The Decline of Creativity in the United States

Recently, a parent of two middle-school students sent me a link to a Britannica Blog entry entitled “The Decline of Creativity in the United States: 5 Questions for Educational Psychologist Kyung Hee Kim.” The full article is fascinating, but I felt compelled to copy and paste a large section below. Actually, what is quoted below from the blog is Dr. Kyung Hee Kim’s response to the fifth question. It is a fascinating and thought-provoking (and long) list of things for us parents and teachers to consider if we want to rear and educate creative children.

Britannica: Are there programs or activities that parents and teachers can use to encourage children to be more creative?

Kim: To strengthen children’s creativity, parents and teachers must not only find or develop programs or activities with new techniques, but must first change environments that inhibit creativity. The best creative techniques, or the strongest creative programs, cannot compensate for a culture that crushes creativity. Creative growth demands that we adapt our environments into a creativity-friendly environment. Only through a self-evaluation of our culture to determine the elements that are blocking our children and through the construction of more fertile creative soil can we lead our children to new levels of creative achievement.

Individuals are born creative, some more, some less. Creativity is killed first by parents (especially parents who are perfectionists), then later by teachers, schools, society, cultures, and the like. So before we worry about encouraging creativity, we should learn to preserve it. Research has determined that there are many ways to preserve creativity in our children.

Preserve Curiosity: To preserve creativity, children’s curiosity should be satisfied and encouraged. Most children go through a period when they ask a lot of questions to parents, teachers, adults, anyone where they can get answers. Parents take the brunt of this questioning and at times this gets annoying. However, instead of getting annoyed and discouraging this curiosity, parents should take the time to try to find the answers and, probably more importantly, to demonstrate to their curious children how to find the answers.

Focus on Ideas: I watched a mother criticizing her little son because he drew a dog with red fur. If he had drawn wings for his dog, she would have screamed at him. For her, spelling the right words was more important than having ideas or imagination. In contrast, Cathy who is one of the participants of the Torrance’s 40-year (from 1958 to 2008) longitudinal study still remembers that when she was writing essays in fourth grade, the teachers who participated in the study did not emphasize spelling, but emphasized original ideas in the essays. Thus, parents and teachers may not want to always emphasize getting the “right” answers and or even the correct spelling; they should instead peek into a world of child fantasy, imagination, and inventiveness and encourage that ability. They can always help children prepare for being wrong or making mistakes and correcting those mistakes.

Raise Nonconformists: Creative individuals do not like to follow the rules; they tend to follow their own rules. They tend to question and rebel against established norms. Perceptual and mental-sets, well-learned and habitual ways of thinking, and rules and traditions that restrict individuals’ behavior stifle creativity. Thus, parents and teachers should welcome unorthodox views and accept when children have different ideas or want to be different.

Raise Girl-like Boys and Boy-like Girls: Creative individuals show integration of feminine and masculine components. In our culture, however, sensitivity is viewed as feminine and independence as masculine. Creative children tend to sacrifice their creativity to maintain gender role expectations that parents and teachers imposed upon them. Parents and teachers should welcome girl-like boys or boy-like girls.

Be Playful: Creative individuals tend to have a sense of humor, flexibility, and playful thinking. Parents and teachers should not force children to think and act mature and should provide opportunities for spontaneity and play, playfully engaging students, and encouraging childlike or even silly approaches to problems.

Be Ready for Drama: Creative individuals tend to be restless and energetic. They can be very talkative and have stronger needs for self-expression and a fuller range of emotional expression than other children. They are spontaneous and even impulsive. Highly creative individuals may be hard to live with. Research shows that many children diagnosed with ADHD are creative, and many creative children are misdiagnosed as having ADHD. The very qualities that facilitate individuals’ creative accomplishments can be the same ones that may cause them to have problems. Research shows creativity is punished and discouraged by parents and teachers who perceive creative behavior as inconvenient and difficult to manage. Parents and teachers need to be patient and understanding of the characteristics of creative children, and there are many books and research articles on the subject that may help.

Be Less Protective: Creative people tend to have a somewhat marginalized family background, which means that they tend to be a member of a minority group in some ways (e.g., ethnicity, culture, language, geography, sexual orientation, religion, etc.). This could be because experiencing difficulties psychologically and emotionally may foster resilience, which allows them to become stronger and more persistent than those who are not experiencing such difficulties. Thus, having a perfectly happy and protected childhood can be worse than having an unhappy childhood in terms of fostering children’s creativity. Parents and teachers should not be overly protective of children and prevent them from having difficulties. Instead, parents and teachers should observe and understand the difficulties and be ready to discuss issues with a child.

Foster Independence: Mild parental rejection is necessary for encouraging a child’s creativity because a lightly rebellious attitude leads to more-independent thinking. Enjoying experiences separate from the family, and less encouragement of all family members doing all things together, can encourage creativity. Thus, parents should let their children sleep-over or camp-out without their parents, under adult supervision, but not overly close.

Travel: Creative people tend to be well traveled. Traveling and experiencing places with different scenery or different cultures can encourage open-mindedness and seeing from different perspectives. Living in more than one culture or speaking more than one language can also foster creativity. Parents and teachers should be able to introduce children to different experiences including different places, cultures, food, languages, and different people.

Give Time Alone: Most creative people have needs for privacy or time alone so that they can incubate their creative ideas. It is important for parents to let their children explore their interests by exposing them to different subjects, topics, programs, and areas. However, it is more important for those parents to give their children time alone. In addition, parents who nurture creativity tend not to rely on the use of premature and excessive worksheets and academic material.

Teach in Nonconventional Ways: Creative individuals do not like competitive situations or restricted-choice situations. Thus, allowing choice of topics and variety of assignments is important to encourage creativity. Creative individuals do not like rote recitation, precise performance under time pressure, completion of familiar and repetitive procedures, or classes in a formal manner. Parents and teachers should give children open-ended assignments or components, encouraging brainstorming and intellectual risk-taking, encouraging intrinsic (not extrinsic, because these children will perform when they like to) motivation and persistence, and delaying gratification.

Be Less Clean and Organized: Parents of highly intelligent children focus on visible qualities such as right answers, cleanliness, and good manners, whereas parents of highly creative children focus on less-visible qualities, such as openness to experience, interests, imagination, and enthusiasm. Very organized and clean home environments can stifle children’s creativity. A mother built an experiment room in the basement of her house for her fourth-grade son who liked taking things apart and doing all kinds of experiments. The floor and walls of the room were made of tile so that it could be cleaned easily. Teaching children how to clean and organize is a good life skill, but it should not limit the child’s freedom to explore or satisfy their curiosity. When there is no space for additional room, then parents and teachers can designate a corner or space in which children can draw or build whatever they want and can make a mess.

Find a Friend: Creative individuals tend to have imaginary childhood playmates. Talking to visible or non-visible, non-human-being objects should not be discouraged. Creative individuals tend to have friends who are younger or older than themselves. Parents tend to welcome older friends for their children compared to younger friends. However, not only does being friends with older children foster a child’s maturity and resourcefulness, but also being friends with younger children can foster a child’s leadership skills. Being friends with non-peer group members can foster an ability to see from different perspectives than their peer group.

Find a Mentor: Torrance’s 40-year longitudinal study and other studies found that individuals who are creatively successful have at least one significant mentor in their lives. Introducing children to creative adults, especially those with similar interests as the children, is necessary to inspire creativity. Books, video tapes, and movies (especially good with guided viewing) that depict creative individuals are helpful for creative children with regard to their self-understanding and self-acceptance and for their identity issues and social and emotional needs.

Be Educated: Teachers who claim to value creativity often display a preference for non-creative personality traits over creative personality traits in the classroom. Parents and teachers often say that they enjoy working with creative children; however, when they are questioned about the qualities of the ideal child, these qualities rarely include characteristics of highly creative children. Not only do parents and teachers often fail to recognize the talents of the creatively gifted, but these children are often treated with contempt.

In the U.S, a marriage license is required to get married. But, no license is required to have a baby. Parents and teachers should be educated to understand creative minds. When parents become educated about creativity, they can help their children preserve their natural creativity which I believe is the first step in fostering creativity in our society.

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