A more creative approach to raising kids



When Ellen Handler Spitz was 8 years old, her mother arranged for her visually attuned daughter to spend each Saturday in the studio of a local female sculptor. Though the child had access to modeling clay and tools, the sculptor left her alone. Side by side, each worked on her own projects.

"I was allowed and even, as I realize now, expected to become completely absorbed in my work," Spitz writes in her new book, The Brightening Glance. When her mother arrived to pick her up at the end of each session, "her sudden appearance felt like an electric shock ... which I experienced rather like awakening from a daydream, when you cannot believe time has actually elapsed."

Spitz traces the development of her aesthetic imagination to those months. As she recalls those sessions more than half a century later, she still feels immense gratitude, both to the sculptor who shared her space and to the mother who arranged the tutorials.

Her book in part is an attempt to repay her debt to both women, as well as to other mentors. She wants to help parents and educators encourage children to think creatively - and by so doing save the planet.

In her view, an arts education strengthens the imaginative capacities so crucial to any significant creative achievement, from the computer to the polio vaccine to the Mona Lisa.

"Thinking creatively matters because we need to be able to imagine a future that's better than the present," Spitz says while sitting with one leg tucked beneath her on a maroon leather chair in her office at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she is a visual arts professor. "To do that, we have to get beyond the `is' to the `ought.'"

Spitz is a case in point. Not only has she painted all her life, she spent two years as a modern dancer in the 1970s for a small troupe based in New York. A voracious reader for as long as she can remember, she quotes the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal as easily as Hans Christian Andersen.

Eventually, though, Spitz realized she could make her most profound contribution in the field of children's aesthetic development.

Perhaps that's because she retains such strong memories of her childhood growing up in New York, from the green and yellow floral wallpaper decorating her bedroom to the rapt hours she spent wedged next to the toilet in a basement bathroom of her home, reading while playing hooky from school.

A small, slender woman in her 60s, Spitz nonetheless retains a faintly childlike aura, from her dark, straight hair and enormous hazel eyes to her voice, which is small, sweet and slightly breathy.

She earned a bachelor's degree from Barnard College in art history and a master's degree from Harvard University in arts education before returning to school to study the philosophy of the social sciences. Spitz picked up a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1983. The Brightening Glance, which was published Feb. 22, is her fifth book.

"There are so many books out there that treat parenting as though it were a series of problems to be solved," she said. "I wanted to get away from that and remind people that childhood is a time to celebrate."

Although Spitz doesn't provide a set of blueprints in The Brightening Glance - any instruction manual could derail the creative thinking she wants to encourage - the book tackles a number of practical problems, such as decorating a child's bedroom, throwing birthday parties and handling a child's loudly whispered questions during a live stage performance. The book intersperses passages about developmental theory with anecdotes from the lives of real children, and addresses issues pertaining to every age, from toddlers through teens.

For instance, Spitz encourages parents to tolerate a certain amount of mess in their offsprings' bedrooms. With tongue only slightly in cheek, she proposes an "aesthetics of mess."

Children adore clutter, she writes, "and it seems important to allow them to experience it from time to time, especially in the sanctity of their own private spaces. ... It occurs to me that when children are not permitted to mess up their rooms - when they are forbidden to make their necessary clutter externally - those necessary messes may remain imprisoned internally, within their psyches, where they can prove, in future years, far more difficult to clean up."

She also grapples with one of the toughest issues facing adults in today's increasingly dangerous world: how to explain terrifying and traumatic events to young children. For her purposes, Spitz does not distinguish between potentially disturbing works of art - such as the Walt Disney film Bambi, in which the fawn's mother dies - and such real-life occurrences as the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

She says it's important for parents to assess not only their child's comfort level but also their own.

"Some parents have a very low threshold for violence," she says.

"When a parent feels anxious, the child will catch it very quickly. For a child, the most important element is the presence of a loving adult. We've learned from all the studies about children and war that you can deprive kids of food, you can deprive them of shelter, you can deprive them of practically anything, and they'll be OK. But when you take away the parental figure, chaos occurs."

More than anything, Spitz hopes The Brightening Glance will remind parents, relatives and teachers to take the time to decipher the message beneath a child's actions, to understand the wishes, needs and fears being communicated.

"This culture is such a rush culture, such a speed culture," she says. "I hope this book will help shift people's consciousness a bit, so people will slow down and tune in a little bit more to what a child is experiencing."

For Spitz, the arts really are child's play.


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