The Death of Creativity?

Psychology Today has an interesting article about the link between children’s freedom and their creativity (hint: helicopter parents and structured play ruin creativity).

I’ve been following the comments, because they’re as interesting as the article. Most people (myself included) talk about unstructured childhoods, imagination, and how that’s translated into what we do as adults.

Survival Skills

When I was growing up in the 80’s, I played outside (as did almost every other kid, in cities or in suburbia). When my husband was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, he said that he would get on his bike and ride for miles, hike in the woods, and play with other kids, and his mother didn’t know where he was some (even most) of the time. There was no such thing as staying in visual range; you were on a leash if you had to stay within audio range.

We had to come in for supper or by dark, but in the summer, I often played in the yard after dark. My mother complained not because it was dark, but because I got so many bug bites.

Neither one of us owned a helmet growing up–even though we rode bikes on rural streets. Bug spray was almost never used (even though the South has a lot of biting bugs). Sunscreen was only used when swimming or at the beach. I used to climb a pine tree at my grandmother’s, and I would get high enough in it to see over the roof of her house.

Oh, my God, how did we ever survive?

We learned to take care of ourselves.

Honeybees were much more numerous then than now, and they were a hazard of running barefoot. I learned to pay attention to where I was running–and avoid patches of clover–and when I did step on a bee, I sat down, flicked the stinger out, then went on my way. And when I wasn’t stepping on bees, I was running over gravel or pinecones or sycamore balls. I just got tough.

Today, I see so many kids–big kids–bawling over bumps that probably won’t even leave a bruise and running to their parents, who fuss over them as if they’d broken a bone. And I think to myself, “We had a name for kids like that when I was growing up: ‘crybabies.'” (“Mama’s boy” was an acceptable alternative.)

Learning to Be an Adult

Learning to be physically self-reliant is part of growing up (and something every kid and teen needs to learn). But today’s kids are going to college and are increasingly unable to pick out their own schedule or talk to their professor about a grade or absence. College professors are now frequently bombarded by parents who talk for their child.

Even in the business world, some HR managers are finding that mama or daddy are setting up junior’s interviews and are calling, incensed, when junior doesn’t get the job (would you hire an adult who can’t even handle an interview on their own? I wouldn’t).

Just imagine! my mother and stepfather helped me find an apartment when I was a sophomore in college, and my dad moved me in, but I called and set up the electricity and cable and telephones for me and my roommate. (I sat down with a phone book in a friend’s dorm room and just called the utility companies!) We kept up with our bills and paid them on time. We bought food and cooked for ourselves. And we kept the place reasonably clean.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s okay to ask your parents for advice. I still occasionally ask mine for advice and I did a lot when I was younger. Asking for help and/or information when you realize you are going into uncharted waters is smart and a good learning opportunity. But there’s a difference between asking for advice (especially in private; I would have never asked an employer to send hiring information directly to my mother!) and asking someone else to do everything for you.

The Consequences of Dependence

One college student stated that growing up with over-protective parents has made her less spontaneous and more hesitant.

Spontaneity is not always a great thing in the college set (especially when it involves drinking or sex), but it’s bad to go into the real world with no confidence. People who hesitate miss out on good job opportunities and are less likely to negotiate for better pay. And people who are timid and not able to think for themselves will miss out on management positions or self-employment or investment opportunities. They are not likely to work in sales or marketing or stocks or anything else which involves measured risk-taking (all jobs which have the potential to be very lucrative).

The other problem with hovering, over-protective parents is that they stifle creativity. When children aren’t allowed outside, that cuts their world-experience in half. Most of my imagination was exercised outside, because I didn’t have much in the way of outdoor toys; I made up uses for sticks and leaves and plants. My playhouse was under a bush or tree.,_Havana,_Cuba,_1999.jpgDo you know what we didn’t have in the 80’s? Play dates. I have always found that concept laughable, because it sounds so yuppie. Whenever there were kids close enough to play with, we met up and played. My mother did insist that we play in our yard (which was really large and nice), but other than that, she didn’t bother us (again, she wasn’t in visual range, except to check we were still there from time to time). Whenever Michelle or Jody wandered over from across the street, that’s when we played. And we played until a mother called us inside.

Other people reminisce about the local kids in their day meeting up at the common play place or going door-to-door to round up enough kids to play a game. Parents didn’t organize play; kids did.

The irony is that parents want their kids to be social, and yet they don’t let their kids arrange the social meet-ups. So kids actually don’t learn how to approach other kids, offer invitations, and arrange the meet-up details. (This also quashes spontaneity; fewer “hey, come home with me” offers.)

Most of my childhood, though, I was alone. I had no siblings and there was only a brief period when there were other kids in my subdivision. I had friends at school that I played with, but when I came home, I almost always played alone. Now, if you’ve a regular reader here, you might question whether too much time alone affected my sanity, but you can’t deny that I’m a productive, law-abiding, and self-sufficient member of society.

Which proves that you don’t have to structure every minute of your kid’s day or keep them flitting around like a social butterfly in order to give them a good childhood. In fact, Susan Cain says that everyone (introverts, especially, but extroverts, too) needs time alone to think and organize their thoughts. Too much social and group activity can suppress creativity, reduce complex thought, and cause emotional problems for introverts.

The Wrong Attitude

Now, some people–like me and the author of the Psychology Today article–think that a loss of creativity and independent thought is a bad thing. We see fewer job opportunities and less art and innovation in the future. America could lose the one industry she still really has: innovation. (Israel is already overtaking us in medical and computer development.)

But one commenter on article had this to say:

Subject: No longer of value

I would propose that creativity is no longer valued in American society and therefore we are intentionally teaching/structuring it out of children so that they can be successful. As a previous neuroscientist and now as a medical writer, I’ve observed that creativity is greatly frowned upon. Grants based on new ideas that deviate from the status-quo way of thinking are unfunded by the government and pharma companies. Government regulations stifle innovation in the communication of medical and pharmacologic advances. Companies brand employees who explore new modes of thinking or ways of doing things as “unproductive”.

Everything he says is correct. However, rather than saying we need to fix those things, he concludes that we need to just stop being creative because it’s not lucrative:

Although I agree that creativity goes hand-in-hand with intelligence, we should consider whether or not America society is really interested in creative and intelligent individuals. Unless the answer is affirmative, we would do our children a disservice by promoting their creative drive.

The anonymous poster is saying, in effect, the same thing: don’t encourage creativity because there’s no money/jobs in it. And it’s something I heard sometime while I was in college: I would not get a job with a major in history and minor in creative writing (unless I wanted to teach–which I didn’t), and that I needed to go into computers or business or something more practical in order to make a living. (Incidentally, every person I’ve met in the legal field had a history or English degree.)

What this discounts, however, is that creative people are often self-employed. They don’t need someone else to provide them with a job; they make their own. People who innovate and take risks often start their own businesses.

Why Encourage Creativity, Risk-Taking, and Free-Thought

Tim Ferris is not only a writer (The 4-Hour Workweek and other 4Hour titles), but he was (and still is) a young entrepreneur. In fact, he was so successful with his own businesses, he now does consulting to help other people with their businesses. (Watch “A Day in the Life of Tim Ferris;” it’s pretty interesting.)

Some time back, I interviewed Scott H. Young, who innovates new study techniques to help people learn better and faster. He supports himself with his e-book courses and his blog.

My own goal is to be a full-time writer in the next year or two. Catherine Ryan Howard and a number of other independent authors have been able to quit the 9-to-5 grind or employ themselves during the Recession with their writing.

Most entrepreneurs get started by seeing a problem (in itself a skill set) and then tinker (and fail!) until they came up with a solution. Then they take that idea, put drive behind it, and do what it takes to make it successful–either by opening their own business or selling the patent.

Is Stifled Creativity Deadly?

Not every person is a creative, free-thinker type. The world needs accountants who aren’t really creative when it comes to filling out tax returns. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if it’s your talent. But you can’t turn everyone into an accountant or data entry clerk or factory worker. Not only does this lack of new business development ruin the American economy, but you’re also ruining the lives of real people. People who are naturally creative, but who aren’t allowed to create freely, are more likely to be depressed or have personal and family problems. This can also lead to delinquent, even criminal behavior in teens and adults.

Lamp made in prison from magazines pages folded like origami.

You want to see creative? Watch a documentary on prisons. You may dismiss–even recoil–from the homemade shanks and tattoo machines, but it takes some smart, innovate people to invent some of the things that are made in prison. One inmate on a documentary admitted that he needed to stay busy with big, detailed projects (he built his niece a dollhouse in the prison’s hobby shop) that because it “kept him out of trouble.”

I can’t help but wonder if a lot of people in prison would have turned out better if they had been given a legitimate outlet for their busy minds at a younger age.


School and childhood is not about prepping people to have a job, but rather to have a life. You have to give your kids/students skill sets that allow them to cope with whatever comes their way.

Yes, they’re going to fail. Yes, they’re going to get hurt–physically and emotionally. No, they’re not going to be great at everything or win every contest (and I don’t think you should even put a kid older than 4 or 5 in a game/contest where “there are no losers.”) If we don’t have the freedom to try and fail, we won’t learn what we need to try and succeed. And if we never fail as children and learn to get over it, life as adult is going to suck a whole lot.

2 comments on “The Death of Creativity?

  1. An interesting article very thoughtfully written. I agree that the freedom we had as children (I grew up in the 70s and 80s) was amazing and I always wanted that for my children. However now I am a parent I realise how hard it is to reconcile theory and practice. For instance when I grew up not everyone had a car and the ones there were in our street weren’t very fast. My parents didn’t have to worry that I would get knocked down the minute I tried to cross the road to the park. Now I have cars going ten or twenty miles over the speed limit past my house. Naturally I’m reluctant to let my child ride her bike in the street without me being there to watch. Another consideration these days is how much more interested people seem to be in criticising others and their parenting style. My sister recently posted an article on Facebook about a mother in Texas being arrested for allowing her 6 and 9 year old kids to ride their scooters “unsupervised” outside her house while she sat watching from the front lawn. I’ve heard of parents here in the UK being criticised for letting their young kids walk by themselves to school. Of course we want freedom for our kids, but we live in a different world now than the one we grew up in and it would be irresponsible not to recognise that. My husband and I hope to find a house in a cul-de-sac so that our kids can go around their friends houses to play without having to be driven everywhere, but I don’t think I’ll ever manage to let them play outside from breakfast to bedtime without knowing where they are in the way I did. Not least because I have a pretty distant relationship with my parents having seen very little of them as I grew up. My view was that they didn’t really care where I was or what happened to me!

    • Keri Peardon says:

      I lived with an Irish couple (who had a 2 year old) in a subdivision a mile or so outside the city of Kilkenny. While I had become accustomed to the relaxed, small-town atmosphere of Ireland (and that’s saying something, because I’m from rural Tennessee; it’s hard to get more relaxed than that, but the Irish certainly managed), I was surprised when I moved in with this couple that they never locked the doors. The first day I was there, I left for work after everyone else, so I locked the front door. When I came back, I found they were going in and out of the back door (which, unbeknownst to me, was not locked) because they couldn’t remember where they put the copy of their front door key. So I unlocked the front door and never locked it again.

      A friend just posted a link to the article/video you were referencing about the mother in Texas. Sometime ago, a woman in New York City created a firestorm when she let her 9 year old navigate his way home from a store downtown–something she did without fanfare or thought when she was his age. (Here’s a link to her follow-up article.)

      Not everyone lives on a street safe enough for kids to bike–you do have to be mindful of the traffic situation. I lived on a dead end street growing up, so there wasn’t a problem with me playing in it. But when I was at either of my grandmothers’ houses, crossing the street was a no-no because it was a highway and people were doing about 55mph. So, definitely, there are circumstances to consider. But nowadays, a lot of people are even afraid to let their kids play in their own yard.

      Personally, I blame the media (and most other people do, too). Violent crimes of all types are down in the U.S. and in almost every major city. It’s actually safer for your kids to play outside or take the subway than it was for us a couple of decades ago. Yet people are terrified because, as my husband says, 24 hour news channels have to have 24 hours worth of news. That means they either need to repeat what they have over and over again, or they have to go looking for it (they usually do both). So stories of rare occurrences from towns you’ve never heard of are plastered all over the news and repeated, repeated, repeated. It’s like watching a horror movie, and when you turn off the TV, you’re afraid to take a shower.

      And you’re right: it can be a battle to defend your right to raise your kids free-range.

      One thing I would advocate is teaching your kids–especially your girls–self-defense or some form of martial art. That way, they have a fighting chance whether they are abducted from the playground or out of your own house.

      I read a story some time back about a little girl–I think she was about 8–who was grabbed from a sidewalk as she was walking to or from school. Thinking quickly, she started reaching around under the seat in the car, telling the man that she had dropped her ring and wanted her ring back. Instead, he came up with a blunt object–I think it was a tire iron–and she hit him with it. When the car stopped, she jumped out and ran screaming bloody murder. He was found and arrested.

      Teach your kids how to survive and that will protect them better than keeping them locked up all the time. Not only that, but they can take those skills into adulthood and protect themselves even when they’re grown.

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