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Many people think of creativity as a trait one either has or doesn’t have, like having dimples in your cheeks, or having brown eyes. In truth, creativity is innate to each one of us, given as a gift by the One who created all things. And like a living thing, creativity can be stifled as well as nurtured.
In a popular TED talk, British educational advisor Sir Ken Robinson provocatively asked “do schools kill creativity?” Schools, he argued often enshrine right answers as preferable to divergent thinking, and many schools reinforce the idea (usually indirectly) that a mistake is just about the worst thing a person could do. Yet creativity “is as important in education as literacy,” he says, “and we should treat it with the same status.”
But how? What can parents do to nurture their children’s God-given capacities for creativity?
Realize creativity might not always look the way you expect it to look.
Many of us immediately think of paints and canvases--or perhaps of musical instruments or poetry--when we think of “creativity.” But creativity encompasses more than just the arts. In its essence, creativity is the ability to make something new--to put words or ideas or foods or colors or Lego bricks together so as to create something that didn’t previously exist in anyone’s mind but your own: a poem, a scientific theory, a new kind of dessert, a painting, a toy spaceship. Scientific advances and technological innovations require creativity every bit as much as painting murals or playing violin concertos do. So if your child shows no interest in arts and crafts, don’t write him off as “not creative.” He’s probably just creative in a way you didn’t expect. Which brings us to--
Give your child freedom to pursue his or her interests.
It’s important that children have some freedom to pursue what they are interested in. This doesn’t mean they should never have to engage in activities that they don’t like, of course--it simply means if your seven year old is content to build new things out of Lego for hours on end, you don’t necessarily need to interrupt him to make him do an art project, because chances are he’s already flexing his God-given creative muscles. Some parents are perplexed to find their children aren’t interested in the same sorts of things that they are, but it’s a mistake to assume that because you love music, your children will, too. It’s important to give children a wide range of experiences, but it’s equally important to allow them to become who God created them to be, instead of trying to mold them in our own image.
Offer your child a safe space that’s free from too much criticism, and too much praise
For creativity to flourish, a child needs to feel safe. She needs to know what she makes, says, or thinks will not be harshly criticized, and that she is not loved conditionally, the condition being she performs well and makes no mistakes. Essential to creative success, notes psychologist of creativity Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, is a high tolerance for making mistakes, and we develop that when we learn a mistake is not the worst thing in the world. We can instill this necessary confidence in our children first by loving them unconditionally, as God loves us, and then by communicating to them that their beings, not their doings, are what are most precious to us. A firm resolve not to criticize or mock their efforts--or to base your affection for them on their talents and gifts--can help strengthen their willingness to explore and take creative risks.
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Let them find intrinsic enjoyment in their chosen area.
One sure-fire way to squelch creativity is to weigh the creative activity down with all kinds of external motivators such as awards or money. I know an artist whose father always commented on the money his son might make from art one day, and it frustrated and bothered the son that his father seemed to be looking right past the drawings themselves toward some external reward that, in truth, wasn’t important to the artist himself. Let them find enjoyment in painting, scientific experimentation, cooking, or music for the sake of the activities themselves, apart from praises and prizes.
Make some time.
Parents should also remember that (Czikszentmihalyi again!) “constant busyness is not a good prescription for creativity.” Those of us in North America face constant pressure to get more done and to be constantly on the go. We’re tethered to our iPhones after ten hour workdays or we’re ferrying children from one after-school activity to the next, multitasking all the way. Many writers have noted children today lead highly scheduled lives; lives not exactly conducive to creativity. Creativity doesn't follow a clock, but if you identify creative development as a priority for your family, you must make time for the kind of action and reflection that it requires. You may be surprised to find a few hours engaged in a creative pursuit repay themselves later, because creative exercise--just like physical exercise--is refreshing. If your child is artistically inclined, don’t assume more lessons are better: what she may need is simply more time to play around with paints and markers, paper and canvas.
Find God in creative pursuits.
For many creative people, the joy of creating is linked to their religious faith: your child may be as likely to find God at the easel or music stand--or in the kitchen--as anywhere else. And that’s fine, because “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.
Don’t neglect your own creativity!
Finally, a parent who wants to nurture her child’s God-given creativity should not neglect her own. Maybe it’s been years since you gave your own creativity a moment’s thought, but remember: God made you creative, too. What do you itch to discover or to make? Don’t say that you “can’t,” but realize creativity enriches adult lives, too. Your creative example is probably as important as anything in nurturing your childrens’ creativity and demonstrates that you find value in your pursuits. Take your children--and yourself--to places where things are made--a pottery studio, for example--and rediscover the truth that nothing, not the shape of a pot nor the design of a chair nor the formula for shampoo are inevitable, but were dreamed up by someone, somewhere, and then coaxed into reality by hard work, confidence, and joy.
I hope you--and your children--find the tools and time you need to be creative. And I hope you--and they--feel the Creator’s pleasure as you create!
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Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Sojourners, Books & Culture, RELEVANT, and others. She also regularly contributes to Her.meneutics. Rachel lives in Malawi, Africa with her husband Tim and two little boys. You can read more from her at her blog, or follow her @rachel_m_stone.