Creativity, Hyper-parenting, and Children’s Museums
I am in awe of what children’s museums advocate, stand for, and accomplish through hard work and dedication to children and families. So I am honored, and humbled, to be your keynote speaker today.
As a child psychiatrist and father of three children, I’ve had a lifelong interest in helping children lead successful lives, however you define that. I have thought a great deal about how society treats children today. What is the link between hyper-parenting, mental health, and children’s museums? When you think of hyper-parenting you think about multi-tasking, over-scheduled superkids. In my opinion, that kills creativity. When you think about children’s museums, you think about educational experiences that are fun for the family. But I think about the fact that children’s museums foster creativity. And that is the link.
What is creativity? It is a fascinating human trait that shows little correlation with intelligence but which does seem to be intimately connected to imaginative play. In fact, 300 years ago Sir Isaac Newton, one of the world’s most original thinkers, said, “to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Ruscio and Amabile defined creativity as “a novel and appropriate response to an open-ended task.” Being creative means developing skills, like fingering a flute. But being creative also means taking risks. The cartoonist Scott Adams captured this: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” In science, Alexander Fleming used this principle to benefit mankind when he noticed a lab error, thought it might be important, and discovered penicillin.
Creativity is part of American history. Our innovators have been people who challenged conventional wisdom, followed their inner passions, and did the impossible. Luckily, Alexander Bell and Bill Gates had time to tinker. If they had been as over scheduled as our kids, we'd probably still be using carrier pigeons to communicate messages. Creativity will be more critical tomorrow. The world is on the threshold of an economic revolution. Around the globe, people in power recognize that innovation will drive successful economies in the 21st Century. “Creativity has recently been given official recognition as one of the overarching aims of the curriculum in English schools” (Sharp, 2001.) The Prime Minister of Singapore made fostering creativity a major national goal (Next Generation Forum.) “Innovate America,” a report issued by business and academic elite, maintains that “innovation will be the single most important factor in determining America’s success through the 21st Century.”
Research, such as Teresa Amabile’s at Harvard Business School, shows that pressure and scrutiny diminish children’s creativity. Yet at the very time our society ought to be encouraging creativity, a new cultural disease, “hyperparenting” is inducing parents to pressure and scrutinize children. Creativity applauds useful novelty; hyper-parenting rewards being exceptional at connect-the-dots, one-size-fits-all accomplishments. Hyper-parenting’s central tenet is that in “building” successful children, activities are more important than warm, nourishing family relationships. Activities can be wonderful and enriching. But today’s “over-scheduling” leaves families so fully booked that they don’t have the time to be together comfortably, exploring, discussing, learning, and having fun.
Some sobering statistics: In just the past 20 years structured sports time has doubled, unstructured children’s activities have gone down 50%, household conversations have become far less frequent, family dinners have declined 33%, and family vacations have decreased 28%. Although parents are a child’s best teachers, mothers with Masters and PhD degrees have become primarily chauffeurs, often frazzled, resentfully driving kids between activities.
Hyper-parenting is hard for devoted parents to ignore. It says, “Your job is to follow this program rigorously so your child will attend a top-notch college and win at life. Deprive your kids of over-scheduling and they will be losers whose lives are miserable, and you will have only yourself to blame.”
While childhood is supposed to be a preparation, hyper-parenting makes it a non-stop adult performance. Children are expected to follow pre-written scripts. Even parents who doubt the wisdom of over-scheduling have a hard time resisting because they fear that if they don’t fill a child’s every moment with enrichment activities, their children may not be able to hold their own in a world where you are measured by what you do, rather than who you are.
Hyper-parenting’s marketers push products like “Baby Einstein.” They sell even though no empirical evidence supports the contention that they enhance creativity. Furthermore, while adult Albert was a genius, he talked late and did poorly at school. If Einstein’s parents were alive today, poor little Albert would get a comprehensive evaluation and end up on Ritalin. He might not discover the theory of relativity but he sure would do better in fourth grade math.
No scientific evidence supports this “Raising a Tiger” childrearing method. Anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite: Leonard Bernstein started playing the piano at 10; Michael Jordan did not make his high school’s junior varsity team; and until he discovered music, George Gershwin specialized, apparently quite successfully, in being a child hoodlum.
Let’s look for a moment at a few examples of how hyper-parenting manifests itself at different times in children’s development:
Our schools and college application process often add to creativity being squelched. We know that the greatest killers of creativity are, 1) being scrutinized and evaluated, 2) being put in competitive situations, with restricted choices, and 3) external, rather than internal, motivations for success. Yet our educational system incorporates many of these. What current values actually tell kids subliminally is that they ought to be hyperactive, over-scheduled workaholics who win the game whatever the personal cost! Cooperation, generosity, and kindness seem to have little place in attaining success; no one cares whether you are a “good kid” as long as you don’t get too familiar with the police for being bad.
How does that translate into everyday life? The hyperparenting mentality has most ambitious tenth graders working on what they believe they have to do to go Ivy. Whether or not excellent colleges really want these traits or activities, conventional wisdom insists that to be a strong applicant for college, you can’t afford any mistakes, even if you learn from them. Rather, you must create – in college admissions officers’ minds -- the illusion that as a high-schooler, you are novel and creative while you are actually playing it safe and taking no real chances.
To gain admission you learn to, 1) be careful about telling teachers what you really think -- they write your college recommendations; 2) do community service to appear big-hearted (one ninth-grader told me that her aunt suggested she teach art to the deaf because it would look good on a college application;) 3) work endlessly and avoid having any “C’s” in your record, even in a subject you hate; 4) play sports at an excessive level; and most destructively, 5) avoid experimenting or trying to discover what your inner voice tells you to become even though you are a teenager and that’s when you are supposed to figure out who you are; to get into a great school, you must craft your persona into what others say you ought to be. Is it any surprise that so many American teenagers feel like frauds, and exhausted ones at that?
Perhaps this pressure accounts for why anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and substance abuse are so prevalent in adolescence.
Furthermore, man can not live by accomplishments alone. The Gluecks did a classic study of juvenile delinquency; 40 years later George Valliant interviewed these people –then in their 50’s. He found that what made these kids’ lives good – and protected some very vulnerable children from a bad life – was one good relationship. In light of that shouldn’t we emphasize rewarding relationships over activities?
Hyper-parenting also increases anxiety and guilt; some other parent is always doing more for their kid. In reality, over-scheduling makes children feel, subliminally, "I must not be very good at all or I wouldn’t need so much improvement." That can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: After all, the child resents the parents’ lack of faith and may live down to the expectation! In my experience, kids need to see and feel our faith in them. It is parents who really know who their child is, accept the child for that, are secure in themselves, and have a visceral faith that eventually, their child will find a good place in life, who maximize the odds of their child succeeding!
Of course kids need to practice and master skills, whether in basketball, math, or music. Some will be boring and repetitive. But kids need down-time too. Today’s children are so tightly scheduled that many have never invented a backyard game, created an “I hate boys” club-- as my wife tells me she did in 4th grade (thankfully, she has changed her mind) -- or had time to just hang out with friends. When not racing, our kids have no idea of what to do. But boredom is not the enemy. Anne Johnson (1999) wrote, “Creativity flourishes when children entertain themselves.” Boredom can stimulate kids to think, create, and hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write this unusual story or draw that unique picture, or invent a new game. It is diminishing free play’s importance and eliminating time to reflect that damage imagination because they do not treat as precious children’s natural joy in discovering.
Hyper-parenting is damaging in another way: In treating external accomplishments as the true measures of people, parents may abrogate a more fundamental responsibility, teaching children character.
No kid I know listens to what parents say. They watch their parents’ choices and actions. Are we modeling the kind of life we recommend? Do we treat our spouse respectfully? Do we read books? Can we hear what others say? Do we kowtow to wealth or do we value people of character and personal courage, rich and poor alike? Do we play fair? Do we respect new ideas or run, frightened, from them? Do we appreciate a good joke? After all, research shows that families of creative kids have far more humor, and fewer rules, in their homes.
Numerous investigators, including Amabile, think that some traits distinguish creative children and adults. They keep options open, suspend judgment, see themselves as different, break out of well-worn habits for doing things, and enjoy the fact that they can look at things in new ways. All these – and more -- are fostered in any given day at a children’s museum. In supporting the whole family’s ability to touch, explore, discover, and unearth -- in fostering learning through active engagement, concrete experiences, and play -- you stand for the critical idea that novelty, lifelong learning, and creativity can play significant roles in everyone’s daily life. Our schools and the rest of society should learn from your lead. If innovation is truly the key to future economic success, we should encourage factors connected to it, like children’s play, imagination, and discovery. Process should matter more than product.
Some critics argue that what schools really teach our kids is not how to be successful adults, but how to be successful children. If we were serious about organizing education to address the need for innovation and creativity, what should we think about doing differently? Should we just do away with the three “R’s?” Hardly! Many years ago, Dick Cavett interviewed the great violinist Isaac Stern. Stern played an arpeggio that made Cavett jump out of his seat in disbelief. “How did you do that?” Stern replied, “I’ve been practicing for 6 hours a day for 25 years. I have absolutely mastered my instrument. Because I am in perfect control, I can be absolutely spontaneous.”
Schools face the daunting paradox Stern identified: They must teach basic skills, because without building blocks like reading, math, and sense of discipline and order, a person will lack the structure within which to express themselves. Without lots of time learning skills, e.g. grammar, multiplication, the scales in music, they cannot truly be creative. Yet paying attention only to basic skills urges a focus on getting kids to pass standardized tests. That overlooks the fact that schools also must encourage creative problem solving, teaching children to look at alternatives, evaluate them, and decide how to carry them out successfully (Lopes).
Rather than primarily rewarding kids who do everything just right and make teachers feel smart, schools must look for out of the box thinking that challenge a teacher’s knowledge. That means developing a capacity to tolerate discomfort. As Somerset Maugham said, “The world in general doesn’t know what to make of originality; it is startled out of its comfortable habits of thought, and its first reaction is one of anger.” Teachers need to do better than that.
Isidor I. Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize, was once asked, "Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids?" He answered: "My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother would ask after school: 'Nu? Did you learn anything today?' But my mother always asked a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'Did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist."
Maybe we need to start rewarding good questions more than right answers. And rather than simply endlessly enriching kids, parents need to establish a dynamic balance between down time, letting kids just go, and providing the structure, guidance, and demands to schedule things that help them develop skills.
If creativity is to flourish, universities need to embrace not simply the kids with resumes on steroids, but also the bright, rebellious kids who challenge authority intelligently. Universities sometimes have a hard time spotting creative potential. One young man desperately wanted to make films. He applied to UCLA’s film program and was rejected. So he went to Long Beach State. Later he applied to transfer to USC’s prestigious film program. Rejected again! But he was passionate about films and tenacious. Eventually, he elbowed his way into the industry. His name, Steven Spielberg!
The Association of Children’s Museums is exceptional because rather than devaluing the true play Isaac Newton spoke of, which needs no purpose beyond the pleasure of being, it celebrates play for its important role in inspiring curiosity and creating lifelong learners for the future. Children’s museums are wonderfully entertaining places that teach skills, like anatomy, to the whole family. But they combine it with the hands-on tinkering, the touch, feel, taste, and spirit of dig and discovery has made America economically successful.
What else might we do to enhance creativity? If you have more options to pick from when you approach a problem, you have a higher likelihood of coming up with an innovative solution, as long as you are not overwhelmed by having too many. Exposing kids to novel experiences exposes them to new sights, sounds, smells, and structures they might not have had otherwise have had, expanding their inner visual, verbal, and experiential repertoire. Museums give children a chance to learn, think, and discover without fearing they will be evaluated and judged. In our nation’s capital, you give them a chance to disembark on a crowded Japanese street; here in Indianapolis, you have helped them dig for dinosaurs and let them sink their feet into the shoes of other cultures; many of you have Lego characters, habitats, games, and in Chicago, even Mr. Roger’s porch. And you do all this with the magic that unites family, play, and learning.
You create great family spaces. We need more of those. To stimulate rewarding relationships with our children – the ones we all need – parents need to be with them with no goal in mind beyond the pleasure of spending time together. On walks, shooting hoops, playing board games, visiting children’s museums, whatever! What our children really need is us. The greatest gift we can give them is the deep, inner conviction that they don’t have to perform for us to love and cherish them. “No need for clever conversation… I love you just the way you are.” I applaud Ms. Elman and you, her colleagues, who work so hard to enrich family by promoting time together as explorers and creators. You are truly our future!