If parents want to raise children who rise to the top in the hyper-competitive global economy, whether the goal is to out-innovate, out-smart, out-shine their contemporaries or to create lasting change for a better world, what will it take? A new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, by Harvard's Tony Wagner, who made a splash with The Global Achievement Gap (which serves as a terrific companion to the new book), offers surprising insight. As we are duking it out in a new round of "mommy wars," Wagner advises us to let them play. And keep it simple.
Wagner's research on young innovators and the vital role of supportive adults that nurtured -- not coddled or pressured -- them led him to discover that "young Americans learn how to innovate most often despite their schooling--not because of it."
The latest viral video, about Caine's Arcade, created by a nine-year-old out of pure curiosity, joy and cardboard confirms Wagner's arguments about innovation. Like the examples in Creating Innovators (whom readers can see by scanning QR codes interspersed throughout the chapters, in one-minute videos made by Bob Compton, the force behind thought-provoking education films 2 Million Minutes and The Finland Phenomenon), young Caine follows Wagner's rubric, turning play into passion into purpose, with support from a parent who encourages, but stays out of the way.
These three P's are linked through a developmental arc that grows with the individual, and look something like this:
1. Play: The play he observed was unhurried, unstructured and allowed time for boredom which allows for discovery through trial and error, using simple toys ("sand, water, clay, paint and blocks," the foundation for building anything), with limited screen time.
2. Passion: Give your children the freedom and trust to find their passion, whether it's an outgrowth of discovery during play or after much trial and error. This helps cement commitment to seeing through any task. It's the step that probably involves the most struggle, but without passion, we are simply going through the motions.
3. Purpose: Wagner found the young innovators each shared a strong sense of purpose in realizing their passions. Whether social, fashion or tech innovators, making change in the world was imperative in every case he studied. They carried a strong sense of the bigger picture, and values -- a desire to give back, to do good, to live authentically, to be connected to others beyond any perceived boundaries.
I'm glad Wagner also includes discussion about the challenges parents of innovators faced. Be ready for it. Schools have trouble dealing with non-conformist families; kids might not earn straight A's while pursuing their passions outside of book learning; risk-taking or failure, though essential, can be very difficult to watch from the sidelines. An outside observer might imagine the joys of raising a tech trailblazer, but the process is more likely fraught with emotional and financial trials. Ask Steve Jobs' family.
As I was reading, one thought kept gnawing at me: the book's message that every person needs to grow up to be an innovator and entrepreneur. Everyone can't be a maverick. But as I considered the application of innovation qualities, I thought about fields that traditionally have been considered safe and secure, from teaching to farming to medicine to government service. And I realized that for these vital areas to move forward, to solve today's complex social challenges, innovation is essential. This will include the development of qualities like creative problem-solving, effective communication, a passion for the work and a bigger vision of the purpose of the job and its impact. These in turn fuel purpose, which leads to meaningful work, and meaning drives happiness.
Creating Innovators is a smart, thoughtful guide for parents (or anyone who cares about helping students or co-workers bring out their best). Wagner isn't advocating for a generation of Steve Jobs clones, but something better: individuals who develop their sense of compassion, connection, creativity and social responsibility, to build a better world. It's a tall order, but Creating Innovators shows us a way.
Homa S. Tavangar is the author of nationally-acclaimed Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World (Random House/Ballantine Books)