Since it first ran, several friends have emailed me Adam Grant’s piece in the New York Times, “How To Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off” to ask what I thought. They know I’m the original Back Off Mom. In fact, I’m Occam’s Mother. I believe “What’s Easiest for Mama is Best for the Kids.”
I also write about Gifted education, which is why what Adam Grant wrote was not new to me. Early achievers rarely become adult superstars. The classic example is The Terman Study, wherein a group of children chosen by IQ and supposedly nurtured using the latest scientific methods, primarily turned into high-achieving but not overly so adults, while two subjects who were tested, rejected, and not scientifically nurtured went on to win Nobel Prizes.
On the other hand, I will be forever grateful to Grant for the following paragraph about early achievers:
“We assume that they must lack the social and emotional skills to function in society. When you look at the evidence, though, this explanation doesn’t suffice: Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted—as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.”
As someone who deals regularly with high-achieving, “gifted” kids and adults, it’s one cliché I’d love to see put to rest for good. (Your child can be gifted and suffer from social-emotional issues, but they can also be diabetic and deal with the same. The two are not necessarily related.)
After explaining that most prodigies, taught to perform existing material to established markers, tend to settle into standard adult lives instead of breaking new ground, Grant talked about what actually does nurture creativity. He zeroed in on:
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.
What an incredible coincidence! Because of my overall laissez-faire parenting style, we also have only one rule! It is: Don’t be lame. (Well, technically, my husband calls it, “Don’t be an ass.” But I prefer my more genteel version.)
What’s wonderful about Don’t Be Lame is that it’s an umbrella term that covers many eventualities. For instance:
1. You may be as creative as you like, but it doesn’t mean your rights trump those of others. While I will schlep you to Lincoln Center so you can dance in “Giselle,” you’re going to have to figure out a way to get yourself home since I need to pick up your sister. I’ll run myself ragged organizing an under-18 tech conference for you, but you still need to do your chores.
2. You can prioritize your own time, do your homework whenever you want, sign up for any activity you like, try whatever strikes your fancy (as long as the cost isn’t prohibitive, and if it is, get cracking filling out that scholarship form). But you also need to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions. If you wait until 9 p.m. to begin studying because you were too engrossed in a 3D printing project, I’m not writing a note to get you out of it. Even if you stayed late at school designing costumes for the play, the dinner dishes still need to be done. Yes, I believe that you are very, very tired the next morning.
3. I will walk with you from public bathroom to public bathroom so you can measure the width of stalls for the hook you’re designing. I will help you collect dog poop so you can concoct a formula that would dissolve it on contact. But you cannot use toxic chemicals where the rest of us eat—and breathe.
4. You will be polite to everyone, especially your elders. Even if you think you know more than them, you will keep this thought to yourself.
5. Don’t be boring. If you want me to listen to you go on and on, have something interesting to say. Accept that not everyone’s interests match yours.
6. Don’t expect everyone to approve of everything you do. If you ask me what I think of a drawing you’ve made, I will tell you the truth. Develop a thick skin. If you can’t handle my feedback, the New York Times is going to be even more brutal.
7. You absolutely may—and should—think for yourself, vote for yourself, make decisions for yourself. But if you challenge my values, you can be damn sure I will make you defend yours, complete with primary source evidence. If you want me to engage with you as an adult, you will behave like an adult. (OK, you will behave the way I wish most adults would behave.)
8. If you make a commitment to a team, activity, or project, you will stick it out to the end of your commitment. Yes, even if you’re bored. If people are counting on you, you can suck it up.
9. If they’re learning something in school that you already know, you can sit quietly and wait. Maybe next time, you’ll be the kid who needs an extra lesson, and someone else will have already mastered it. Try what I did; write a novel under your desk while the teacher is talking.
10. Failure is never an excuse to quit. “But it’s haaaaaard,” is an even worse one.
11. You absolutely should enjoy what you are doing. But understand that, in order to get to the part you enjoy, you inevitably have to go through a lot of parts you don’t enjoy. If you come to me for sympathy, I will pat you on the head. And tell you to figure out how to deal with it. I will not, under any circumstances, do it for you.
12. Whining is never the correct response to anything.
13. You may be better than someone else at a particular activity. That doesn’t make you a better person.
Grant closes his article with: You can’t program a child to become creative.
This is absolutely true. But you can facilitate circumstances that encourage it. And rules aren’t necessarily an impediment. Unfettered freedom actually leads to less creativity. After all, you can’t learn to think outside the box if you’ve never been in one.
Struggle breeds creativity, not getting what you want breeds creativity, boundaries you feel compelled to break breed creativity, and failure breeds creativity (if it’s venerated as just another vital step to success).
As for being considerate of others that’s just…well…not being an ass.