Funny how inspiration can come from where I least expect it and I’m off on a tear to tell another story. This time it was the blog of a friend of mine who is the Head of School of a small, independent school for gifted, creative, and talented children. It was about creativity and conformity. I started looking for some research on the subject, but found nothing that I hadn’t already read and that was already 20, 30, or even 50 years old! One article mentioned that a particular “study” would have been more effective if the children had been tested for creativity first…so much for the scientific method or the proper use of statistics! But, popular wisdom does hold, and some research supports, that children lose creativity as they get older. Now, why that is would have to be the subject of a properly conducted test…but some believe that it’s due to the conforming nature of the school environment.
Well, I’m not here to conduct such an experiment, but only to add to the empirical data by sharing my experience with raising three very creative children and how well or poorly they conformed to school norms. As parents, my husband and I struggled in some situations and knew what to do in others, to support our children’s creativity. I must admit, though, that it’s often a craps shoot and you just pray you get some of it right!
My son is an incredibly creative thinker, but that is most often hidden by the fact that he is a very critical thinker. I can’t tell you the number of debates, I mean discussions, we’ve had where I’ve just given up because I simply can’t keep up with him. When he was younger, he’d come up with these incredible schemes and, not wanting to dampen his enthusiasm but also wanting him to be somewhat grounded in reality, I tended to respond that he ought to take a physics course, economics course, statistics course, etc. depending on the issue at hand. Eventually he did. He still has lots of crazy ideas, but maybe not so crazy anymore. But there’s more to conformity than learning how much more there is to learn.
My son never was much for homework. Now, this was a conformity that my husband and I, not to mention his teachers, advisors, counselors, and principals, insisted upon. It didn’t help. We tried carrots…ok, I don’t think we actually did that. We tried sticks…Game Boy will be banished for a week! I learned a lot about my son over the Game Boy banishing…this really, really bothered him, but he acted as if it didn’t…that’s how determined he was not to conform to society’s expectations (much less those of his parents). We tried therapy…this worked somewhat. We learned to be the opposite of the helicopter parent (not that we were ever in danger of that) by insisting he sit at the dining room table with his homework in front of him and nothing else to do. One day he had a box of cereal on the table and he was doing the math problems on the box that were above his level while ignoring the math homework in front of him. Sigh. This was consistent with feedback from his homeroom teacher that he always did the math challenge of the week, and he always got it right even if it was something he’d never learned formally. But he wouldn’t do his homework for her.
In high school, he aced every test he ever took, but he had mediocre grades because…he didn’t do his homework. I was constantly frustrated by this, but I think I do “get” it. There is a supreme logic in not doing what doesn’t need to be done. Why do homework when you already know the material inside and out? The final repercussion was not getting into the elite colleges to which he applied.
My older daughter has an artistic streak in her a mile wide. It has been our job to help her get to the mile-deep stage. For my husband, a creative guy himself, this has been accomplished by sharing his love of play and art with her. Of teaching her that solitary play can be very imaginative play especially when there are no formal toys involved…toilet paper tubes, tape, scissors, paper and crayons are much more fun, don’t you think? My method has been more pragmatic. I’ve made sure that she has had enrichment programs to nurture her love of art. She’s had automotive design, architecture, graphic design, ceramics, and photography classes. I made sure that she went to a high school with a strong visual arts program and been supportive of her choice to take 8 semesters of art in high school.
This same artistic soul is also an empathetic soul. She has conformed to all social norms, including (yeah!) doing her homework. She’s a compliant student, for the most part (she has been known to get the giggles in class when too wrapped up in the social scene than the classroom scene, but she outgrew that in middle school). She is the most compliant of my children when it comes to social situations. I think this is partly due to being a girl, girls are socialized much harder than boys to “fit in”, and yet, I think that girls are also more naturally inclined to try to fit in and make peace than boys.
And then there is my younger daughter. Conformity is not in her DNA. She’s the only extrovert amongst my children. I had her in a parochial school through 3rd grade and she had more than her fair share of clashes with teachers. It wasn’t that she misbehaved; it’s that she was too eager to answer all the questions and she did have something to contribute to every conversation. I learned this from the teachers that enjoyed her enthusiasm. From the others, I heard it all cast in a negative way. Moving her to a Montessori school has made all the difference in the world. There the teachers let the students guide each other through normal social interactions to learn what is “okay” and what’s not. She has learned when to curb her enthusiasm and when to take the lead. She has had to learn how to conform socially, but in a real world way and not in a top-down, hierarchical, because-I-say-so way.
So, what does this all mean? Well, for one, every child is different and treating them all the same disadvantages the most creative children. It also means that both the school environment and the family environment play huge roles in fostering creativity rather than letting it be squashed by a need for conformity. Some children will never fully conform. Their road is a hard one and many don’t make it through. For the children who conform readily, it can mean losing some or all of their creativity, but it doesn’t have to.
Find the Joy in the Journey and revel in the creativity of children…for there is fostered the great innovations of the future.