The Rules to Raising Creative Kids (Hint: There are None)


When it comes to coaching kids, I have a bit of a split personality. One is public, the other is more private. My public persona is that of “Mr. Laid Back Dad.” I say things like: “Hey, I just want the kids to have fun. That’s all that matters!”. This sentiment is real. The angel on my shoulder truly wants the kids I coach to, first and foremost, have lots of fun. I even wrote a whole post extolling the virtues of this approach.

But there’s a devil on my other shoulder (which I do my best to suppress) that cares deeply about winning. Heather and I are both competitive people. This past weekend we had the opportunity to recount for someone why we don’t play tennis (or darts, thumb-war, etc.) with each other any longer. It usually doesn’t end well.

So, yes, I’ll admit it. While I’m outwardly cheering on and back-slapping the six year olds I coach in soccer no matter what they do, there’s a part of me inside that secretly fist-pumps when my team scores, and face-palms when they get give up a goal.

This year I decided to take on a new coaching challenge. I’m coaching a group of first-graders in an Odyssey of the Mind competition that takes place this weekend. The objective of the program is to get kids to use teamwork and creativity to problem-solve.

We practice once per week. The kids are whip-smart, funny, creative – everything you could ask for. By all accounts they have a great time. They seem to leave each practice eager for the next.

I enjoy the practices as well, but rather than leaving energized, I’m usually depleted. No adult can keep up with the kinetic energy of a room full of six-year-olds…well, wait. Teachers do it every day. Respect for teachers post-Odyssey: Whole new level.

In any event, I guess I’m not cut out to be a teacher. I leave most practices a bit bleary-eyed and perspiring. Heather: “Why are you sweating?”. Me: “I need a few minutes.”

The culmination of these practices is a performance this Saturday in front of parents and judges. I really want the kids to have fun, be goofy, and do their thing – even if it means they forget all their lines and stumble through the scenes.

Over the last couple of weeks the devil on my shoulder has been jumping up and down with his hand up (“Ooh, ooh!”) trying to get my attention. On two different occasions over the last week he woke me up in the middle of the night. This used to happen all the time when I was still practicing law. I’d wake up, and my mind would immediately begin racing and anxiety would build about my work.

As ridiculous as it may sound, Odyssey of the Mind has been on my mind during these recent late night ceiling staring sessions. “Have we practiced enough?”, “Do the kids know their lines?”, “What if they freeze onstage?”, I ask myself.

Last week at practice I even made some ridiculous speech to the kids (remember, these are six year olds) while they were enjoying a snack and not particularly paying attention to me about the fact that they were going to be up on stage by themselves and, accordingly, they better listen up and take this more seriously. Between bites of Wheat Thins, I got a bunch of casual and confident “Don’t worry coach, we’ve got this” glances back from the kids.

The 3 a.m. wake-ups. The speeches. It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?: It’s not them. It’s me.

What I mean is that my anxiety (such as it is) about the performance is not due to the fact that the kids are suffering from any themselves. As far as I can tell they have none. They’re just looking forward to a chance to dress up and have fun.

Let’s face it: I’m worrying more about how the kids’ performance will reflect upon me, as their coach, than I am worried about how much fun the kids will have. “What will all the parents think I’ve been doing for the past six weeks???!!!”.

The Creativity is In the Chaos 

Don’t worry. There’s a moral to this story other than amateur psychoanalysis.

The biggest thing that I’m going to take away from this recent “odyssey” is that, when it comes to kids, there’s creativity in the chaos. The tighter I’ve tried to control things in practice, the harder and more unproductive it was for the kids and I.

The looser things were, the more the creative ideas flowed.

After observing this phenomenon, I dug a little deeper and found that a bit of chaos is, in fact, a good catalyst when it comes to fostering creativity in kids.

This is from a New York Times article that summarizes research on the issue of kids and creativity:

So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

The article discusses the fact that many people who are highly creative as children do not grow up to be domain-changing creatives as adults. Through rigorous practice enforced by their parents, some kids can play Mozart on the piano at an early age, but rarely do they grow up and compose a symphony of their own. They learn to mimic, but not to create. As explained further in the article:

Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.

The article went on to explain that the same principle applies across all creative domains, from art and architecture to science and technology. And parents and coaches play a big role in either fostering or smothering creativity in kids:

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. 

Raising Kids Bursting with Creativity 

This past weekend, Heather attended Interlochen School for the Arts’ “Winterlochen” event – an annual family-friendly festival featuring student performances, free indoor and outdoor activities – with our oldest daughter Maddie and my mom.

They spent the bulk of their time in the visual arts building on campus. One of the instructors was kind enough to take interest in Maddie and invited her to tour the students’ studio spaces in the building.

I grew up playing sports, and Maddie is a great little athlete who likes to play soccer, ski, bike, hike and swim. But I’ve come to accept the fact that while she likes sports, she loves creating. She goes to bed with a sketch pad, and brings yarn and buttons to the breakfast table. When she’s outside she builds fairy houses, and always brings crayons and markers with her wherever she goes. There’s nothing more she’d rather do than create.

(Coincidentally, if your child is one to travel with crayons, make sure sure to check her pockets before doing the laundry. Earlier this week the inside of our dryer became a modern art canvas full of colorful, melted wax, and a load of clothes gained polka dots that weren’t there before. Laundry detergent, vinegar and dish soap mixed with really hot water for the clothes, and WD-40 for the dryer walls, in case you face a similar dilemma. Thanks, Google.)

She really enjoyed touring the students’ studio spaces at Interlochen. She’s now insistent on creating one of her own at home. This experience made a big impression on Heather as well. She was struck by the fact that each student’s space was a creative laboratory, where students were encouraged to experiment across a number of creative disciplines. In other words, there seemed to only be one rule: Create, uninhibited.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Interlochen turns out so many creative superstars.

As parents of children who, at early ages, have expressed and exhibited tendencies toward creativity, we’re going to try to implement some of the lessons we’ve learned about how to foster a love of creativity. It may not be in our nature, but from parenting to coaching, we’re going to try to move forward with less of an emphasis on strict rules, and more of an emphasis on the free-flow of ideas.

The first manifestation of this mindset: This weekend at Odyssey of the Mind.

I’m not quite sure what will happen Saturday. One thing I have no doubt of, though: The kids will have fun. And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

CreativityJay Harrington