and crayons as opposed to coloring books. (Raw materials might also include a piano where children are allowed to play even if they haven't had lessons and aren't playing music.)

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