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Preparing Teens for the 21st Century Work Place: Creativity

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Your kids will be growing to adulthood in a century where the complexity of technology and the pace of change is unlike anything humans have ever experienced.  This is one in a series of columns devoted to identifying core competencies that will help your kid be successful in this 21st century workplace.  This column is devoted to elaborating the ways parents can foster the development of one of these skills-creativity.

With the astounding possibilities presented by technology along with the universal access to information and ideas, the days of just reproducing the same product, idea, priorities, prejudices or business practices are quickly disappearing.  Your kid’s ability to use creativity and imagination to generate fresh ideas or fresh approaches to established ideas will make them an important resource for 21st century companies.

So, how do you make your kid be creative?  You can’t; make them, that is.  Creativity and imagination have to be drawn out, coaxed and then nurtured.  This particular skill is remarkably fragile.  The slightest criticism or correction can snuff it out.  Here are some ideas for developing and nurturing that creative spark.  (Get ready, fire metaphors will be flaring up all over the place.)

Fireside chats.  As always, characteristics that you value should be a regular topic of conversation.  Talk about the importance of creativity, curiosity and imagination. Point out instances of creativity that you come across in everyday life.  Tell stories of creative things family members have done.  Talk about historical figures who were known for their curiosity and imagination.  Share your own brushes with the muse.  Use words like creative, innovative, unusual, unique, unexpected, original, surprising, imaginative, inspired, and inventive.

Where there’s smoke.  Creativity is making use of something in a new way or other than as it was originally intended.  It will be important to recognize the creative instinct in your kid.  Catch them being creative, curious or interested.  Always comment on or ask about any creative or imaginative aspect of things your kid has produced.  Don’t expect it to be obvious.  It will more likely show up as an unusual take on a situation (“Now that’s an unusual idea.”) or something random when they are bored (“Hmm.  What ya got there?”).  Even undesirable uses of creativity can be twisted to your purposes.  “Now, if we could just get you to focus the same creativity it took to make that homemade bong on something that doesn’t get you arrested, we’ll be making progress!”  (Though, hopefully you won’t have to dig this deep to find it.)

Keepers of the flame.  Creativity is only limited by one’s imagination.  It is everywhere in every area of life.  Make time to take your kid to see creative people at work.   Use the media-TV, internet, movies (something good should come from being wired 24/7).  Help them see the range of creative enterprises: literature, every kind of art, architecture, science, innovative business ventures, political ideologies (of all stripes), engineering solutions, societal organization, intellectual concepts, educational practices, ideas for social change, entertainment (movies, theater, etc.) and, of course, music.  Every domain of life or aspect of thought has been touched by curiosity, creativity and imagination.  Your kid needs to know about these people.

Dry underbrush.  Being creative is easier when you are surrounded by creative people or people who appreciate creativity.  Look for a creative community your kid can spend time in.  Get your kid involved in activities that are explicitly intended to develop curiosity, creativity and imagination.  There are some organized ways (e.g., Destination Imagination programs in school) and ones you will have to locate (e.g., craft guilds, people with like-minded interests).  It might even be possible to find someone who is good at generating that spark in a kid; a kind of creativity mentor.

Searching for fuel.  Ask questions.  Have your kid come up with interesting (and, better, wild) solutions to problems.  Remember, these are not problem solving exercises; they are exercises in thinking outside of the box.  Have them generate crazy “What if” alternatives to reality (e.g., what if the sky were green, if cars could fly).  “What would you do if you couldn’t ________?”  Try to think of situations that can be used to challenge your kid’s creativity in substituting off the wall ideas for regular situations.  You want them looking at things from a different vantage point or perspective.

Gather some tinder.  Creativity and curiosity need opportunity and open mindedness to develop.  Too little time and too much pressure (or judgment) will snuff it out.  Surround your kid with encouragement and the opportunity for creative activities.   A good model for the right kind of environment to foster creativity is that of children’s unstructured play.

Tinder box.  Have things on hand that might spark creativity or generate curiosity.  Find things that your kid can take apart (e.g., old computers, equipment, appliances, etc.).  Find games that require creativity.  Explore different environments that contain piles of everyday objects (e.g., garage sales, the attic, forests, river bank, junk yard, Good Will).  Try to have things they can mess up or break without cost.

Creating a spark.  All the opportunity in the world won’t help if your kid isn’t interested.  YOU may have to become more creative.  Have them help you in some creative enterprise.  Is there something you can design together (without a pre-developed plan)?  Require them to be creative in some assigned task (e.g., mow the lawn in a different pattern each week).  Give your kid an assignment to fail at something but in a completely unique (or funny) way.  Have them guess about how to do something that needs doing; then do it that way even if you know it won’t work.  Be (and help them be) spontaneous.  And don’t forget about humor as a source of inspiration.  It often turns concepts and ideas on their heads (which is what makes it funny).

Lightning strikes.  Sometimes creativity appears unexpectedly.  This will be particularly true if you have been trying foster creativity in your kid.  It can just come together sometimes.  If an opportunity presents itself, run with it.  Consider changing some priorities so your kid can pursue an unexpected but legitimate creative enterprise.  Throw some resources at it.  That sudden flash, bang and the fire it sparks can be just the experience to develop your kid’s creative side.

Kindling.  Once an initial creative instinct has initially been awakened, your kid will need a lot of encouragement and support.  Self-criticism (and, for teenagers, perceived judgment by others) is deadly to creativity.  No matter where your kid’s creativity has arisen, keep it going.  Don’t worry about correcting or guiding toward some outcome.  The point is to be creative.  They will then be able to transfer these skills to other, more practical, enterprises later.  Learning to be creative is difficult enough to encourage.  You usually can’t afford to pick and choose where to support it.  (Again, this excludes criminal behavior and creative activities like movie watching and video games).

Fan the flame.  Be your kid’s cheerleader.  Model how to be enthusiastic by being excited about creative possibilities (without going over the top or making it your project).  Label your kid “creative” when they come up with something unique and unusual.  Questions can hide a statement:  “How did you come up with THAT idea?” said with an admiring tone.  (Trans: That is a creative idea.)  It will not only help them develop a knack for self-encouragement but also improve your relationship.

Keep the fire stoked.  One instance of creativity isn’t sufficient for most kids to get the hang of it.  Find ways to support your kid’s creative enterprises across time.  Do what you can to make necessary resources available.  If they run into a problem that interrupts the flow, the whole process can fizzle.  Try to anticipate what they may need to keep the project going.

Carry the torch.  Show curiosity about things around you.  Start (or continue) to do creative projects your kid can see.  Talk about creative things you are doing.  Take them on the creative journey with you.

Wildfire.  There should be times when you allow your kid to set everything else aside to follow through with a creative endeavor.  Being consumed by the inspiration is a wonderful experience.  (It also incorporates other 21st century skills like persistence, problem solving, patience and project management.)  They can make up for lost time in other areas after they have followed their creation through to the end.  On the other hand . . .

Fire breaks.  It is important to realize that you can’t be creative about everything, all the time.  There are other important life domains that also need tending to.  Be sure to help your kid keep a balance between creative activities and other important (though often decidedly less compelling) life tasks.  Like homework, for example.

Note:  You may have noticed that this discussion of creativity and imagination has not focused much on the area most associated with creativity: fine arts like painting, sculpting, drawing.  These are wonderful conduits of creativity.  However, the concept of creativity discussed in this article is meant to address the range of creative enterprises, activities and ideas that exist beyond just the artistic.

This creativity skill may be the hardest one for you to foster in your kid.  There is some suggestion that people who are really creative are born with it.  While your kid might not be born to be Shakespeare or Michelangelo, everyone is capable of being creative in small and potentially meaningful ways.  It is one of the ways you can put your own stamp on a product or idea.  That can be more than enough to make a difference.

(A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech is an interesting book on fostering your creative side.  While it is not written for kids, it can give you some ways to think about creativity that you might translate into interactions with your kid.)