Recently, Forbes touted creativity as the skill of the future, which isn’t surprising.
Since knowledge is now widely available, flexible, forward-thinking, innovative minds are becoming the next hot thing. And that makes so much sense. After all, what good is information if you don’t know how to use it?
As our kids grow, we want them to be the kinds of thinkers who can dissect information and decide what is worth paying attention to. We want them to have enough resilience to tackle a problem again and again until they find a great solution. We want them to be able to express themselves, find fulfillment in their work and lives, and generally, be outstanding members of society.
The good news is that basically everything we want for our kids has a foundation in one skill: creativity. As CNN notes, “divergent thinking is key to problem-solving and is the backbone of creativity–understanding what is, and then imagining the possibilities of what could be.” Unfortunately, it’s also the one skill that is consistently being pushed out of our schools and our parenting–creativity scores have decreased significantly since 1990, especially in young children.
But, as parents, we have the power to change that. Here’s how to raise creative thinkers.
As our kids grow, we want them to be the kinds of thinkers who can dissect information and decide what is worth paying attention to… We want them to be able to express themselves, find fulfillment in their work and lives, and generally, be outstanding members of society. Easy-peasy, right?
1. Step back
This is the hardest for me and for most parents. We are so prone to intervening and entertaining. But for kids to develop creativity and critical thinking skills, we need to let them be.
When kids are left to discover and play independently, they learn how to solve problems and create possibilities. This builds self-reliance and the ability to focus. When they fail at a task–say, a block tower keeps falling—without someone else reaching in, kids have the opportunity to learn how to manage emotions and persevere through a task.
Even when we play with our kids, we should resist taking the lead. Offering an open-ended “What should we build?” or putting a bunch of materials in front of a younger baby without instruction gives them the chance to control the narrative and develop their own way of thinking.
2. Remember simple toys develop complex thinking
There’s a lot of marketing out there that promotes toys that are sure to make your kids smarter.
To help parents sort this out, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently put out a new report: Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era. As it turns out, in the world of toys–the simpler, the better.
Simple toys offer kids the space they need to develop language, problem-solving, and creativity. When toys come with too many instructions and directives, kids are left with little growth opportunity; they just do as they’re told. There’s a whole message of “Here’s the right way to do this,” and that hinders creativity.
This comes in effect with great toys, like Legos, as well. Playing with just a bin full of bricks yields a much different outcome than following the instructions that come with the ready-to-build kits that are more popular these days. Of course, this doesn’t mean kits and other toys that offer directives are bad. It just means that, as parents, we have to create ample room for free, open-ended play as well.
3. Let them be bored
In our current parenting culture, there’s a huge emphasis on extracurricular activities as a way to promote development. And group classes–like music, sports, and art–do offer great benefits. They let kids socialize which develops skills like cooperation and conflict resolution. They also work on skills like motor development and coordination, patience, and discipline.
Where we get it wrong, though, is when we try to overdo activities and swoop in constantly to entertain our kids. Boredom encourages deep thought, a state in which the mind wanders and allows you to look at things in new ways. It also allows for increased focus and connection to a particular subject.
Boredom encourages deep thought, a state in which the mind wanders and allows you to look at things in new ways. It also allows for increased focus and connection to a particular subject.
I’m not going to lie, when I’m outside with my kids and they’re poking around the bottom of a tree for 30 minutes, I find it incredibly dull. But that’s because as adults, we’ve been conditioned to link productivity with a “successful outcome.” In reality, the more time kids engage free-form activities, the better their future executive functioning, according to research done by Frontiers in Psychology. Executive functioning accounts for mental skills such as memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. Without strong executive function, kids and adults often have an inability to focus, control emotions, and understand different points of view.
4. Emphasize values over rules
Creativity might seem hard to nurture, but it’s very easy to hinder. Implementing a lot of rules is one way that greatly limits a child’s ability to think for themselves. Of course, all children need guidance and boundaries. That’s a big way they learn. Boundaries also provide a sense of security and predictability, which is very important for young children.
But putting an emphasis on values over a strict rule can help kids develop a sense of autonomy and confidence instead of feeling stifled. When kids grow up in this kind of environment, they feel more comfortable going against the grain because they have experience in taking ownership of their values.
Creativity is supported by environments that provide resources and respect for individual passions. Parents can help kids develop creatively by allowing them to make decisions for themselves and contribute their ideas to the family. If there’s an issue in the house, allowing space for all family members to brainstorm, discuss together, and work through a compromise or solution. This process ensures all voices are heard and valued. For younger kids, having ownership over small decisions, like choosing their own clothes or having a say in the family’s weekly menu, can go a long way in understanding how family systems work and how to respect people through disagreements.
Creativity is supported by environments that provide resources and respect for individual passions. Parents can help kids develop creatively by allowing them to make decisions for themselves and contribute their ideas to the family… This process ensures all voices are heard and valued.
5. Accept arguments
Because true creativity requires persistence, resilience, and a willingness to face criticism, the best way to build those mental muscles is to exercise them.
Wharton professor and thought leader Adam Grant writes in his book Original Thinkers, “If we rarely see a spat, we learn to shy away from the threat of conflict. Witnessing arguments—and participating in them—helps us grow a thicker skin. We develop the will to fight uphill battles and the skill to win those battles, and the resilience to lose a battle today without losing our resolve tomorrow.”
Most parents hide their conflicts and resist arguing with their children. But when kids witness (healthy) disagreements between parents, they learn that there’s no one right way. They learn about ambiguity and independent judgment.
“Disagreement is the antidote to groupthink,” Grant says. “We’re at our most imaginative when we’re out of sync. There’s no better time than childhood to learn how to dish it out—and to take it,” he adds.
Healthy disagreement allows for perspective growth and gives us insight into how others think. Without that tension, there’s no real need to create.
6. Allow and encourage mistakes
Having an environment where kids feel safe to fail is vital to growth. You can’t learn without making mistakes. If children feel unsupported in making mistakes, they might become hesitant to try new things.
Children who are encouraged to try new ideas, make mistakes, and adjust their thinking learn how to problem-solve and build resilience. They also feel comfortable and confident with the trial and error process instead of being embarrassed that they’re not doing something “right.” Making mistakes and then being able to gather themselves after also extends their comfort zones and reinforces the courage to try something new.
It teaches them about the learning process, and also about themselves—they learn that nothing and no one is perfect, and the point is trying anyway.