When I was younger, I realized I had no interest in anything that wasn’t creative, and this could be a significant handicap. So if I wanted to learn how to do something, I would assign myself a task. For example, instead of using tutorials and classes to learn about graphic design software, I just started working for my brother and learned on the job.
Once I had kids, I noticed that they behaved similarly. They didn’t want to learn about anything—they wanted to dip their hands in and do things. Just like me, they tend to back into tasks. While other kids learned phonics, my kids refused to sound out words until one day they could read…pretty much anything. When my daughter was homeschooling, it was a duel to the death if I tried to teach her something. But then she’d come up with an idea for a project or a game, and teach herself more than I ever could have in the same amount of time.
I’m not going to take a stand on nature vs. nurture here (and tend to agree with those who say that it’s not a valid classification of how people learn, anyway). But researchers are finding that when they watch people’s brains work, they see marked differences between people who do “creative” work and people whose work is purely technical or organizational. All of these people may have similar brainpower, but use their brains differently.
One researcher, Nancy Andreasen, studied creative writers and is now doing a wider study of people who are high achievers in creative fields (not only the arts but also science and math).
“For years, I had been asking myself what might be special or unique about the brains of the workshop writers I had studied,” she writes in ‘Secrets of the Creative Brain.’ “In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see.”
When I got to this text I stopped and immediately highlighted it. It encapsulates both the joys and frustrations of parenting highly creative children. You parents know who you are: other kids use toy cars to play, well, toy cars. Your kids put their toy cars in a pot and cooked them into “drive soup” on their toy stove. Other kids largely accept that we never go up the slide backwards; your kids asked why and then argued a thousand reasons why the rule was wrong and unfair. Other kids make messes; “mess” is a state of being for your kid.
Last year I went to a talk about how to nurture creativity in children, but the question that pertained to my parenting life was quite the opposite: Is it OK if sometimes I really really want to stop the unbridled creativity that is driving me nuts? Can’t a child just set the darn table without building a case worthy of the Supreme Court for why it’s actually not her job?
The answer I came to is something like “yes” and also like “no.” Every time we nurture that independence of thought and randomness of connection that our young children show, we are supporting brains that will one day be able to apply novel approaches to artistic, engineering, and scientific endeavors. On the other hand, one of the jobs of parents is to help our kids become functional adults. Isn’t it part of good parenting to help a child learn where his “off” switch is? Our kids’ future coworkers and spouses will thank us.
Finding the balance between nurturing that little creative mind and shutting off the seemingly nonstop onslaught of free association is something I’ve always struggled with. My own creative brain definitely needs quiet and contemplation, something I had in excess before I had children. Now, sometimes I admit that I just have to say “please. stop. talking. please. stop. now!” to one or other of my kids. At the same time that I know I’m squashing their brains’ healthy bursts of association and originality, I also know that I need to stay sane.
I guess like every issue we face as parents, there’s no single right answer. I hope that I keep the balance tipped toward the nurturing of creativity, but I also know that sometimes the appropriate answer to a whiny “whyyyyyyyyyyyy do IIIIIII have to set the table?” is simply, “Because I said so.”