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Why Your Kid Isn't Creative

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Most parents want their kids to be inventive and clever -- perhaps even the next Steve Jobs. But parents also want their kids to perform well by the standard measures of success. Prioritizing one of those pathways, it turns out, may close off the other.

In the new bestseller Imagine: How Creativity Works, journalist Jonah Lehrer synthesizes the latest scientific research into creativity and offers tips for how ordinary people can become more creative. It's a timely subject. Businesses increasingly value workers who can devise customized solutions to complex problems. And improvisation is a key skill for people who want a career of their own design, instead of one dictated by an increasingly cutthroat corporate sector.

The good news is that most people start out with healthy creative instincts, and virtually anybody can improve their creativity if they want to. The bad news is that our education system and social mores discourage creativity. "We're very good at killing creativity in kids," Lehrer told me in an interview. "We kill it with ruthless efficiency. The schools have twelve years to sculpt your mind, and they end up convincing kids that they're not creative."

There's nothing new about the way pragmatic concerns and conformity displace playfulness and originality as kids mature. "Every child is an artist," Pablo Picasso once said. "The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

What is new is the emphasis schools place on rote learning, memorization, and especially standardized tests, which generate a kind of assembly-line uniformity to what kids learn in school. Creativity, by contrast, requires qualities that schools tend to discourage, such as daydreaming, uninhibited curiosity, hands-on experimentation and an unstructured, permissive environment.

Lehrer profiles one highly successful school, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where there are no textbooks or lectures, and kids spend most of their time working with music, art, theater or whatever their vocation is. Most schools don't operate that way, of course. It's also worth pointing out that many parents would be uncomfortable sending their kids to such an unorthodox place.

Lehrer also highlights one important theme I came across while researching my own book, Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success: the importance of letting kids fail. He describes a phenomenon known as the "fourth-grade slump," a point at which students suddenly start to censor their creative impulses. What happens is kids become more self-aware as they mature, and more eager to conform to social norms. They'd rather avoid something difficult than risk the embarrassment that might come from failing at it. They start to regard improvising as risky, suppressing their creativity. "This is why it's so important to practice letting ourselves go," Lehrer writes.

There are solutions, of course. Many parents instinctively want to "fix" the schools so that they do everything well: Teach the skills that society values most, while also teaching the creativity that will let kids stand out as adults. But that's not realistic. Most schools are appendages of a bureaucracy that serves many interests. They're capable of doing some things competently, but expecting excellence for all is a stretch.

This might be one job parents should handle themselves, instead of outsourcing it to the schools. We can start by tolerating, even encouraging, the kind of daydreaming and intellectual meandering that we too readily label attention-deficit disorder, as if it's a defect. Sometimes it's not. Parents who don't feel they're personally creative can find creative mentors for their kids outside the schools - -writers or artists or designers who seem to have an inventive knack. And exposing kids to many different things is crucially important, since creativity often happens when people connect seemingly disparate ideas, the way the Wright Brothers got the idea for an airplane by wondering if a bicycle could fly.

Lehrer invokes a maxim popularized by psychologist Angela Duckworth: Choose easy, work hard. That means giving kids the freedom to discover something they truly love, while making sure they know it takes diligence and grit to succeed at their passion. "It's going to involve failure," says Lehrer. "You have to be able to put in the work." The rewards may be well worth it.